Need a Trick for Writing Screenplays? August 16, 2017

I’ve been trying a new way to rewrite a feature film script. A bit of a trick. Steal it if you think it might be useful.

A few years ago, I wrote the script on spec, basing it on a story I’d heard of a real-life death. It may or may not have been murder, and the prime suspect (who may or may not have been guilty) turned out to be sitting on a huge secret that no one suspected.

So, a thriller.

Just as I finished my first draft of the script, I was contacted by some producers who were looking for a screenwriter to rewrite one of their projects. They asked me for a writing sample, but I didn’t have any stray scripts hanging around. I mainly write on contract and most of my scripts are owned by producers who aren’t keen for me to flash them at the competition.

After some hesitation, I sent off the new thriller as a sample even though it was an early first draft. I was surprised when they hired me, and felt a little warmer about the thriller, planning to rewrite it as soon as I had time. (Had time. Right. When I’d just been hired to rewrite a feature film script while working on a novel.)

My main problem was something I see all the time with screenwriting students. The antagonist was great—bad guys often come into focus first—but the protagonist wasn’t working. She plodded through her often nerve-wracking days, never doing anything surprising, anything human.

My cop wasn’t working either. I needed a cop, yet he was behaving too much like a detective on a second rate TV procedural, often pushing the script into melodrama.

These aren’t trivial problems and there was no guarantee I could fix them. Yet there was something about the main idea (which I’m carefully not giving away) that made me think, This could be good. It isn’t, but maybe it could be.

When I have time.

Then one day I woke up knowing that I should write my core story as a novella. Afterwards, I could adapt the novella into a script.

Where did that come from?

At first, I wasn’t that keen on the idea. It sounded like a long haul. Yet rewriting a script (and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting) always takes time. This might even be a short cut, and for a couple of reasons.

One: Novellas are explorations of character, almost always of one main character. I could use prose to get into my protagonist’s head, meanwhile using the plot I’d developed in the first-draft script to keep her moving. At least, I could try, and in the process see what actions she objected to and what she suggested as alternate routes. This would allow her the agency she had lacked in the first-draft script. Give her a personality.

Two: Novellas are a good length for adaptation into feature films. It’s hard to do justice to a full-length novel in a feature, at least a good novel. (There are any number of examples of bad novels making excellent films.) A TV mini-series is probably the best way to bring a good novel to life, especially these days when TV has become better than ever. But the constraints of the novella format can keep an idea manageable, keep it focused, keep it short(er). Writing my story inside those constraints would force me to cut away the inessentials, permitting a smoother transition to script.

Novella it was. The only question was when, when, when.

Finally, this spring, my agent was in the middle of contracting a script rewrite when someone involved in it sadly died. The project dropped off the table, and I was left with some unanticipated free time. Taking a deep breath, I decided to try my experiment.

Full disclosure: no one has read what I’ve written. Not a soul. Yet I think it’s working. As soon as my fingers hit the keys, the characters began to breathe, shrug their shoulders, juggle competing demands—dropping all sorts of balls—and generally moving forward in new and human ways.

Chapter one drafted. Chapter two.

Secondary characters dropped away as I concentrated on the central figures, which is an especially good thing when you’re planning to write a low-budget thriller. Too many actors and locations make a script expensive to film. Keep it lean. Keep it tight. Keep it within the boundaries of a novella.

As I finished the third chapter, I reached the end of what we’d call Act One in film or theatre. I had intended to write the entire novella before switching to script, but after I typed Chapter Four at the top of a new page, I felt an itch and opened a Final Draft template instead, starting in on the film.

Since then, I’ve been going back and forth between the novella and the script, writing  ahead on the film while occasionally dropping back into the novella, allowing one format to question the other.

A few times, I’ve rewritten sections of the novella based on what I discovered while writing the script. More often, I’ve written the scenes in a different order in the script than they occur in the novella. Prose can get tedious when there’s too much: and then, and then, and then. Scripts are generally more linear, although of course you can play with time.

A script is not a novella nor a novella a script. Yet I’ve been finding that if you write the two of them together, they can carom off each other.

And friction creates sparks.


This blog originally appeared on Open Book, where I was writer-in-residence for the month of June. You can check out all the month’s blogs here. I’m currently finishing up Act Two of the script, and should have complete drafts of both the screenplay and novella soon.

Meanwhile, please check out blogs from Open Book’s August writer in residence, Naseem Hrab.