Show, Don’t Tell

I’ve been participating in the last three months at the screenplay writing classes [en, blog] recommended by Cinemagia [ro, html]. I thought I could share with you some of the things I have learned and some of the conclusions I could get.

First of all, talking to some Romanian experts (being private conversations, I’ll not name them), there isn’t a Romanian screenplay school. Well, theoretically, there have been some initiatives (and now I’m participating in the most daring one). There are academic classes and masters’ degree seminars on the topic, but without real relevance in the market. The few good screenplay writers write for television. The Romanian film directors write their own screenplays. This is not normal for such a developed film industry as it is the case in Romania, but it’s the truth.

When writing a screenplay for a film on the big screens means structure. It means to develop a story in which each minute, each frame, contributes to moving the action further and revealing information that develops the character to the audience. It is far from writing a novel, it’s something much more mathematical-oriented. Considering how much a single minute of produced film costs, it’s a good sense of practice to respect the investor’s resources.

A screenplay must have a theme, a general abstract reduced to a few words. The screenplay’s idea is what it says about that theme. It’s a detailed, abstract sentence, which leads to the way in which the ending must be constructed to reveal that specific idea. The subject is the concrete general manner in which the screenplay will reveal the selected idea about the theme.

Each screenplay can be resumed through the construction “what if…?”. Then, causing plot point one (the intrigue), comes the “but what if…?”, which is incidental to the action, causing a conflict which will develop, climb beyond the midpoint into plot point two and being resolved in the ending. Although it might seem simple, the more complex an action is, the more difficult it is to translate it to these terms to make the right dose of it.

One of the main issues with my short writings or exercises, as I mentioned in this article about author positioning [en, blog], is the fact that there isn’t any twist in them, or the action is too simple, or too static. Although this might be acceptable or appropriate in some dramatic plays for theatre, it is totally incompatible with writing for film. If your reader says: “so what?” to your story, if it doesn’t have the right structure or doesn’t have the right way to express your vision, then its potential is totally irrelevant.

Therefore, if there’s a conflict, it must be visual. In literature, you can write pages about a character’s dilemma with his own thoughts. In a film, you can’t. You must show it. And here comes the good news for me. Having a fine understanding of how psychology works and studying human resources allows me to have a deeper approach to how to choose certain behaviors to show certain aspects. To show a character talking about the information you want your audience to find out is redundant, pleonastic. To have information about a character, you must be able to create that message through conflict, through visual. To be extreme, what you can’t see in a movie, doesn’t exist. What cannot be shown cannot exist in the film. It’s as simple as that.

What I’m learning now is how to create signification through devising such means of visual expression and it is truly inspiring to have such a great teacher like Mihnea Columbeanu to learn from, because he has a great way of delivering structure, in a practical manner, for everyone, no matter of the experience or field of work.

Another important aspect of writing screenplays is keeping the field to what you know. The explanations for what happens on the screen must be articulated, integrated into the whole vision, and be coherent and credible. There is a certain credibility that’s used as a common language in a film. There are things you can use, things you cannot use and things too used. I would have liked to write a screenplay about the Irak war’s siege from Fallujah in 2004, for example. But I haven’t been to Irak. I don’t have any experience in the military and I have no knowledge about the political and historical circumstances. I have merely read two books and a few articles about it. Of course, just having experience in a certain field is not a clear recommendation to write screenplays. For example, I had a few exercises set in the corporate world. They did not work. They weren’t too visual. And I was too involved to think like a screenwriting professional approaching the topic with objectivity. I can write good commercial screenplays, but that is not news for me, nor is it my goal.

I think there will be a while until I will have the first screenplay for a short film, but now I’m just working on it and I’m sharing with you some of my impressions in the meantime.

Marcus Victor Grant

Text Copyright © Marcus Victor Grant, 2009-present

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