Today is Sunday, which is blog day. It is also ‘loaf about’ day, ‘get the washing and ironing done’ day, ‘potter round garden day’ and ‘finish off the screenplay beat sheet day’. It is 11.30 am and I am staring at an acid blue sky, sipping tea and contemplating whether I should do a little bit of weeding before tackling these pressing issues. Resisting the weed cull, I’m now actually writing, skipping between the beat-sheet and the blog with an admirable sense of commitment, if not a heightened word count.
Writing a screenplay is a very different experience to writing a novel. Both require clear visual descriptions and both rely on prose to achieve it. Each progresses through the use of dialogue and narrative and needs to have a well-structured story, with a beginning, middle and end and have believable characterisation. Theoretically the transition from one to another shouldn’t be too painful, particularly as they are both the same genre. However, whereas the e-reader or page is the only interface between novelist and reader, the screenplay is a sales document or a statement of intent, which will be altered and interpreted at every stage of its transition, if it is amongst the very few to get further than the optioned stage.
Once the idea is settled on the first stage is to write the treatment, this is usually about fifteen pages long and tells the story in prose form. It is often the first stage in acquiring development money for the project, so care needs to be taken to make this succinct but palatable. It should create visuals in the producer’s mind, without wasting time on too much description; you are not the set designer. It should also be realistic in terms of whether this is low budget or a studio breaker. If there are hundreds of authentic Tudor costumes, spaceships or dinosaurs this is not cheap. Low budget is generally contemporary, minimum sets, stunts, special effects and cast, a good example of this being ‘Blair Witch Project’.
Once your story holds together then you have to create a beat sheet. This is a working document and breaks the screenplay down into scenes. You’re not ready at this stage to start adding INT (interior)/EXT (exterior), it’s more of a list of events. It can be meandering or pithy, it really doesn’t matter because this is for you, the writer. Until you have created the first draft, everything you write is designed to help you hit the mark and bring the story to a close on page 95. Yes, it’s that prescriptive. The first act (boy meets girl) is designed to set the story and characters up but should end round about page 25, where an event will take place that will change the fortunes and path of the protagonist. Act two is the longest and should be about 45 minutes long. This is where the major conflict will take place (boy loses girl) and the final act will resolve and reveal all (boy wins girl). That’s very simplified but basically it. Structure is crucial in a screenplay.
If I can get the beat sheet finished by this evening, I will begin to map out the scenes tomorrow morning. This will involve a pack of small plain cards and a corkboard. Each card will have a heading, which notes whether it’s inside or out, day or night, where the action takes place and a brief summary of the scene. Every one will be placed in order, so I can get a clear idea of whether I have sufficient material, whether the story hits the beats and where the gaps are. If I don’t, this is the point that it will really show.
So, back to it but first another cup of tea and a little walk round the garden…Just to check on the state of the weeds.