I just finished reading the screenplay for the movie The Princess Bride by William Goldman, and it was, in my opinion, a page turner. I was spellbound, unable to put it down.
You know what’s strange about that? It’s a screenplay, not a novel. And, by the nature of the beast, screenplays are…
Not designed to be spellbinding
By nature, a screenplay is effectively a blueprint—a kind of instruction manual for assembling a movie. By nature, it isn’t written for the enjoyment of the consumer. So it’s unnatural when reading a screenplay feels natural: pleasurable.
But isn’t a screenplay meant to tell a story too?
Yes, of course. But, in a screenplay, that conveyance of the story is stilted—structured in a way that it is inevitably non-narrative: not easily read with the familiar, graceful sentence-to-sentence and paragraph-to-paragraph flow of the standard narrative form, such as you would expect in a short story or novel.
No, the screenplay is broken up visually into a series of mismatched text chunks of varying widths, alignment justifications, and capitalization rules, something like this:
So it’s a strain to the reader’s mind to consistently entertain and maintain the flow of the story as it hopscotches its way through the tangled form of the screenplay.
In spite of all this, reading this William Goldman screenplay—in fact, reading just about any of his screenplays—was as captivating as reading a good novel. Which should come as no surprise, given his own words on this:
“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason—I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.’” (from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)
From that same book, in his essay about writing the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay, he points out that:
“We all want the movies we write to get made. And that’s only going to happen if someone likes the script. Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend. It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.” (William Goldman)
That’s a great thing for me to remember as I approach the transition from constructing the step outline to writing the screenplay, as I now am. While it’s important to follow the industry-standard constructs of the screenplay format—to not do so could be a distraction to the reader—doing so doesn’t prevent the writer from making the process of the reading more enjoyable for the executive than the guh-zillion others they’re reading this weekend.
Consider an example of this from The Princess Bride screenplay:
Finally INIGO goes back to cliff edge, starts to talk. It’s instant death if the MAN IN BLACK falls, but neither gives that possibility much credence. This is our two heroes meeting. They don’t know it yet; but that’s what it is.
The last two sentences do two things; first, they tell the screenplay reader (who is usually going to be a producer or director or a hired reader initially, but me in this case) something important about this scene that the viewer will either not know at all, or may only be subconsciously aware of. Second, these words allow Goldman to draw me into the tale, creating anticipation, while making sure that I understand the spinal significance of this moment, which may not be fully clear this early in the story.
He also uses a lot of humor in his screenplays for the benefit of no one but the reader. Consider this example from the same script:
…And what we are starting now is one of the two greatest swordfights in modern movies (the other one happens later on), and right from the beginning…
These words are never spoken by the characters. In fact, both of these example passages are from descriptions of actions within scenes: words the viewer will never witness or hear. They’re only written for the benefit of the director, the producer, and others involved in the making of the movie.
Goldman does that a lot, and with all his screenplays (of the nine I’ve read, anyway). Which makes the reading enjoyable, and even sort of makes the reader feel special … privileged. Like they’re in on something secret. Given his commercial success, I’d say this writing technique works; his movies are getting made because the executives with the power to greenlight them are enjoying the ride of reading his screenplays.
You can read more of Goldman’s wise words to the writer in my writer quotations collection.