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Breadcrumbs From the Void #17 Flip the Script: The Basics of Screenwriting

Alex Schumacher

Flip the Script: The Basics of Screenwriting

There’s a question swimming around my head lately that I am finding difficult to shake. The question is: how many people actually read Bread Crumbs from the Void? Now, I can guarantee you this is not a ploy to invite attention, nor is it a “woe is me” existential crisis attempting to show how tortured and self-deprecating I may be. It may in fact be inspired and informed by the three fingers of whiskey at my side and edibles circulating my system, sowing their seeds of paranoia and self-doubt.

In any case, the question itself is that which is most fundamental. Why do you write, or paint, or dance, or create at all? Are you doing so simply for the numbers you may attract on one social media site or another? Are you doing it in an effort to garner praise, riches, and validation? Or do you do it because it keeps you awake at night and at times from showering or eating?

If you are doing so for any other reason than the latter, then you have already fucking failed. Exorcising the parasite which haunts your every waking second should be the single motivating factor necessary to propel your work. Anything else is merely ancillary, distracting bullshit.

Remember, this column ain’t for namby-pambys who seek sugar-coated advice.

That said, I invite you to join me in this week’s demolition derby regarding writing scripts/screenplays. This form of writing is far more akin to being a comic book scribe (covered in this installment: http://five2onemagazine.com/2504-2/) than it is to being a novelist or author of prose. Aside from the structure being radically different with prose you have the freedom to take the time — and word count — to develop the world and swaddle the reader. With screenplays, as well as graphic narratives, what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say.

 

Write Visually

As with any other writing mediums, if you have set your sights on this particular road littered with wannabe blockbusters you should be reading metric shit tons of screenplays and scripts. They are easy to find and download online and it is always essential to dive head first into the tar pit of your choosing. Poring over the triumphs and tribulations of others will be the best education that you can receive.

For starters, with a script you should only depict what can be seen or heard by an audience. I would say this is common sense, but if I have learned anything in my years on this cruel orb it is that common sense is anything but common.

Depicting aspects which cannot be seen or heard is superfluous at best. In reality what you are doing by crafting flowery, purple prose for use in a screenplay is showing just how many times an agent, studio, etc. will be forced to change your shitty diaper. To avoid telegraphing just how much of an amateur you are, your best tool is going to be to employ as few words as possible. Do not be afraid to use short sentences with terse description.

Writing visually will be achieved by using evocative verbs and strong voice. For example: Instead of saying, “Character X realizes dinner did not sit with him in the middle of the date and we can see he is horrified as he rushes from the table to the bathroom before dessert is served” you can punch it up with something to the effect of, “EYES WIDENED, BODY STIFF, Character X DARTS from the table to address his surprise colonic concerns”. This will not only aid in the adaptation of your screenplay but will also make the read more enjoyable for the countless douchebag studio heads and actors with bizarre rituals and methods who will be forced to digest your work.

 

Characters & Dialogue

Where screenwriting does draw a bit of a parallel to prose is that you must know your characters inside and out. You must establish individual details, personalities, and behaviors for each of the involved parties. As you research your characters every aspect must be covered from place of origin, to specific allergies, to sexual proclivities. Unorthodox fetishes are always sure to please — damn straight that pun was intended — and could potentially be an interesting and recurring facet to hook the audience.

Once you have a well-rounded character who feels as though they may actually exist, you can start putting them in various situations ranging from the mundane to the exciting. In my humble opinion what may be considered trivial or banal are the most interesting moments and storylines to cover. If you are only concerned with action and fireworks displays (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay!) the story will only be marred and bogged down in superficial bullshit.

Your main objective is to write a story and characters that will be remembered.

Part of creating such a memorable package is the dialogue. The best dialogue is steeped in fast-paced banter, not verbose diatribes. Think about your conversations with family, acquaintances, imaginary friends, your roommate’s multiple personalities, etc. The one thing they will have in common is they are rife with pithy and succinct remarks or exchanges. No one wants to listen to some priggish, self-righteous fuckwad prattling on about one thing or another, nor do they want to endure some bar-stool prophet pontificating from their anus as though they were a new world sage.

Dialogue, like stories themselves, are best when culled from real life. Subtext will play a huge role in helping to fill in any gaps left once you have lopped off the obvious or unnecessary. Brilliantly devised characters force us to peek behind the curtains of their minds through their actions, or how they dance around pressing issues – not how they address them head on.

KISS the Story

I have touched on the concept before, but with writing scripts there is nothing more important regarding the story than to Keep It Simple, Shithead. KISS the motherfucker all over. The characters and the world you build can (and should) be complex, but the story itself should be accessible, crisp, and deceptively simple.

Your story should be a high-end escort with a sleek design and transparent agenda. Avoid being a two dollar Tijuana hooker with far too many unanswered questions, variables, and possibly a venereal disease or five.

The story should drive from point A to point B. Engaging company and captivating stepping-stones should be along for the ride to make the trek less of a slog. If you take too many detours your intended devotee’s interest will quickly wain. Not to mention the fact your addled opus will be chock-full of unresolved plot points and unanswered questions. Consider the god-damn train wreck that is M. Night Shyamalan.

While I am on the subject, avoid plot twists for the love of whichever imaginary deity you believe lives in the clouds! I am not saying plot twists cannot be done well. What I am saying is for the most part they are boner-killers which seem to have been slotted into place simply because an inadequate writer was unable to devise a decent fucking ending.

Keep in mind when concocting a screenplay the rule of thumb is that you have one page per minute of screen time. This equates to roughly 90-120 pages of sparse text to get in, make the audience cream their jeans, and return home in time for your favorite vapid sitcom. Wasting time with additional subplots, twist endings, non-linear or abstract structures, etc. is simply artistic masturbation and nothing more.

Points to remember:

  • Do not stray from the path, lest you be devoured by wild creatures and critics
  • Introduce and explore compelling, flawed, realistic characters
  • Allow for the dialogue — or lack thereof — to uncover intentions, motives, relationships, etc.
  • Be brief, be succinct, be unique

Further reading on the process of screen writing can be found at http://thescriptlab.com/, and http://www.screenwriting.info/.

If you would like to hear me elaborate a bit more on my own process, you can find links to a couple of interviews conducted recently with me on my website at: https://alexschumacherart.com/about/. Drop me a line from the contact page if you have any other questions, complaints, or declarations of lust.

Bread Crumbs from the Void will return in two weeks, when I shall wax philosophical on the digital-age old question of whether or not representation is necessary any longer. Until next time, keep scribbling you freaks.


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Alex Schumacher has toiled away in the relative obscurity of minimum-wage jobs and underground comics longer than he cares to admit. Currently he produces the weekly feature Decades of (in)Experience for Antix Press, Bread Crumbs from the Void and The Fucking Funnies for Five 2 One Magazine, and Mr. Butterchips for Drunk Monkeys. Stalk him at http://alexschumacherart.com/.