Screenplay principles

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I mentioned some time ago that I’d signed up to a short course on Screenwriting, part of an ongoing series of Creative Writing classes. This was not necessarily because I wanted to complete a screenplay but because writing for film is part of that tradition of composing narratives that includes drama, oral tales and, of course, novels.

Here I only want to briefly outline a few definitions when it comes to the ideas from which a screenplay is born. In class we were introduced to Robert McKee’s 1999 text Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (Methuen Film), in particular the part in which he outlines the three basics which every good screenplay needs. These basics are Premise (what the story is about, in other words a general description of the story); Hook (what grabs the attention of the viewer, rather like a riff or chorus in a popular song); and finally Controlling Idea (in other words, the main themes of the movie).

To try and get under the skin of these basics we were asked to identify them in a mainstream film; I chose The Bourne Ultimatum. This thriller from 2007 (which seems to be showing on one digital channel or another most nights of the week) was directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass and starred Matt Damon. See what you think. Continue reading “Screenplay principles”

From concept to script

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The front room of a modest townhouse in a Regency terrace in a small provincial town is unoccupied, except for a figure hunched over a laptop. He stops tapping to refer to some notes. He sighs, scratches his head and briefly glances out of the window at a casual passer-by. A metaphorical light bulb goes off in his head, and he grunts appreciatively before re-applying himself to his task.

There are lots of ways to tell a story. Literary fiction is what I’ve largely been focusing on but of course narrative began orally, no doubt with a lot of gesture and visuals! The simple tripartite division of storytelling — of beginning, middle and end — is one that applies to most performance art, whether drama or dance, mime or film, jokes, reports or epic poetry. And naturally, whatever the medium, successful approaches to keeping the interest of the audience will be common to all of them.

For a few weeks I outlined what I’d learnt from a Creating Writing course looking at the features of writing in genre — romance, horror, comic, fantasy, fairytale, science fiction and so on. The module I’m now learning about is screenwriting, not that I have visions of writing the next blockbuster script but because I’m intrigued as to how much or how little overlap there might be with literary storytelling. I’m invited to be guided “through the early stages of writing a compelling, well-paced script: from idea to story outline”; well, that’s similar. The module claims to provide the student “with foundational knowledge of, and practical experience in, the use of various screenwriting techniques, including established story structure, as it relates to creative scriptwriting.” So far so familiar. But while I’m interested in what skills are needed “to create ideas suitable for development into screenplays, to structure professional story breakdowns, to create credible characters, and to construct and script effective scenes,” it’s only because such skills are essentially common to all narrative endeavours.

Hopefully, as I wander discursively over what I’ve learnt about framing a story concept (Premise, Hook, Controlling Idea) and evaluating its potential (commercial or artistic) I’ll be able to share with you the purpose and effects of good storytelling as it particularly applies to film and television drama.

The writer saves his work. He gets up, stretches and goes to make a hot drink for himself. He smiles quietly as he sips his tea.