Screenwriting: A Visual Form of Storytelling

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With the 2019 Academy Awards set to take place this Sunday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at two of its more overlooked categories – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – from the perspective of writing. An original screenplay is written completely from the writer’s imagination. It may be inspired by true events, but the screenplay is developed organically. There’s no other model that it borrows from.

An adapted screenplay, on the other hand, is recreated from another source, such as a play, a novel or a short story. Think of the Harry Potter book series, which was written by J.K. Rowling but was adapted to the big screen in a series of eight films. Adapted screenplays may even have been produced as a film previously, such as A Star Is Born. But excellence in screenplay writing is no guarantee of winning Best Picture honors. Last year’s Best Picture, The Shape of Water, did not win the Best Original Screenplay category, though it was nominated.

What I love most about these screenplay categories is that they honor the writers, the people who work diligently behind the scenes to create the dialogue, the setting, the action, and the characters in ways that can be visualized on the big screen. These awards may be largely overlooked by most of the public, but Hollywood insiders understand how vital they are to a film’s success. Audiences will never know who these people are, but the actors and directors holding Oscar in their arms will likely give a shout out to these folks, thanking them for writing a “brilliant script.”  Without a strong screenplay to start with, a movie director won’t have much of a story to tell. Conversely, no amount of directing or acting can save a poorly developed screenplay.

So how do screenplays differ from novels? What elements do they need to tell the story? What makes some of them Oscar-worthy, while others wind up in the trash bin?

According to Screencraft.org, a screenwriting consultancy, screenplays differ from novels in several different ways.

Screenplays have fewer pages than novels – A typical screenplay runs 100-120 pages while novels can be several hundred pages. That’s because the bulk of the screenplay is made up of dialogue and condensed action, whereas the novel provides much more detailed narrative and backstory.

Screenplays are dialogue-focused – Dialogue is the vehicle that drives the story’s action forward. Dialogue is used generously to reveal plot lines, conflict and character. In novels, dialogue and action are separate entities. In screenplays, dialogue IS the action.

Screenplays contain condensed action – With only 110 pages to work with, writers need to establish characters and setting within the first page or two. There isn’t time to delve into backstory. And they must do it using dialogue.

Screenplays place less emphasis on narrative – Novels have a ton of detail, much of it contained in backstory and narrative. However, screenplays don’t have that luxury. Viewers aren’t privy to a character’s thoughts as they might be if they are reading the book, so they have to experience the story through the characters’ actions and speech. The only exception to this might be the use of voice over which can help reveal the narrator’s perspective (a technique used in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper).

Screenplays are more genre-specific
– According to Screencraft.org, novels may overlap several genres. Harry Potter, for example, is often described as young adult, fantasy, coming of age and family-friendly, among other things. But a screenplay that attempts to do all of it may be deemed complicated and confusing by Hollywood types, not worthy of their time. Screenplays may achieve more success by sticking to one specific genre, such as romantic comedy OR suspense, but not both.

Screenplays may have fewer characters and subplots than novels
– Because of the condensed format, it may not be possible to include all the characters that are part of the original story into a screenplay. It’s common to combine two characters into one, or eliminate characters all together if they are not integral to the story.

When it comes to screenwriting, writers need to think creatively and economically. They have to tell their story succinctly, using dialogue as a vehicle to drive the action. They have to think about the economy of characters, and they have to think about the complexity of setting. A setting in one or two locales will be easier and less costly to produce than a story set in multiple locations.

With so much to consider, a screenwriter’s job is far more challenging than meets the eye. It makes you truly appreciate the nominated films in the screenplay categories – and the creative geniuses who brought them there.

Idea-Generating Tools for the Not-So-Organized

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Ever have those moments when you’ve come up with what you believe is a brilliant idea and forget to write it down? What happens to your idea then? More than likely, it fades into oblivion, never to be implemented for your personal or professional purpose.

Whether you’re a creative professional or are someone who simply is involved in many projects, you may need a system for keeping track of all your ideas and projects. I’m a bit old school, so for me, keeping notebooks for each story or project idea is the simplest, easiest solution for this purpose. There may be other systems or platforms available on the Internet, but I prefer handwritten tools so I can write things down as I think of them.

At times, I wish I had a pensieve like Professor Dumbledore used in the Harry Potter series. With a tap of his wand at his temple, he could extract a memory and save it in the pensieve to review later. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar container for all our ideas so they didn’t clutter our brains?

At the moment I have about four different notebooks for four different purposes. This helps me to keep one idea or task related to one project separated from the others. When you have so many ideas coming at you at one time, this process helps to organize them so they are easy to access later when you may need them.

Here are a few ideas for organizing your ideas for creative and business projects.

Writing Logs: 

Personal journal – For most people, the journal is where they recap their personal experiences and insights about work, relationships, and the struggles of daily life.

Poetry – Write poetry? Keep drafts of your poetry in a file or notebook to separate it from other types of writing that you do.

Writing Notes – Notes from webinars, lists of books to read (not necessarily about the topic of writing but stuff you want to read), writing tips from other writers, and lists of unfamiliar words to look up. Also keep ideas and bullet point for short stories, essays and other types of writing you may be doing.

Blogging log – If you manage your own blog, keep a notebook of ideas for potential postings. Include any research related to these story ideas, blogging tools and resources to help you be more productive, blogging apps that might aid your blog, and advice and tips from other professional bloggers.

Personal Development: 

Dream log – Ever have a dream and wonder what it means? The next time you remember having a dream, write it down in a journal to keep it separate from any writing journal you keep. Either use a dream dictionary or an online dream interpretation tool to look up potential meanings and jot them down next to your dream.

Inspiration log: Collect items that inspire you, such as photos, positive and uplifting news stories that you read in the paper or on the Internet, and motivational quotes.

Health/fitness log: On a diet or trying to make a lifestyle change, like quitting smoking? Use a log to monitor the foods you eat, your workouts, vitamins, water intake, etc. It might be helpful to record your thought processes as you change your health and fitness regimen.

Home improvement/buying or selling a home – Whether you are planning on selling your home or simply renovating it for your own enjoyment, it may be a good idea to track home improvements. In particular, note what type of work was done and when, and the name and contact information for contractors, real estate agents, lenders and other professionals. This type of log may be especially helpful if you are doing a series of renovations before selling the home, so you can refer to your notes when buyers have questions about the home.

Business Related: 

Job search – If you’re looking for a new job or changing careers, a career log or job search log can help you  stay on top of your progress. Keep track of all your network contacts, and write down names of people who you meet. Keep track of the businesses you approach for jobs, including when you sent your resume to them and what kind of response, if any, that you received.

Business startup – Got an idea for a new business start-up? Jot down everything you want to do to get your new business venture off the ground, including products, potential competition, potential clients, tasks to accomplish, forms to complete and deadlines.

Legal/Lawsuit: If you ever get involved in a legal issue, keep a log to recall incidents related to your case, record conversations with your attorney and list any tasks you need to accomplish.

Medical log – If you’ve ever had an injury or illness and needed medical care, keeping a medical log can help your sort through the details of your medical care. Keep track of everything, from the names and contact information of medical doctors and hospitals involved, dates and results of medical tests, conversations with medical team, and any drugs that were prescribed.

These are just a few examples of idea-tracking logs, whether it’s to keep track of your writing projects or your personal activities. You don’t have to do them all. Focus on the ones where you get the most ideas so you won’t feel so overwhelmed as you progress. It may seem overwhelming to have a log for every little segment of your life, but I find it helpful to separate – and in some cases, compartmentalize – all of life’s projects so they don’t feel so overwhelming.

Experiment with one or two types of logs, perhaps a dream log and a poetry log, or a business start-up log and and one for blog post ideas, so you can develop ideas for your business blog. Find what works for you. If written notebooks aren’t your style, check the Internet for other possible platforms.

Whichever format you use, you’ll find that keeping multiple log books helps clear your brain so you can focus on the activities in front of you.