Lessons from Screenwriting

SHHH—don't tell anyone, but I've been hired to co-write a screenplay! 

I am new to the secretive pre-production world of the silver screen, so I had to ask my co-writer how much I'm allowed to share.


I can tell you that it's a family fantasy feature film (think Narnia or The Neverending Story).

There are elves. And fairies.

That's all I can tell you.

If you're wondering (as I did, before I started) how the film industry works, let me share a little of what I've learned.

Eg: A script is commissioned. Someone has a great idea. A production company likes the idea, and hires writer(s). Unless the "someone" or the writer is a big name, generally the compensation is small. For example, I hire you to write a 30-second commercial script. I might pay you $25 against $500. IF (and that's a big if) my commercial actually gets financial backing (budget) and produced (shot, edited, released), then (and only then) will you get the remaining $475.

Once a script is written, or "sellable", a producer might try to get a budget together and shoot it himself (BTW, "low-budget" is usually under $3 million), or he might try to shop it around (to Netflix, Pixar, etc.) The producer would make a sizzle reel (5 min. concept/teaser; different from a trailer), and bring both sizzle reel and script into meetings and see if a larger film studio wants to buy and produce it. If they do, everyone wins the jackpot: the budget, resources, royalties, and talent skyrockets. But, bigger always means more red tape. As you can imagine, there's a lot of GREAT scripts out there, some of them collecting dust in vaults or desktop piles, or buried under red tape. 

It's a slow, selective industry. Sound familiar? (*coughcough bookpublishing coughcough*)

This new challenge of a different format (from novel writing) and a short timeline (2 months) means that I've been stretching my skills and my perspective. At the risk of being 2016-blog-trendy, here's 5 lessons I'm learning from screenwriting.

1) It is both honour and burden to tell someone else's story. 

I am not the captain of this story. I cannot call all the shots. Cannot choose the direction. Cannot put my foot down. Cannot indulge in personal preference. 

Writing someone else's screenplay is kind of like being a wedding event planner. There is some protocols, best-practices, and skillful persuasion you can do, but ultimately you're a team player. 

Being part of a larger team gives you the opportunity to do projects you might never do otherwise. And what a pleasure it is: bringing someone's wistful hopes and imaginings to life!

2) You can't get emotionally attached to your work.

I am translating someone else's idea. Putting it on the page. Bringing it to life. Weaving it into the strongest, sellable version. It isn't easy, for the creator, or for my co-writer, or for me.

As soon as you put your ideas out for review or approval, you have to be prepared for feedback. Critique. Revision. 

As we work towards a first draft, I have to be okay with the fact that I'm not producing a work of art. Not all the words or ideas I produce will make it to the second draft. Or even to the screen. 

Such is the nature of writing. And drafts. And industry.

3) Great ideas come from collaboration.

I remember my communication design instructor at Emily Carr declare that good design is never done in isolation. 

Everyone thinks their idea is the best idea. Or the only viable idea. 

But disagreement, and conflict, can often produce a whole new direction. Which is good!

4) Writing a screenplay is a wholly unique experience from writing a novel.

There's 3 elements: set up (scene/movement descriptions), dialogue, and action. That's it. All the other complexities of a film, like the soundtrack, the graphics, the layered nuances an actor's performance provides... that comes later. Script-writing forces you to be SO practical. WHAT is the purpose of this scene? Who's driving it? What do they want? What's standing in their way? 

You ask exactly the same questions when writing fiction chapters, but it's easier to get distracted by exposition, and description, and layering themes/symbols. Screenwriting is SO fast. It's quippy. It's zippy. You're constantly asking yourself, "Does this line accomplish enough? Can it be re-worded? More efficient? Removed?"

5) The stories worth telling are ones that challenge us. 

They challenge our insecurities, our faults, our selfishness. Good stories entertain you: great stories make you think. 

So WHY am I taking the time to help tell THIS story? 

Because the questions of identity are ones we ask ourselves everyday. "Who defines me? How much am I willing to sacrifice for the people I love? Am I doing what is right? What is good?"

When those questions are asked in the context of family--broken family, they become all the harder.

And all the more important.