Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Trials and Tribulations of Writing a Screenplay: Part Two

Writing the Bloody Thing

As you may know from my last blog post, I have spent the past year wrestling the hydra of screenplay as part of the She Writes Scheme.

Writing a feature-length screenplay, I discovered, is a unique form of torture – akin to being locked in a room with a bucket of tea and a vast emotional and comedic Sudoku puzzle to be completed before dinner. Every day. For a long time.

This lovely pic is from Pikelet68 on Flickr and represents that age-old writerly adage about the importance of applying bums to seats

I have never undertaken anything that has caused such acute torturous obsession. (Pinging awake at 4 in the morning, shaking my boyfriend out of his slumbers yelling, “I’ve got it! If I just move the dominatrix scene in front of the Danny La Rue scene – everything is solved!” Just to find, in the cold light of rational day, that the Danny La Rue scene was being as uncooperative as ever.)

But I digress. In my first blog post I suggested reading lots of screenplays. My next piece of advice: get yourself a good mentor. I am now a complete mentor convert. I want a whole team of mentors, all crowding over my shoulder shouting things like “Go Rosy!” and “where are your turning points?” And “What’s the pov of this character?”.

It is hard to talk about my mentor without becoming nauseatingly sycophantic.

Best-selling, BAFTA-nominated. Nancy Mitford for the BBC. Screenwriter of Jo Wright’s Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley. 16 bestselling novels and an adaptation of her latest already being filmed…Let’s face it – Deborah Moggach is a god.

But, I was aiming to make this blog somewhat educational. So, first:

What exactly *is* a mentor?

Mentoring is one of those of-the-moment terms that never seems to be defined too closely. Or, perhaps it’s better defined by what it is not. You’ll be saddened to hear that it’s not someone to write the thing for you, nor a “teacher”, nor even, as most of us writers would like, a cheerleader/psychiatrist and spellchecker rolled into one.

A mentor, to me, is someone with experience and knowledge in a field who gives the benefit of that experience to someone who is much less experienced and knowledgeable entering that field. (Check out this guide on The Writers Compass).

On She Writes, our individual mentors are from all over the industry. Some are writers, others are directors or producers or combinations of all of the above. The fact that I got a writer was brilliant for me and suited me and my trusty learning curve down to the ground.

I find it hard to put into words all that I learnt from the mentoring process. We discussed characterisation, set-pieces, turning points, psychology, levels of realism, themes and motifs, creating the world of the piece, tone and consistency – all whilst waving around cups of coffee and chicken sandwiches. But somehow that doesn’t quite capture it. For me, it was a really creative experience – I can’t describe how inspiring it is to have someone that good, really engaging with your work and interrogating it so thoroughly.

Deborah, of course, is very experienced in adaptation – having adapted many of her own books as well as Mitford and Austen for the small and big screens.

Adaptation is a slightly different business to writing a screenplay from scratch – with unique problems to overcome.

Some people assume it is easier  – “Well at least you have the story and characters”. It’s true that it does help to know your characters inside out and upside down. On the other hand, turning a plot that works in 400 pages with the kind of stop/start chapter structure of a novel, into one that works in 100 in an accelerating straight line is incredibly hard. And finding a structure that will work for a film within a novel’s structure is a huge challenge in itself.

So, what is the process of adaptation?

Every screenwriter tackles it differently and I’m sure there will be better (and certainly more efficient) ways than mine.

My clumsy first attempts are far too embarrassing to describe in public. So here goes. Not knowing where to begin, as an experiment I laboriously transcribed a scene from my book into screenplay format. I sat back, satisfied. The resultant scene was 60 pages long.

It doesn’t take someone with a great deal of screenwriting experience to spot the problem. On average one page of screenplay should represent one minute of screen time. Scripts normally come in between 90-120 pages – and, hopefully, more towards the 90 end of the spectrum. My little scene was taking up an hour of screen time! All I had to do was shove in a couple of montages and some opening credits and Bob’s your uncle. Job done.

Help!

Ok, I thought. Learning curve. Learning curve…

I set about writing down the key plot points of the book, the key characters, and a couple of big important scenes…

And so the whole limping torturous process began.

You find, as you draft and redraft, that scenes you originally thought were essential – aren’t. Other scenes combine together. Events move, mutate or disappear entirely. Characters merge. You will massively over write and get depressed. Then you will start to cut and feel a lot better. Then you will massively overcut and get rid of important character development and motivation because you’re so focussed on cutting that you’ve lost all perspective.

One of the troubles with screenwriting “rules” (and the same goes for so many fiction-writing “How To”s)  is that they don’t take into account the messiness of the writing process. You can’t have every scene forwarding plot and character (or preferably both) before you know your plot and characters. You can’t have beautifully pared down writing, without something to pare down. Every word can’t count, without getting rid of one heck of a lot that don’t.

The trouble with the “rules” is that they don’t inspire creativity – and for that you need to splurge, over-write, add in too much description, imagine what your characters look like, what each setting looks like, what the back-story is and all the other stuff that you will end up cutting ruthlessly later on. How can you select those two salient details of place for draft three if you don’t cram everything plus the kitchen sink into draft one?

The industry seems to revel in stories of screenplays written over a weekend, or in a few weeks. Which is why I appreciate those honest screenwriters who talk about the sheer amount of effort that has gone into the process. You have to put the hours in.

To go into everything I’ve learnt this year would take rather more words than I have at my disposal. But here are a just few conclusions I’ve come to that may be useful to anyone else thinking of giving screenwriting, particularly adaptation, a bash.

Films favour linearity more than novels

I know there are many films full of flashback and with exciting structures: Memento and Pulp Fiction being just two. However, I still maintain that the format of a film drives relentlessly forward. Chapters can easily jump time and place with no upset at all. You can start one chapter with Emma and the next chapter with Boris. In screenplay, the way the scenes flow forces a more chronological feel. Even Memento is curiously chronological. The visual memory seems to work differently to the aural. Plus the condensed time-frame means there is simply less space, leaving no time for authorial intervention, asides, side-tracks and general self-indulgence (something I love in many of my favourite books). The end of each scene must make sense and move and flow on to the next.  Which brings me to the next item on my list:

The importance of good transitions

I thought this was my own peculiar obsession until I attended the BAFTA Screenwriter’s Lecture series and heard screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. Asked what she most admired, she said “transitions”.  An underwhelming answer, maybe, for those hoping to hear something  more glamorous : “glittering dialogue”, “exciting action” or just “pure inspiration” perhaps. But no, plain old transitions.

How the film flows is crucial for it to maintain a feeling of being a whole. If you look at my present draft (Draft 3.5 and counting…) it is made up of well over 100 fragments if you count all the slug-lines, including shots and montages: it is essentially a myriad of bits strung together. Making sure those bits all hold together, flow, move forward and don’t fragment and start to feel like…well, like a myriad of bits strung together, is a huge challenge. Good transitions are the key.

Character introductions are crucial

Sadomasochism for Accountants has a lot of characters. In a book, there is time and space to introduce them more slowly. There is scope to allow the reader to enter their heads and read their thoughts. In a film, the amount of screen-time and dialogue for each individual character may not be that great. Introductions should not be wasted and should say something about the character, so they are memorable.  In my book, one of my favourite characters, Luda – a transvestite builder (think  Life on Mars’ Gene Hunt in a dress) is introduced with some lively dialogue chatting in the foyer of the club. In the screenplay, Luda literally bursts into the story, head-butting the attacker of another character – handbag at the ready. Perhaps a bit too high-octane for a novel, but a more active, instantly memorable and visual introduction to this key character for a film. This introduction also economically encapsulates the central contrast of this character, inviting our curiosity.

Set up, set up, set up!

This is one of the most important things I learnt from Deborah. As writers and storytellers we often concentrate on the action, on the set-pieces, on what is happening…but the better your set-up, the more those big scenes can be activated and made as powerful as possible. Again, in film, with so many shortish scenes, the more you can set things up and set them up well, the more everything will seem like a flowing organic whole. I found thinking about good setting up enormously useful in terms of both shaping and helping solidify the structure.

These are just a few of the things I have learnt this year whilst completing my maddening, exquisite, torturous, addictive Sudoku puzzle. I’ve taken that damned learning curve in both hands and run with it. And I hope to keep learning. And running. And doing Sudoku puzzles.

And writing screenplays.

——-

To read The Trials and Tribulations of Writing a Screenplay Part One, click here.

—–

Rosy is one of nine screenwriters selected for She Writes, co-presented by The Script Factory and Birds Eye View.

Supported by Skillset and Scottish Screen, “over the course of the year, the programme has offered 9 of the UK’s most promising up-and-coming female screenwriters a comprehensive programme of development support” (The Script Factory).

For She Writes, Rosy has been working on her feature screenplay Sadomasochism for Accountants adapted from her comedy novel of the same name. During the year she has been mentored by bestselling award-winning novelist and screenwriter, Deborah Moggach.

Find out more about Rosy at www.rosybarnes.com.

Image from Pikelet68 on Flickr, reproduced under a Creative Commons License

5 comments on “The Trials and Tribulations of Writing a Screenplay: Part Two

  1. annebrooke
    February 24, 2011

    Wonderful article, Rosy – it makes me glad I don’t do screenwriting though as I don’t even have a tenth of your energy levels! 🙂

    I think having a mentor must be fabulous and challenging – I envy you that!

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Catheryn Kilgarriff
    February 24, 2011

    Hi Rosy

    Well, as your publisher for Sadomasochism for Accountants, all I can say is, keep going and I am sure it will get easier. I heard Deborah Moggach talk at my local literary group in January and she said she usually only had two months to do an adaptation, so she just had to get on with it. But, yes, she is a god. And also very nice. She also is constantly on the look out for material and at an EnglishPen Christmas party she tried very hard to get a whole group of writers to admit to where they lost their virginity. Never heard so many coats at parties tales in my life…

  3. Jackie
    February 24, 2011

    I never realized it was quite so involved, all those invisible rules & signposts. I knew a lot had to be from a novel to get it to fit into a film, but I wasn’t quite sure how they strung together the most important parts to make it cohesive.
    Amusing beginning to a really interesting post. I learned a lot & tip my hat to anyone doing such a thing. Much Good Luck to you, Rosy, I’m sure you’ll be successful in the end.

  4. lisa
    February 25, 2011

    I feel like I learned lots just reading this piece, Rosy, so I can only imagine your learning curve over the past year. Thanks for pointing out the messiness of the writing process – finally someone is talking about that!

    Anyhow, great post and good luck with the screenplay (which looks fantastic!)

  5. Nikki
    February 26, 2011

    I read this going “Yes, yes, yes.” Struggling with a screenplay (a collaboration with a friend) all this is very familiar. So I’m really enjoying these articles, Rosy. Looking forward to more!

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