On Screenwriting

9 Jul

I’ve read probably hundreds of scripts, for TV pilots & episodes, feature films, stage plays- you name it, I’ve read it. This is in thanks, in part, to my two internships at development houses, but I have also read many scripts on my own. Thanks to the internet I’ve downloaded copies of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script for The Dark Knight, as well as episodes of LOST. By now, I have also written four features, many shorts, and one TV pilot. And yet, I still feel as if I have no idea how to write a script. I don’t mean to incriminate myself as a poor or unconfident writer, I simply mean to express the loose format of screenplays. No one really knows how to write a screenplay, because there’s no one way to do it. The same could be said for novels, or any written work outside of a five-paragraph grade school essay, but screenplays stand out because they are so structured, and yet so many of the scripts I’ve encountered seem determined to ignore the classic format for no other reason than to stand out from the crowd. Some scripts I read went so far as to totally abandon scene headers, i.e. the INT. BEDROOM – DAY you see at the top of every scene in a script. On the one hand, this makes the script easier to read and it flows much better– it’s like actually reading a movie. On the other hand, the reader sometimes forgets where exactly the action is taking place and what time of day it is, and of course your production manager is going to kill you when they realize there’s no scene numbers.

I feel I have already found my own personal screenwriting voice, but I am always looking to learn more from writers I admire, to find what I think is the perfect style for writing scripts, the perfect balance between structure and entertainment. Which is why I was disappointed to discover that many of the LOST scripts I had downloaded were terribly written. Let me elaborate: obviously the content is just as great as it is on screen. The characters are the same, the dialogue, the events that take place- that is identical to what we saw on television. But the style is, frankly, horrendous. Scripts are obviously more informal than prose, but LOST’s writers take it to the next level. Reading the action paragraphs feels like I’m having an episode recapped for me by a foul-mouthed pubescent boy. There’s a swear word in every other sentence, for example, this line from the script for Season 2 episode “Two For the Road,” written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and Christina M. Kim, in which the then-Henry Gale attacks Ana Lucia:

“And before she can fucking process anything, Henry’s SWINGS HIS TIED HANDS UP AND SMASHES THE PORCELAIN FOOD BOWL RIGHT INTO THE SIDE OF HER FUCKING HEAD!”

The word “fuck” actually appears 96 times throughout the script, “shit” 10 times. The writers even go so far as to put “fucking” in parentheses in one of Kate’s lines, to imply that she would have said the swear if LOST weren’t on ABC, which I can only imagine confused the fuck out of Evangeline Lily when she read the script. Moments that are shocking or impactful on the finished episode, are rendered stupid and oddly hilarious when coupled with capitalized expletives. For instance, when Henry Gale tells Locke that he was sent by the Others to bring him back with him, instead of writing “Locke stares at Henry, dumbfounded,” or “Locke takes a step back, his eyes widening with shock,” Sarnoff and Kim decide to follow up such a big revelation with this:

“HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT.”

This, like so many other big and emotional moments in the script are marred and often twisted into jokes due to the curses. In fact, I found the fucks and shits so incredibly frustrating that I couldn’t even get through the whole script. It was like reading an episode of LOST written by someone suffering from Tourette’s.

Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse try to pose an argument for why exactly their scripts are so foul, in the liner notes for the Season 3 soundtrack:

“If you were to open any LOST script you’d find two things that would probably surprise you: lots of swear words and references to Michael Giacchino. Now before you draw conclusions, the two are not related in the way you might think. But both serve an important purpose for us as writers: they exist to convey emotion – emotion above and beyond the expected. Our prodigious use of expletives is our way of amplifying the intensity of what we put on the page.”

Okay, that’s sweet and all, but unfortunately, your curse words don’t add any emotion AT ALL. If anything they only serve to detract from it and piss the reader off. Look, I got no problem with swear words. People who know me know I don’t exactly have the vocabulary of a princess, and my blog is rife with curses. Take this description of The Oregon Trail I wrote, for instance:

“I first played it in the 3rd grade at school, because it was designed to be ‘educational.’ I guess, if you consider a very vague history lesson on the Oregon Trail to be educational. But who gives a shit. The whole point of this game was naming all the characters after people you didn’t like and watching them die one by one of cholera. Then burying their asses. And pushing those oxen to their fucking limit. Oh, the river’s flooded? I don’t give a shit!!!! Those oxen can fucking handle it!!!!”

But this isn’t some doofus’ blog we’re talking about, this is an actual, published script for a highly regarded TV show with a full writing staff and lots of money. There should be some modicum of professionalism within it, some semblance that the the people writing it are actual writers. I mean, reading “Two For the Road” felt like reading the outline or notes for the episode, not the episode itself. It was as if Sarnoff & Kim sat down one day and just farted their brains out onto a copy of FinalDraft and sent it off to Darlton without even re-reading it. It’s appalling, and at first it shocked me because I thought, “Is this the way everyone writes scripts?”

Wow. Never knew you guys were such fucking pottymouths.

NO. No it is not. I know, I know- I’m not a real screenwriter… yet. I didn’t write one of the best TV shows ever made. But I have read hundreds of scripts, some by famous writers like Aaron Sorkin, and I can safely say that most writers do not write like this. You know why? Because it’s childish and unprofessional and it detracts from the content. Now, I’ll agree that it’s okay to use swear words in action paragraphs every once in a while- for instance if someone falls down I’m not gonna write “butt,” or “backside,” I’m gonna say they fell on their ass. An example of a writer who does this well is J.J. Abrams. I’ve read the LOST and Fringe pilots and both are excellent, although the original Olivia, named Olivia Warren, is much more of a stereotypical weepy woman than the badass FBI agent she ended up becoming. Abrams occasionally throws in a “fucking” to describe something awesome, but NOT ON EVERY SINGLE LINE. His writing exemplifies what Darlton said in the liner notes: using a swear word sparingly can help to amp up the action. Using it all the time? That’s just sloppy, and there’s no excuse for it.

I come from a prose background. I read books by the dozens when I was little (a skill I wish I had retained) and aspired to be a novelist. I even wrote two novels, one in 2004 and one in 2007. So I think I put a little more effort into the wording of the action paragraphs in my scripts than your average screenwriter. I assume most writers (Aaron Sorkin not included) feel that since the only people who are going to read their work are those who will pay for it and produce it, it’s not that important to make it nice to read. It’s an art form, but really, to most writers, it’s more of a craft, and therefore it’s not essential to put all your effort into making it sound beautiful. The dialogue’s what counts; everything else is just business. But that’s not how I approach it. I want to be proud of the finished product, as proud of it as I would be with any novel. Using some florid prose to describe what’s happening shows you really care about the story and the characters. But at the end of the day, there’s simply no excuse for replacing the description of how a line of dialogue has affected one of your principal characters with “HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT.” It’s obnoxious, and frankly, it’s convinced me that I don’t need to read LOST scripts to learn how to be a better TV writer. As odd as that may sound, it’s the truth.

I guess in the long run I’m glad I didn’t become a writer for LOST.

…wait…no I’m not…

…dammit…

2 Responses to “On Screenwriting”

  1. Feitelogram 09. Jul, 2010 at 2:52 pm #

    The truth you are running up against here is that what we consider to be “writing”, especially for films, is actually a much more multifarious thing than we think of. The script is interpreted by directors, producers, actors. Even when some of those people are the same, the way in which they understand their own work can differ from a different reading by an uninformed eye. Even the Coens write “thin” scripts, while relatively unscripted films (like Mike Leigh films) have been praised for their screenwriting.

    The truth is that you write something that communicates strongly on page, or you convince someone else you can, either by making something that seems “well-written” or through bull-shit. Amos Poe used to tell me that you have a successful screenplay if only one person has to read it before it is made.

    The point is not to bemoan the crazy world, but just to poke it with a stick and see where there’s a hole, like a mouse in a big wheel of cheese.

  2. TheHil 09. Jul, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    Ah, I love Amos Poe. What can I say, I’m a guy who likes to bemoan. That’s why I have a blog category called “You Know What Grinds My Gears?” My point was though, that it was disappointing to discover that a group of writers I really respected, while great storytellers, seemed to treat their scripts like some kind of in-joke, rather than a work of art.

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