I’ve been struggling to complete a screenplay these last few weeks, and I’m almost there. It is my third screenplay. And with all the work I’ve put into this story, I’d like to focus this tip on some misinformation that led me down the screenwriter’s path to begin with.
A few years back, after the publication of my first novel, Island Song, I felt dissatisfied with writing novels for two reasons. 1) A three-hundred-plus page manuscript took me four months to write the first draft, and another dozen-plus months to edit and polish. The time involved hardly seemed worth the payoff. And 2) Like most unknown authors, I was on my own when it came to marketing my novel, which is something I suck at.
So I began taking classes in writing screenplays. I thought writing screenplays would be easier and faster, since a typical screenplay is only 120 pages or less (general rule is one page for every minute of movie). And the way the pages are formatted, there are half as many words per page. Simple I thought. I also like the idea of turning my finished baby over to a production company and letting them deal with promoting the movie.
I now look back and realize that I was soooo naive. I can say with some authority that, at least for me, writing a 110-page screenplay takes more time and thought and effort than writing a 400-page novel.
In a novel, you delve inside the characters’ heads to help tell their story. In most novels, the characters tell their own story with their thoughts, opinions and judgments. Where as a screenplay has only action and dialog to tell the story – everything must be shown, everything – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a very difficult task to pull off. If you can’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t go on the page.
The other thing that makes it especially challenging, is that you are still dealing with a 300-plus page story, but you have to find a way to cram that story into 110 pages. Every page is considered very expensive real estate, and every word has to fight in order to survive and take up its allotted space. You need to trim everything to the bone, and then find clever ways to trim more. The description of a scene takes one line. The description of a character, no more than two lines. Imagine trying to cram Yeats into a five-line haiku poem, and you begin to sense the level of difficulty.
Then there is the marketing aspect. It may be true that the writer doesn’t participate in marketing the movie, but before the screenplay is made into a movie, the writer must market it to the studios, directors, actors, or anybody that knows anybody in the business. Trying to get a movie contract is a hundred times harder than getting a book published, because it is a very tight community, and if you don’t know someone on the inside to make things happen, you’re basically screwed.
So, am I sorry I went down this path? Hell no. I love writing screenplays. It is a fantastic challenge and it’s even improving my prose writing. I think I’m actually getting reasonably good at it, considering my limited experience. But if you’re a writer looking for an easy path to get your stories out there fast, run, don’t walk, away from screenwriting.