SCREENWRITING IS NOT WRITING
I know several people who have told me this very story: “I was a real good writer in school. My stories were always read in class. And creative writing always something I excelled in. This is why I know I can write screenplays.” Sorry, I would categorize the dream of meeting Keanu Reeves above “I write screenplays because I’ve always been good at writing.” Why? Because “screenwriting is not writing!” If you understand this, you will be more prepared to deal with the demon of screenwriting.
If screenwriting is not writing, what the hell is it? Syd Field called screenplays the blue print to a movie. And like the blue print to a house, every room, wall, corridor is measured to perfection, so that when the building begins, the whole goddamn thing doesn’t topple to the ground. You are constructing a plot, brick by brick. You’re a builder, you’re an architect, you’re construction worker, but not a writer. Because screenwriting is not writing.
What about creativity, you ask? You think an architect didn’t imagine a house? Yes, he did. And then reality happened. He has to make sure the toilet is not in the kitchen, and the shower is not in the living room. Not just writers have great imaginations, technical folks have it too. Sorry. You better end that prejudice if you want to be a screenwriter. Because screenwriting is not writing.
But let’s talk about imagination and creativity for a minute. Screenwriting history has proven over and over again that men and women who demonstrate next to zero imagination and creativity can succeed in screenwriting. Ron Bass was an attorney who suddenly fancied himself a screenwriter. He used his connections to get in and was frequently hired to write top Hollywood projects (such as Rain Man; his Oscar remains the greatest screenwriting coup in movie history – I just read Rain Man, its almost unreadable, and I’ve seen the movie 30-40 times). You may think I’m talking down on Bass, but in actuality, I consider his success story deeply impressive.
How can a man who has no voice and zero imagination write screenplays for Hollywood? Easy. He understands he is not writer. He is making a blueprint. Once Bass constructed his plot, he would have his office staff act out scenes and would jot down what they said. He claimed the dialogue was his — and he was right. He paid people to say shit that he used in his screenplays, based on the scenes he designed. Bass would sometimes write several different screenplays per day. His staff would act out scenes in his office and he would scribble what they said. He hired people to for this very reason, to act out scenes that he would then “bring to life.” Bass’ filmography is rich and he is rich because he understood that “screenwriting is not writing.”
I’m not saying imagination doesn’t help. I’m not saying a writing ability doesn’t help. I’m saying, you should not prioritize these skills. Good writing acumen can get you out of tough spots, sure (especially if you can’t afford to hire a staff of people to act our your scenes). But since “screenwriting is not writing,” you may even be at a disadvantage if you can write well. Build, construct, blue print. Because why? Screenwriting is not writing.
Hollywood is a corporation. They are seeking products that make them pyramids of money so their stockholders are happy. I’m not saying to suppress your imagination, I’m saying, just understand what you are doing… it could save your years of heartache. It’s like playing soccer when you’re supposed to play football. Just remember that you’re not writing, you are screenwriting… and you will be fine.
For more screenwriting maxims, go here.
Written by: Norith Soth