A guest post from Tom Benedek, screenwriter (Cocoon), educator and co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class.
Structure is everything. Perhaps. Breaking down the moving parts of the opening pages of the best screenplays yields a means to understanding their creative DNA. Putting all those pieces together — character intros, plot points, color of setting — is job one.
AND there is that other realm of it — writing style. Emotional attitude. Tone.
As I start writing the first script pages on a new project, I want two things to be going on. I need to get all this information about the story and the characters set in motion and I want to engage my reader emotionally. One and the same? Yes and no. All the ingredients for a wonderful script may be in the writer’s mind, in notes, in outline form. But the means, the voice on the page has to deliver all that and build this special emotional bridge with the reader.
Bringing your own unique voice into your screenwriting work is crucial and difficult. You can’t direct on the page. But you can emphatically present the moments of the story from your own point of view, bring your emotions to the piece. Simultaneously, the job is just tell the damn story. But this trick of keeping the voice of the storyteller in there somehow matters.
“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.” — David Foster Wallace
Creating that “electricity” is so difficult and essential. Your passion for your story and characters may just offer all that from the beginning. For most of us, it becomes necessary to labor over the words – to create that electricity in the text.
“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader — the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing — maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that ‘Writing that appears effortless takes the most work’ has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.” — David Foster Wallace
Most of us mortals, David Foster Wallace included, are forced to manufacture that electricity in rewrite. It may be there in fits and starts (or everywhere, bless you) in that first draft. Mainly, it is just essential to start out mindful of what you want and to have thought through the main ingredients of your script. So they will be evident in those first 15 pages you rough out. You won’t find your voice unless you start writing. So — you have to get those first 15 pages into script form. Then, you can edit them and reinforce your emotional bridge with the reader.
I will be teaching a one-week online class at Screenwritingmasterclass.com next week: The First 15 Pages. There will be plenty of consideration of the essential structural ingredients — character building, plot development techniques, etc. for the opening pages. The class will also consider the practice of writing – finding your voice, fulfilling your creative mandate as you write or rewrite the first 15 pages of any script project. By reviewing the essentials in a few great scripts, you will see where the magic is — along with the sound structural fundamentals. Here is the link to the class.
I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!
Tom is a wonderful writer and teacher, and this is the type of learning experience that is crucial to the craft: Learning how to get into your story setup in an effective and entertaining way. So I encourage you to check out Tom’s new class here.