Author Edythe Wise describes the challenges and rewards of writing spec scripts.
After years of writing novels and short stories, I decided to try screenwriting and was pleased to learn that an unsolicited movie script, known as a “spec script,” doesn’t require specification of camera angles, aerial shots, lighting, or other technical aspects of cinematography. Rather, like novels and short stories, screenwriting requires primarily story, conflict, characterization, and structure.
Its big difference is its major disadvantage: Unlike a novel or a short story—where you have the satisfaction of a completed work whether you sell it or not—a screenplay is a blueprint for a work and is not the work itself. It’s collaborative work without the collaborators. You have to sell it, or it can’t be completed, and until you’ve had a successful movie made, you’re unlikely to sell it.
I decided to forge ahead anyway and found that, unlike a novel or short story, screenwriting has a strict format, but software programs make that easy. Also, I had to learn the process of making a movie in order to avoid scenes that won’t work in film.
Other differences include the inability to convey the characters’ internal struggles, their thoughts (except for an occasional voice over) and their feelings directly, all of which make showing internal conflict more difficult than in novels and short stories. Screenplays excel at showing external conflict. In the completed film, nonverbal communication can convey the inner life of the character, but, in the screenplay, it cannot be as nuanced as in novels and short stories. The actor has to grasp the subtext and convey most of the characters’ inner life.
Also, a screenplay’s dialogue must be more realistic than dialogue in novels and short stories. Accustomed to that type of writing, I have to fight the tendency to write dialogue that reads better than it sounds and describe distinctions of mood and emotion that the camera can’t reproduce. Fortunately (sort of), I’m not in the same fiction writing league as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who couldn’t write good screenplays. According to the New Yorker, among other things, his dialogue was “arch and sentimental,” and his mind was too complicated.
Along with simplicity, screenwriting requires brevity. Raymond Chandler, who wrote successful short stories, novels, and screenplays, said, “The challenge in screenwriting is to say much with little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement. Such technique requires experiment and elimination.”
The need for the collaboration of actors, directors, and cinematographers means that new screenwriters usually try to get an agent and make a sale by writing what the public wants and aiming it at the demographic that will make the biggest profit. They know that their work will be changed with little input from them and often for the worse. This makes the screenwriter feel like a hack and discourages the drive for perfection.
Nevertheless, for those who believe cinema is potentially more of an art than a business, writing screenplays is rewarding. If a writer can turn out saleable scripts, win contests, or hook up with a reputable producer of independent films, s/he can look forward to writing screenplays that don’t cater to the money-making decisions of studio non-writers.
Edythe Wise has a Master of Arts degree in writing, with a concentration in fiction, from Johns Hopkins University and is an associate editor of Potomac Review. Her work has appeared in Full of Crow, Danse Macabre, and Orchard Press Mysteries. A lawyer, she lives in Falls Church, Virginia, where she writes novels and screenplays.