Face down in a stack of note cards

Out of all the different forms of writing, the one that I’ve never explored was screenwriting. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with it being a “foreign country” as compared to prose.

At first glance the format seems intimidating. The strange margins and overall unfamiliar use of capitalization and line breaks disoriented me. I first started deciphering this when I created “Fake Fountain” for Ulysses.

I’m not sure what my inspiration was. But I know at the time I was exploring plain-text formats in general. Screenwriting is the original plain text. The format is still based on what can be done with a basic typewriter. Even with all the digital writing tools we have now, this style has endured.

There’s a certain practicality involved that I admire. The format is well tuned for the needs of the readers. Dialog is literally front and center on the page. Location changes are clearly labeled as scene headers. But scenes are not overly described. The directions (cut to, fade, etc.) are tucked away to the sides. And most importantly, internal monologue/character thoughts usually are not part of a script.

The script is not a film or a show. It’s the basis for one.

The director and cinematographer will develop the visuals. The set designer will create the world. The actors bring the dialog to life. Then the post-production people will take all of the raw input and deliver what the writer first saw in their head.

There’s a lot of moving parts in filmmaking that aren’t there in publishing. It takes a lot of work to get a book to market, but editing, publishing, and marketing pale in comparison to getting a script to the screen.

A script is a starting point and it gives other creative professions a rally point. A novel is a complete “product” that the author worked on from beginning to end.

Once I sorted this out in my head, I found that screenwriting “clicked” for me.

At the same time, I was also putting this into practice. By random chance I heard on Twitter that an indie film was looking for writers and the producer was doing a Periscope stream describing what he wanted. I poked my head in and decided it was worth a shot. I didn’t have a screenwriting sample to send, so I offered to write a sample scene. My offer was accepted and now I really had to get my head around the process.

With anything, the idea is the hardest part. But usually life is good for a few. The film, If We Left, is about what happens when the corporate overlords close a rest home without making sure the elderly residents are out first. Two men, a cook and a janitor, stay behind because no one else would.

The producer wanted a scene featuring an elderly person in a slice of life situation. I dug up a memory of my grandmother almost burning down the rest home she eventually died in. You can read the sample here (PDF). While I didn’t get the writing job, it was well received. It also wasn’t for nothing, as I’ll be doing some story consulting when the project gets rolling.

With this panicked introduction to screenwriting under my belt I started going back over several half-written stories that were giving me problems. Thinking about them as scripts breathed new life into the projects. I’m playing with the idea of writing script-first where I’ll write a story first as a screenplay then convert it into prose.

It’s almost a style of outlining. This way I can mentally outsource the visuals to my imaginary director and focus on the story. In the end it might be more work, but any story will better for it. Mainly because the first prose pass will be a rewrite, and the plot and characters are already developed.

Or it will break my prose writing and I’ll have to move to LA.