Please check out this guest post from my writer friend Sarah Hohman. Sarah is a writer, comedian and teacher. She is one-half of UpWriteladies.com. Follow her at www.UpWriteLadies.com, or @upwriteladies on Twitter.
3 Ways Screenwriting Makes You a Better Writer
As a writer, I have dabbled in all sorts of genres, motifs, styles, and forms of writing. I have written novels, blogs, journals, poetry, jokes, screenplays, short stories, and teleplays, just to name a few. However, I have found that learning how to write a proper screenplay taught me how to be a better writer more than any other form of writing I have done. In fact, I advise any burgeoning writer to learn screenplay format to improve their writing.
1 – Formatting Forces You to Be Efficient
Sure, it’s a pain to learn screenplay format at first. It’s intimidating and seems to favor form over art, but once you get used to the nuts and bolts of it, it becomes second nature and doesn’t inhibit your storytelling at all. When you are writing a novel, you can make it as long as you want, which means a lot of writers (particularly new writers) tend to overdo their descriptions. They add a lot of padding they simply don’t need, which can be fun to read but ultimately gets frustrating, repetitive, and boring for readers.
Screenplay format is very specific about page count and how much “white space” should be on a page. Unless you are a Tarantino, you’re not going to get very far writing a 300 page screenplay. This means you have to be able to pare your story down to the proper length of between 90 and 120 pages for a feature-length script, which forces you to self-edit and only include vital scenes. You may have to cut things you like for the sake of page length, but you will quickly learn how to “cut the fat”, which makes you a better writer.
2 – It Focuses on Character and Dialogue
Screenplays are written to be filmed, but they must be fun to read, too. You have two audiences you have to please with one piece of writing; the movie-going public, and the producers who will read your screenplay and decide whether or not to make it come to life. Because viewers of your movie won’t be able to read the action that is happening on screen, the bulk of energy while writing a screenplay is spent making the dialogue stand out. A reader’s eye naturally scans the action, and lingers on what the characters are saying. If your dialog sucks, you’re sunk, and that becomes obvious by page 10.
When writing a screenplay, you can’t rely on flowery descriptions. Action lines are supposed to be no more than five lines at a time, so you are seriously limited in the amount of time you can spend telling your reader what is happening. You have to use the words your character says to tell the audience about them: their education, their background, their motives. The more you allow the characters to come to life through their dialogue, the more engaging your script will be. Creating different and distinct character voices is an incredible challenge, and it’s one that writers of novels and short stories don’t have to face in the same way. Because there can be long patches of prose between dialogue in a story, you don’t have to think about how well a single conversation flows. With a script, the dialogue is in a single block, so any clunky-sounded word choices or conversation-fluency problems stand out like a sore thumb. You can’t cover up for bad dialogue.
3 – You Have to Get to the Point, and Do it Fast!
While writing a novel, you need an inciting incident. However, there is no set time for that incident to occur. You could spend 100 pages developing relationships or talking about tertiary characters if you want. There is no real standard. With screenplays, you have to grab your reader in the first 10 pages. If nothing happens (i.e. the inciting incident), you will lose your reader, and your film will never get made. This pressure makes you a better writer by forcing yourself to confront your story structure. Are you actually moving the plot forward? Does everything that happens have a purpose? Can you be more efficient? Thinking along these lines is not easy or natural for a writer, but being critical and reflective about your plot improves your writing greatly.
In general, screenplays are my favorite things to write. I love the challenge, the freedom, and the way it challenges you to push yourself to be better, more efficient, and deeper all the time.