Movies and books are very different beasts, yet they share a symbiotic relationship. Whenever a great book is written, the first question asked is always, “When are they going to make it into a movie?” Then the debates begin about whom should be cast to play the book’s beloved characters. What’s the hottest role in Hollywood these days? The one part that has fans debating and actresses fighting? It’s Lisbeth Salander; Lisbeth is the tattooed, pierced, troubled, brilliant, ass-kicking heroine from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Book lovers have been debating casting since before the days of Scarlett O’Hara. And, of course, the movie, in most cases, comes out and disappoint everyone. Have I ever left a Hollywood film based on a beloved book and not heard: “The book was better”? I doubt it. When speaking of The Catcher in the Rye, someone will always say, “Boy, I hope they never make a movie of that one.”
Screenplays and novels, in a way, go hand-in-hand, yet they are written quite differently. But maybe they shouldn’t be. Writers working on screenplays often forget that they’re telling a story. This is mostly true of writers working on Spec Scripts, which is like shooting darts blindfolded. A Spec Script can be nearly perfect and not sell, and a Spec Script can be riddled with errors and sell for millions.
If you’re writing a script that you intend to try and sell, don’t worry about the camera. The people who will be reading your script don’t care about camera angles; they’re not directors, they’re readers. They don’t care where your camera is panning to or from, and they don’t care about your brilliant steadicam scene. The studio script reader, or the agent or agent’s assistant reading your script just wants to be entertained.
Really. Truly. Just have a great story to tell, and hook them from the get-go. Don’t fully lose your novelistic instincts. Sure, screenplays have a certain format that must be followed, but a good writer has much leeway.
Here’s the opening of Tony Gilroy’s brilliant Shooting Script for Michael Clayton:
It’s a great piece of writing. How could a reader possibly put the script down after that opening? Don’t be bland. Don’t be generic. Don’t bore the audience (which usually consists of one). Write every page of your script with the same mindset you have while writing your novel: Every single page will keep the reader hooked and eager for the next.
Yes, there are “rules” to writing a screenplay. Ask Robert Mckee. He’ll gladly tell you all of them, for a fee. Amateur screenwriters are told never to use “we see” or “we hear” in a script, lest they appear to be just what they are: amateurs. But what then of this sample, from the Coen Brothers’ script for Blood Simple?
When I first gave screenwriting a try, I fell into a very common trap. I used very boring, generic descriptions. I would write descriptions that went something like this:
“GERTRUDE WIGWAM, 45, stirs her coffee. Her kitchen is small and cozy. She adds some sugar to her coffee.”
Boring, right? Who would want to keep reading? Not me. Just because you’re writing a screenplay, a blueprint for a movie, never lose your literary style. Still, a good rule to follow is, keep your descriptions fairly short. Don’t spend two pages describing a tree or a car. Write a thrilling line or paragraph. Keep it conscise, keep it humming.
No matter what you’re writing, never lose sight of what you’ve set out to do, and that’s to entertain. You can break the rules (but only after you’ve learned the rules!), as long as you’re captivating your reader. You might only get one reader. One chance. Don’t let that reader put your screenplay down.