Balancing Form and Function in the Screenplay

April 23, 2010

I recently added a Rod Serling quote to my Writer Quotations collection—a quote passed on to me by my writer friend Jeff Schnaufer—that I find both inspiring and cautionary:

“Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”  (Rod Serling)

I purposely sandwiched this new addition in between the two following quotes on my On Narrative and Storytelling page because of their connected theme:

Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”  (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

In art, the obvious is a sin.”  (Edward Dmytryk)

Here’s the thing though…

How do you balance these harmonious, complementary words with this seemingly antithetical advice from an equally esteemed individual:

Don’t write so that you can be understood — write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”  (William Howard Taft, U.S. President)

Sure: since President Taft isn’t known for his creative writing, you could write it off (pardon the pun) as being less relevent advice.   But here is why I do not disregard it;  what writer has not experienced the frustration of finding that their carefully crafted message—which seemed sufficiently clear when they wrote it—confused the reader, or generated an unexpected and undesired response?  

Whether you’re writing a story or just a simple e-mail message, you know what I’m talking about here, right?

And you KNOW that misunderstanding can happen easily with creative writing in particular.  Words have different meanings.  Phrases have different meanings … potential subtext, for instance … that a writer must continually consider.   That’s part of the appeal of creative writing—that words have so much potential to carry meaning and symbolism and emotion, and it’s a ton of fun to play with it, to mold it.   But those very possibilities also invite misinterpretation. 

So, while “the obvious” in a screenplay may be a sin … 

The inobvious or misconstrued is a cardinal sin

… because a screenplay is only sorta’ kinda’ art, Mr. Dmytryk.  It is also a blueprint.  An instruction manual.  So, I try to write the screenplay to entertain, as you advise, Mr. Goldman (“Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend.  It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”), but a screenplay can never sell if it is just artful.  Writing the screenplay artfully is a great goal, but it must also be written so that it cannot be misunderstood.  It must also communicate, initially to production company execs and then, if sold, to production technicians and artisans. 

To write a screenplay effectively, I try to step outside myself and consider my audience’s frame of reference.  Then, with that perspective firmly in mind, I hope to write in a way that I will not be misunderstood, even as I work to make the reading of it a fun ride.

We’ll see.

Anyone else struggle with this balancing act between form and function in creative writing?  Let’s talk about it.


April 18, 2010

You maybe noticed:  there’s been a cacaphony of silence around here.  Deafening silence.  For weeks!

Yeah, what’s up with that?

Right.  Couple reasons:

  • My creative writing has been on vacation since my last post, due to a storm surge of incoming new clientele at WriteWorks—my business writing and editing company.   The demands of the client deadlines superseded my screenwriting goals.
  • The same week I delivered the screenplay’s step outline to the producer, as mentioned in this post, the producer left the country to begin producing another project that was already fully funded. 

If you know much about film producing, you understand that a producer has little time to work on project development while in the midst  of production on another project.  And without producer feedback on my step sheet, any further screenplay development I do could easily be a waste of time.  

A waste of time? How so?

Let me give you an example.  The original screenplay I wrote for Contract Killers (originally titled Branded) was about a man who, set up for a murder rap, escapes the U.S. authorities, and disappears into the Caribbean to chase down clues that will exonerate him and ensnare the true killer.  But if you have seen Contract Killers the movie, you know that it was a woman, not a man, who is on the run, trying to prove her innocence and catch the true killer.

So, how did that change happen?

For marketing reasons, the producer felt that he needed the lead to be female, not male.  That’s a fine choice—machs nichts to me—except that, if I had known that preference before I wrote the script…


This change of the lead role from male to female had huge implications for the story.  And since this change request came after I had completed the first draft of the screenplay, several scenes and many of the characters I created had to be eliminated; the dynamics of making the story about a female on the run instead of a man required many, many changes throughout the story.   I estimate that some 40 to 80 hours of story development were flushed down the toilet from that one little change request. 

But don’t changes always happen to a screenplay before and during production?

Yes.  The “completed” script that someone or some company liked enough to buy, is often changed after the screenwriter sells it.  Filmmaking is such a collaborative art that many voices—some valid—ultimately have a say in what goes into the story and onto the screen.   That is normal enough, albeit frustrating to the writer—for a completed script to be re-completed a dozen or more times. 

But what is not as normal, and is to be avoided, are root structure changes—those kinds of changes that completely alter the path that the story is on.   Changing a location? Not usually a big deal.  Changing the order of certain events?  Killing a certain character by merging it into another?  Probably not a big deal. 

But changing the motives of the lead character?  or changing the story from a drama to a comedy? or changing the lead from a him to a her?  These are root structure changes that effectively make it a whole new story.

And that, you see, is what I’m hoping to avoid

If I hold off on screenplay development until the producer reads the step outline and agreees with the basic structure, elements, and character, then I will likely save myself from dozens or even hundreds of hours of story development that ultimately gets tossed because I didn’t first get this buy-off from the producer.

The good news is that the producer has wrapped his last project and is now turning his attention back to this one.  So I hope to get that prized story feedback from him in the next few days.