A couple of months ago my fiancé returned from a book fair with an armful of books, many with yellowing pages. Amongst them was a number of screenwriting books including Syd Field’s Screenplay (a printing from the 1980’s) and Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434. Since I had already read the latest edition of Mr. Field’s book I picked up Hunter’s book and started reading the very yellow pages. The edition I have is from 1993 but it doesn’t appear to have been updated since the 1980’s. So far none of the films mentioned within the covers are from the late 80’s or 1990’s.
His view of screenwriting is very different from that of Syd Field’s, but both stress the importance of structure in screenwriting. Where as Syd’s process is very strict (much of my workshop is loosely based on his writing) Lew’s approach is very loose. I won’t go into the specifics of either man’s process here, but I will tell you that the comparison got me thinking.
From my 18th floor living room window I have been watching construction crews build three different condo projects over the last 8 months. While one is still a great hole in the ground, the other two are starting to reach into the sky. I’ve noticed that both buildings at this point (as well as a third I pass every day on my way to work) all look the same. Poured concrete floors and walls with large concrete pillars in the corners of the buildings. Each building regardless of builder looks the same at this stage of construction. The same is true with screenplays. Many people may dislike the idea of writing to a formula, it does help you get your thoughts organized and written down in one place.
When you need to make a birthday cake do you grab your favourite recipe or do just start throwing ingredients together? If it’s the first birthday you’ve ever made I would hope you reach for a recipe. A recipe is a formula for making that specific type of birthday cake. When baking your first cake you’re going to follow the recipe really closely but as you make more cakes you start to work without the recipe as well as adding some of your own ideas into the cake (like adding chocolate chips). It’s the same with the screenplay formula I present in my workshop. It’s there to guide you as you learn to write a screenplay, but it’s something you can either change or adapt as you get more experience. For example, Lew Hunter suggests writing an outline of your screenplay while in the planning stage. His example is very much like a beat sheet, or beat cards. He talks about the cards themselves briefly in his book, but he doesn’t find them useful. This is where the formula can be adapted. You may agree with Lew and find that the cards are annoying so you put together your outline (or beat sheet) on a single piece of paper. It’s still the same step. Your still building the major moments of your screenplay, but you’re doing it the way you’re comfortable with.
Getting back to the condos out my living room window. The first condo is already adding the windows to the concrete framework. The unique appearance of the building is starting to take shape. The second draft of your screenplay would be the same as adding the windows to the condo. It’s the second draft where you’re going to start to reshape your story and give it its uniqueness. The science of screenwriting supports the art of screenwriting just as the concrete frame of the building supports the fancy glass work of its exterior. No one other than you is ever going to read your first draft so your writing can be rough. This is just the framing of your screenplay. Your writing it one story card at a time. Your first draft is nothing more than your story cards written in screenplay form with some details and dialogue added. When you start the rewrite (which we will discuss in November) you’re going to set the story cards aside and write based on the first draft.
Writing based on a formula helps get your thoughts and stories put together in a way that will help your screenplay sell but it becomes your job to then cover that framework under your artistic skill in the second (and later) draft of the screenplay. When you’re ready to show off your first screenplay it should be a work of art that hides the science behind the beauty. But the science is still there. Your screenplay, like the condos outside my living room window, will stand strong with a solid framework supporting the beautiful exterior.
See you next month, Steve