Everyone Knows The Alphabet: Thoughts on Screenwriting

Former NYC agent and current AofS coach Jon Sternfeld discusses screenwriting in Art of Storytelling’s ongoing series of guest blogs on the writing process. Jon has worked under the VP of Development at a major independent production company, Good Machine Inc. (The Ice Storm, In the Bedroom, Happiness) under writer/producer James Schamus. In charge of reading the screenplay slush and referral pile, Jon was a valuable part of getting scripts into the hands of those with the ability to greenlight a project.  He also works intensively with his writer/director brother Josh Sternfeld (Winter Solstice, Meskada) on his scripts.


The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little.” – Raymond Chandler

Screenplays are significantly shorter and cover less space on the page than books. On top of that they’re mostly made up of dialogue. Plus, look at all the junk that Hollywood churns out every year. So screenwriting must be child’s play, right? Easy money? Of course, wrong and wrong. If anything, it is exactly these things (think of them as limitations) that make good screenplay writing that much harder.

As I usually say about writing in general: Just about everyone in the civilized Western world knows the alphabet, so just about everyone thinks they know how to write. You don’t see people just pick up ice carving and then try to make a career of it right away. There’s a respect to other crafts and trades that writing just rarely gets.

It will always be a mystery why people think writing is easy (same with why people think teaching is easy). I know that anyone who has ever really given a go at writing will tell you it’s not, yet the misconception remains. I think that because the tools of writing look familiar that writing seems easy. We learn sentences before we’re out of the second grade. Because scripts don’t even require exceptional prose, this misconception is even more popular in regards to screenplays. Everyone has seen movies, so amateurs think that once they learn the format of a screenplay, they’re golden. Nothing could be further from reality.

I’ve spent some time on development side of the film world (screening scripts and writing up reports – called ‘coverage’), and I have to admit that the amount of unprofessional, or lazy, or just plain bad material that is submitted rivals any other art form in the universe. It’s staggering. This makes finding a good screenplay that much harder. If you add the sheer amount of money that is required to get a movie made, even a “small” one, it is that much harder to get your screenplay noticed and bought. So not only is the misconception about screenwriting wrong; the truth is the exact opposite. The fact that the tools are so common and the transom is overloaded with scripts are what makes rising above the pack of scripts that much harder.

The internet is overfilled with screenwriting advice (some good, some ill-conceived), so I’m going to keep it simple and just focus on some easy tips if you’re considering screenwriting or just getting into the form.

1.) Make sure you have an idea for story before you begin your screenwriting. Notice I said ‘idea for a story’, not just idea. An idea is not enough, nor is a character or a setting or a situation enough. You can start brainstorming with these things, but until you have an idea for what happens, then what happens after that, then what that leads to, you are not ready to write page one. This is not advice; it is a fact. A screenplay is the telling of a story. (There are exceptions to every rule, usually done by those who have already mastered the form, but you’re better off ignoring them for now.) Because the form doesn’t really allow for tangents the way novel writing does, you need to be locked in to the general direction of where you’re going before you get started. Of course, you will always discover plot points and characters and scenes along the way, but without a story – at the very least, an A then a B heading towards a C (or maybe a D), you shouldn’t start typing.

2.) A screenplay takes up less space, so there needs to more packed in – into each brief set-up and description, into each line of dialogue, into each action.

Your screenplay should be a streamlined missile of compressed drama. Every scene should do more than one thing – introduce a setting and a character’s motivation and a plot twist in one scene if you can. If your scene is four pages long and its only function is to show the femme fatale is a whiz at Scrabble, you haven’t compressed things enough. It’s a lot like chess: do as much as you can with each move.

3.) Be Visual. Think visually. Write what can be visually shown. This is both practical and artistic.

It’s practical because your audience literally cannot see what you do not show. Minus a cheap voice-over trick, what’s on the screen is all there is. This leads to the artistic reason to be visual. We know film is a visual medium and its power lies in the ability to speak to you by showing you things. Find a way to give your ideas physical form and symbolic punch.

The physical world and its objects have symbolic power, both inherent to them and malleable by you as writer. Make sure you use them. John Cusack’s character holds a boom box above his head to protest his love to Ione Skye in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. He doesn’t speechify, because film is a visual medium. Cusack is also holding the heavy thing above his head with visible effort, itself a symbolic act.

The scene’s power is auditory as well here as the Peter Gabriel song playing on his stereo has symbolic meaning as it was on the car radio after the first time they ‘spent the night’ together. This is called a ‘call back’ and they’re a screenplay staple. Plant something early in the film to return to later and give the audience an ‘aha’ or ‘boo hoo’ or whatever reaction you want. Here it is in case you haven’t seen it.

Even James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, which contains perhaps some of modern cinema’s greatest dialogue, climaxes in a very visual way with virtually no dialogue. Albert Brooks sends Holly Hunter to go back and watch the raw tapes of her boyfriend William Hurt’s interview with a date rape victim. Hunter goes to the editing room where she watches, in horrified silence, video of William Hurt manufacturing tears to be edited into the interview later. It’s a powerful visual climax where our protagonist is silent.

Hurt’s faking of tears is a violation of journalistic ethics so monumental that Hunter ends her relationship with him – they each stand for different things, which is what Albert Brooks’ character had said and what the movie had been trying to tell us. Notice Brooks had been trying to tell her this, but she doesn’t believe it until she sees something that shows it. The visual will always be the most powerful way to get a message across. Period. (Here’s a link to James L. Brooks’ Oscar-nominated script for the film and a video of the ‘fake tears’ scene.)

3. Think icebergs. The full Chandler quote at the top is this: “The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement. Do as little as possible to make world of your screenplay feel as full as possible. As Chandler says, ‘the effect of leisure and natural movement” is key – we should move along through the story without spending too long in any one place or scene. The story should have a natural logic and our minds should be almost hypnotized into buying its reality. It should be a given that we’re watching a whole world and story unfold, even though we can’t see most of it.  The idea is to hint and suggest a whole world; visual, dimensional, action-filled. Action-filled just means “have things happen,” not necessarily explosions and the like. While leads to

4. All movies are “action” movies. In my time screening scripts, the biggest offenders to the screenplay medium were the scripts in which nothing happened. Don’t forget that a story is a story. Thoughts are thoughts. No matter how interesting or compelling your thoughts are, if they’re not worked into a story, I promise no one will care. The audience will not be invested to care. Stories have been around as long as they have been because there’s a magic there, a subtle seduction at work, where the audience wants to see what happens next. They are just dying to know. (We’ve all watched even bad movies to the end because of this impulse.) Imagine that magic employed for a story that’s worth telling. If you can make this magic happen, you have done your work.

Want help writing or developing a screenplay? Contact Art of Storytelling and work with Jon today. www.artofstorytellingonline.com. We offer a free initial consultation.


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