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On Writing – Observations on Prose Versus Screenplays

On Writing – Observations on Prose Versus Screenplays

First I want to apologize for the lack of blog posts this summer.  Due to personal tragedies, lots of job transition and now a much needed holiday, I’m doing well to get out one a week.  I hope to improve this in September but for now here’s the latest musing on screenplay writing . . . .

Though I have written consistently for several years, only in the last few months has it become more of a habit.  My writer’s tool belt has primarily consisted of prose: novels, short stories, flash fiction as well as newspaper and magazine articles.  I’ve also written the odd poem or two (which honestly have been rubbish so those will be staying in my journal), but in March I decided I wanted to expand my belt and learn the medium of screenplays.  So I took an evening class that finished before I went away on holiday in July.

So what’s screenplay?  A script for a movie or television.  It’s NOT for radio or the stage, and it’s not written in paragraph form like a prose piece.

Here are a few observations after jumping into writing a screenplay.

1) Format.  It’s completely and utterly different.  This is why I took the class because unlike prose, there is a very specific way to lay out a screenplay.  It primarily consists of scene headings such as ‘INT.  ANNA’S KITCHEN – NIGHT’ (INT. means interior), action, description and dialogue.  That’s pretty much it.  And its best to download a program to do it so it formats for you versus taking hours just to put in the right tabs, put words in caps, etc.  I downloaded Celtx ( as it is a basic free program.

2) It’s visual.  Yes, there is dialogue but for the most part you are creating images that a camera would focus on in a movie.  I watch movies differently now as I can see how much need there is to capture an audience with pictures and an overall experience. I had no idea how much symbolism went into creating film and as an artist, I appreciate thinking and writing symbolically  – where pictures carry meaning.

3) Less time and space to develop.  I converted the first three pages of my second novel into a screenplay.  Three pages of my novel equaled TEN pages of a screenplay.  One page of a screenplay equaled ONE minute of a film.  In a novel you have tremendous freedom to explore characters, their pasts, their inner thoughts, etc. but screenplays don’t have that luxury. Most things need to ‘exterior’ (unless it is voiced over but even there that should be limited).

4) Writing is more casual.  I try to avoid adverbs and clichés but in screenplays it really doesn’t matter.  The point it is to convey a story through images and dialogue.  I’ve read a few ‘famous’ screenplays now and many of them weren’t critiqued by an editor (just make sure there aren’t typos and it’s smooth grammatically) – its more just a great story.

5) After you sell a screenplay, it’s not yours any longer.  I asked my lecturer on this one and he said that if you write a novel, you’ve written most of what is in there and you have control over it.  Even if an editor makes you change things, when a novel (or short story/poem/etc.) is finished, your name is on it and placed on a shelf or put out in the digital world.  It is your book.

After you sell a screenplay, you really have no more rights to it.  Producers, directors, actors, etc. now can change it how they want it.  And what started off as a romantic comedy can turn into a sci fi thriller due to others taking ‘artistic license’.  But on the bright side, if you manage to sell your screenplay, then it probably will be a significant chunk of change (more than a book unless you are super famous) in your pocket.

So was the three month class worth it?    Most definitely, especially as I wrote a 10 minute short screenplay and will probably repeat the class in September.  On top of all my prose writing (I’ve managed to write almost three short stories on my holiday so far!!), I want to write a full film.  I also loved getting feedback in class and seeing other students develop the first 10 minutes (or a ‘short’) of a film.   We shall see how it goes, but I love the variety and the challenge of a new medium.

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