Screenwriting: Some Practical Issues

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I watched a movie (a short feature) yesterday, made by one of my students, now an enterprising young filmmaker. His attempt is genuinely commendable, his idea and making style, and the pictures that he etched to tell the story demand spontaneous praise and critical accolade. I’m sure he wrote the screenplay himself before he made it into a movie. And he can compare now, what he thought he’d make while he was writing the screenplay, and what he has made out of the screenplay.

I took this sample to discuss the practicality in effectuating a screenplay to its optimal structural efficiency with my students at my Screenwriting Academy Studio ScreenWrite.In; and would like to share with you what came out of the discussion.

Screenwriter writes a screenplay with an objective to structuralize emotional content of the story he works on; and makes dramatic actions and dialogues to bring out those emotions. While the screenwriter writes, his entire concentration and story-telling instincts work toward optimizing the emotional value of the story. He writes with a purpose to convince the director to effectuate those ‘emotions’ audio-visually. What I mean to say here is, the screenwriter doesn’t write exactly for an audience of the film to be made, but for the immediate reader, so to say the director, who makes the film for an audience.

For the same reason, though the screenwriter writes the screenplay with an audience in mind, the audience becomes not directly connected with his writing, unlike a novelist or a poet. The screenwriter would inevitably need a medium called director to connect with the audience or viewer. I’m very definite about this statement even when the writer himself directs the movie, may be, eventually. That’s why it’s all the more important to differentiate, and define the role of screenwriter and director in the process of film making.

So, when the screenwriter gives the screenplay to the director to make it an audio-visual outcome, emotionally viable, and structuralized, the director may not have the mind to exclude or deviate certain crucial elements in the screenplay for the sake of logistic contingencies at the production level or histrionic limitations of actors. But he may be constrained to those conditions as unprecedented and/or unavoidable at the practical exercise of filmmaking. At the same time, he may not have the option to explain to the audience that this happened because of this and it could’ve been done that way had that problem not cropped up at that point of time during production.

And the plight for the screenwriter is that everyone would point a finger at him, because it becomes apparent to the audience as a problem with the screenplay than with any directorial or production glitch. What option can the screenwriter resort to communicate to the audience that it was not his mistake? Nothing. Not possible at all.

Another thing I generally notice among the young, upcoming screenwriters is the ambiguity of theme and character development.

Though the screenwriter is not supposed to indoctrinate at any point of time inside the screen time, s/he should persuade the viewer to instinctively identify a message, a quintessence of the entire plot. Somewhere down the line, the screenwriter has to relate passionately to a ‘core motif’ in the work of structuralizing emotions of the story. S/He cannot leave that as random exercise to the viewer to figure out for themselves. If that’s case, I’d say the screenwriter has failed to create the structure it should have been. I’m afraid many young writers confuse theme with genre.

And, many (novice screenwriters) think they need to work in detail just the protagonist. They either forget or consciously disapprove to make the antagonist as an inevitable necessity of the story. For that, what they need is not just schemed characteristics but a strong, seemingly invincible motivation factor. The motive of every character relevant to the story should have the same detail and character study as the protagonist.

Before I conclude, let me also remind the writer/directors about the importance of cast and rehearsals in voice acting before they roll their cameras for the principal shoot. Whatever is conceived as character and the kind of emotion you’ve been dreaming about through the excruciating labor of screenwriting will just vanish like vapor, if the actors don’t perform; and you won’t have the time either to correct them while they still err during the shoot.

The more of these I’ve just written can only distance the screenwriter from the ultimate viewer farther and farther.


Monday, January 31, 2011


Most of us in our lives want to be flamboyant about our writing talents, especially screenwriting talents. This’s something I’ve seen through my life, as screenwriter, also as a social human being. We really want to think, (at least to please ourselves) we are creators and self-born writers. Sometimes I find a few of those who come to my Screenwriting Academy Studio - ScreenWrite.In seem to carry a style of confidence in them as screenwriters ( not that I hate them or am sarcastic about their demeanor).

But within the inmost cubicles of our conscience, we know for sure, there’s some one who helps us begin to write, or write better, gave us the impetus to take writing as a career, giving innumerable tips to get us to where we are now. I don’t want to discuss about the logic or justice as to why we forgot them or still respect them; but I want just to establish there are such generous minds who had supported us intellectually and professionally as guides to  mark a vocation in screenwriting for us.

In every successful writer’s life there will be someone called ‘mentor’, whether you like to call him a mentor or not. In my life it was my own colleague, a child-hood friend; we were together right from primary school; without his encouragement and help I’d never have been a screenwriter. I still call him by name, not my mentor.

Lots of people will help you on your path to become a professional writer, whether it's forwarding your resume on for a job or giving you notes on your script. But the thing is, not everyone wants to be a mentor. Some people really enjoy helping young writers develop their talent - and some don't. You can't force it to happen. Also, professional writers can be really busy. Please don't take it as a presumed negligence if someone isn't able to help you.

Mentors are someone you find almost similar in gurukula system of teaching; the mentor takes you through a journey of life, where you start experiencing your career. S/He’s your friend, supporter, and leader who shares mostly his own experiences and finds a unique placement for your talents.

In my experience, a mentor/mentee relationship is most likely develop if the A) the person really does want to be a mentor, B) s/he thinks you are a talented writer with a lot of potential, C) you both share the same taste, and D) you've bonded on a personal level. You might meet the friendliest writer in the world, but if he writes romantic comedies, she's probably not the right person to guide you through four drafts of a horror movie.

I'm not sure it's really possible to actively seek out a mentor - and I think it would be awkward to ask a writer to be one. You just have to keep meeting people and see if anything clicks (in my case, it happened organically).

May be, to put it jocularly, you better start looking for a mentor for screenwriting if you had done the following:

a. Duplicate the accomplished. Take Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Godfather’. Change the names to Vikas and Swaroop and Madhuri. Change the city to Mumbai, India. There you are!  

b. Include notes in the margin space: “Dear Reader, please pay attention to the plot point in this scene!”

c. Create a Protagonist who is not proactive, with no desire and motive (think structuring is foolish.)

d. Write detailed cinematographic and directorial instruction like “WIDE-ANGLE SHOT, the actors should imagine they method act,” etcetera.

e. Write a “feature-length” screenplay that is 300 pages long.

f. Make sure nothing happens in the screenplay within the first 10 pages.

g. Paste photos and pictures generously to illustrate your scenes.

h. Use character names that all start with the same letter and are very similar to one another like Vaani, Varadhan, Vally, Vasu, Vasundhara.

i. Write a “feature-length” screenplay that is 30 pages long.

j. Use a crazy font on the cover as big as a newspaper heading and also inside the script to capture the attention of the Reader (never use Courier).

k. Make all text RIGHT adjusted.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

I really wanted to write something else for this edition. But something caught on during my conversation with a few old students of my Screenwriting Academy Studio – ScreenWrite.In about ‘plot’ and ‘story’, that I think now, should share with you what transpired from our discussion, yesterday.

The sort and type of queries I tried to give light to from my experience and readings indicate that there definitely exists some kind of ambiguities in the minds of some students and aspiring writers (at the least) about ‘plot’ and  ‘story’.

Let’s start from a beginning. What’s the definition of plot? This’s what I found from a dictionary relevant to what we need to know:


noun, verb, plot·ted, plot·ting.

2. Also called storyline. the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story.

6. a list, timetable, or scheme dealing with any of the various arrangements for the production of a play, motion picture, etc.: 

Plot is a literary term for the events a story comprises, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, a sequence, through cause and effect, or by coincidence. One is generally interested in how well this pattern of events accomplishes some artistic or emotional effect.  . . .

Here, we find  words related to planning and scheming ‘events’ a story is comprised of, which in turn suggests ‘plot’ and ‘story’ are deferent.  Plot relates to an exercise of making an order of the main events of a work of fiction (or fact). So, Plot differs from story to clearly define how events are related, how they are structured, and how they enact change in the major characters. Example: In a movie such as "Love Actually," the plot and the story are two very different things.

Now, how do you define a ‘story’?

Story is the chain or succession of events in a work of fiction (or fact) as we imagine them to have taken place, in the chronological order in which they would have occurred in life (as opposed to plot). Story can only have chronological order, but plot needn’t. When the plot has a linear order, it can adapt to a structural paradigm like Three Act Structure as Syd Field advocates or when the plot is non-linear or doesn’t resort to any structure at all, it’s called plot variation as in the movie ‘Usual Suspects.’

Whichever be the definitions, ‘plot’ is distinct from ‘story’ and I’d like you to understand one thing. As far as I know, plot and story definitions come one single source, Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle clearly marks ‘plot’ as an arrangement of incidents, and ‘thought’ as the story (the ‘theme’ or the ‘narrative’). Every other definition is derived from these two basic elements.

From my readings, I find story more connected with emotion, and plot more of a structure of story telling. William Goldman: “Stories are emotions and screenplays are structures”. It’s a 'Holistic Force' that can permeate a part of a story or the entire story as a whole. It is a plan. A plot is a storyline and develops like this: what happens first, what happens next, what happens after that, what are the conflicts, what are the resolutions, what is the rising action, the climax of the story, the falling action, what happens at the end.

In most cases it’s the plot that keeps us interested in the story. And good stories always have all the plot elements in them. Ask yourself the following questions regarding "A Jury of Her Peers,( Susan Glaspell )" -- "Why did the author arrange the story elements the way she did? How does she control our emotional response and prepare us for reversals or surprises?"

End Cap:

Plot is also known as: scheme, framework, scenario, progress, artifice, setup, design.

Common Misspellings:

plote, plott.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I’m strictly into a doctoring works these days, now that about seven screenplays are in the process of writing and development. The ‘process of writing’ – a phrase that comes to me right now as I write this blog, is what I really like to explain and share with you some other time. You know why? I almost get about ten queries a day about this ‘process of writing’ from many a student, at my Screenwriting Academy Studio – ScreenWrite.In, as they plunge into the meticulous exercise of writing.

This blog is about the kinds of screenplays. When aspirants come to me, they’re confused about the format and styles and kinds; and wants to differentiate between what I mean by a speculative screenplay, commissioned screenplay and Shoot Script; a Step Outline and Treatment.

SPECULATIVE SCREENPLAY is that one writes on one’s own, without any contract from any producer, but of course, intended to impress one to get it produced. For the same reason there’s no payment involved in the spec screenwriting or any promise for payment foreseen. ‘Specs’ are generally written by aspiring screenwriters to establish their talent as a writer; or to direct the movie themselves. So the intention is to impress the reader – a producer or a representative. And the intention is also for easy reading of the structure and content they have written, not giving too much possible distractions to the reader as to the technical aspects of the picture making process viz. camera angles, edit suggestions or any other technical advices. The spec screenplays don’t carry scene numbers. Specs usually tend to be accepted as originals, but can also be based on written works, real events, or on people living or dead.

Here’s a film that shows how screenwriters move around with their ‘specs’ to get identified in the industry: Dreams on Spec (2007).

COMMISSIONED SCREENPLAY is usually written under a contract. As I have found through my experience, a professional writer is called to work on a topic of interest of the Producer or Studio, for a screenplay already made, or a story already written and/or the rights of the story bought out, or to remake a movie etcetera. As the writer is under a contractual commitment, a mutually agreed remuneration is absolutely present at the very outset. The writer sometimes may even have to work in collaboration with other writers. The format is almost the same as Speculative Screenplays, but most of times may be written as a shoot script with technical details and scene numbers (for the simple reason the project is already on).  

CLOSET SCREENPLAYS, strange enough to be curious about, are screenplays written purposely not to be produced. The intention of the screenwriter here is to write a screenplay to be read by a lone reader or a group (or for just publishing).

The first thing to understand here is that the SHOOT SCRIPT is not another edition of the screenplay. A shoot script is written to help the production of the film go efficiently well.  The most important component that makes shoot script any different from a spec is the scene numbers, and some definite formatting rules to help revisions and rewrites work easier and effective.  To look at Shoot Script in another perspective, is to make the script pages and content convenient for direction and planning to the various departments of production.

A STEP OUTLINE (SOL) is an immediate prelude to any kind of screenplay. A Step Outline is a detailed outline of the proposed action sequences for the screenplay. The purpose of the SOL is to work out story problems at the initial stages of the story development and get feedback from the close friends of the screenwriter, to strengthen plot and character development. It has to have a beginning, middle, and end, character conflicts, act builds if any, story twists, high points of crisis and the story’s resolution. Step Outlines are usually written in small paragraphs and numbered. Each paragraph may represent a collection of scenes or episodes or clearly marked scenes for reversals or plot points. Personally, I’d consider this a vital tool for any screenwriter in the ‘writing process’.

TREATMENT - A detailed, third person, present tense, narrative summary of a script. Treatments are more of prose-writing and help the screenwriter to get a grip on the story at the initial stages of development.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Thanks for all your comments and criticisms about the initial part of this blog – Writer’s Block I. It seemed to me many are either suffering from Block or have experienced it through their many writing attempts.

Of the many comments I received from my students at my Academy Studio – ScreenWrite.In, also from some ingenuous readers, I guess the most prominent was the statement: ‘When one is hungry and crave to fill in, I don’t think anyone will come up with a hunger-block.’  Some liked the idea, and some vehemently said, ‘you can’t compare the psychological necessities to a physical one.

I still believe without any doubt in ‘persistence’ and the ‘priority’ to write. When you have a deadline to meet and you want the money to survive an emotionally-strenuous-and-huge financial imperative without any other alternative within your immediate control, well, you’ll write. You have to.

Or to look at it another way, though I really well know such a thing called ‘Block’ exists and it IS recognized by psychologists or many an intellectual, I don’t want to believe I know it personally, because that’s going to give me another reason for my Block. And I don’t want my students to know about it either, lest they’d reason out for their not-writing.

Robert Mackee, the author of Story, and a much-sought-after screenwriting guru, at one of his lectures chose a parable to recount Writer’s Block. A little child who bruises his knee won’t, at any time sit on the floor where he has fallen down, and think of the best of ways and words to describe his pain and anxiety to someone in the vicinity. On the other hand, he’ll yell out impulsively and run to his mom or dad and say: “Look at me, I’ve hurt my knee”. The right words will come just spontaneously when it’s required. The child has had something to say and he has got the message across quite well; he never put himself to any thinking process to say that.

What Mackee hints at is that Writer’s Block means, ‘the writer has nothing to say’, so the writer has to be persisting and see that he/she says, at the least, something. Once said that something, the writer will carry on with it. What’s said is how well said is a case the writer can take care of later.

From my readings and research here are a few points which may be of help, when grope in the dark:

1. Imagine Writing as Day-to-Day Work, NOT a mammoth Intellectual or Artistic Effort:  In ‘On Writing’, Stephen King the famous author says it’s better we link writing to a physical work instead of a grave psychological endeavor. If we think ourselves as laborers, as craftsmen, it’s easier to sit down and write. At the end of the day, we’re just creating things – stories, poems, or screenplays – only we use vocabulary instead of bricks and mortar.

2. Isolate Core Causes: Evaluate and analyze for yourself the cause of this Block. Is it a fear of failure, a trait of procrastination, not having a computer to write? You can even seek the help of true friends to isolate the root cause – whether it is internal or external; then, you can make a plan of action to surmount them.

3. Allow Optimal Time for your Project: May be your ideas for a specific Project need their own time to conceptualize. May be you need time to look around you, and find new experiences from life, or reading or watching or hearing from others the many inputs you need for your writing.

4. Don’t Criticize Yourself While You Write: This seems to be a vital reason for many aspiring writers not to write. They look for perfection in the first draft. We all have this over-emphatic desire to impress ourselves too fast. I always tell my students completion is the first perfection when it comes to writing screenplays. There’s a time you can make your writing revised and polished to make it impeccably shining. Anna Quindlin had said, "People have Writer’s Block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently."

5. Habituate to Writing: This again, I believe is a very plausible thing to do, if we aspire to be professional writers. May be, this’s almost another perspective to the point 1 we have discussed above. Like we brush your teeth, have our breakfast or watch the evening news on television, habituate to writing everyday. When that becomes part of our routine, we find ourselves at loss when we don’t do it physically.

Well, I don’t want to say things like the gurus out there, but these that I have found, seems to 
help us around in times of need ‘when we have nothing to say.’ And I found this wonderful website to help any writer come out of Writer’s Block. The intention of this website looked truly generous and fantastic to me:

And before I conclude, I’ll post some quotes which may be of use to many who look for a beacon in the maze of their Writers' Block:

"Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write."

"One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily."

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."

"I've often said that there's no such thing as writer's block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen--whether I'm working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book--it's usually because I'm trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place."

 "I carry a notebook with me everywhere. But that's only the first step. Ideas are easy. It's the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats."

3. Cope with the Badness
"Don't get it right, just get it written."

"If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word."

"I think writer's block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible. But as a writer, I believe that if you sit down at the keys long enough, sooner or later something will come out."

"I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."

"I set myself 600 words a day as a minimum output, regardless of the weather, my state of mind or if I'm sick or well."

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

"If you want to write, write it. That's the first rule."

"My block was due to two overlapping factors: laziness and lack of discipline."

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining--researching--talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."

"To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write."

"The writer's duty is to keep on writing."

Happy writing folks!!!!!


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

These days I find many of my students at the Academy Studio – ScreenWrite.In come up with the answer very often: “I was not in a mood to write” or “I don’t think I’m getting the right thing to write”, some even say straight, “I have a Writer’s Block.”

Is there a Writer's Block at all? Or is it one’s reason just to avoid what one should be doing – write? I’m of the opinion Writer's’ Block is another name for your priority to do something at a given time. If your priority is to write, well you write. When one is hungry and crave to fill in, I don’t think anyone will come up with a Hungryman's-Block. Ha Ha!

This’s a quote I like very much and I have posted this in facebook long back: "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." (Mary Heaton Vorse)

Well, I’m not being cynical, and I do agree most of the screenwriters and writers will have trouble with Writer's Block at some point in their lives.

From my experience of having seen other screenwriters work, also having written many a screenplay, I can well understand the many many hitches during the process of writing. Writing is of course a journey, like life itself, like the story one writes itself. Trepidation, anxiety, a life change, financial commitments, the end of a project, the beginning of a project…almost anything, it seems, can cause that particular feeling of fear and frustration in the writer.

Let me ask you something: What's the most arduous part of writing? Or, what phase of the writing process gives you the most of burden? Is it developing the story? Structuralizing emotions? Rewriting? Revising? Editing?

For many of us, the hardest part of all is ‘getting started’. Sitting down in front of a computer screen or a blank sheet of paper, facing a blank wall, and--and nothing.

"The easiest thing to do on earth is ‘not write’."

We really will want to write. We may be facing a deadline that should compel us to write. But instead of feeling motivated or inspired, we grow anxious and frustrated. And those negative feelings can make it even harder to get started. That's what we call "Writer's Block."  

Or sometimes, even after we start writing with labored focus, making time to write will always be something of a struggle. With friends and family, financial obligations, and emotional issues all vying for our attention, it takes determination to make a writing schedule and stick to it. Writer's Block, of course.

When asked about the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, novelist Ernest Hemingway said, "A blank sheet of paper." And none other than the Master of Terror himself, Stephen King, said that the "scariest moment is always just before you start [writing]. After that, things can only get better."
It’s interesting to read what’s found in Wikipedia on Writers’ Block:

Writer's Block is a condition, associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity. It can be trivial, a temporary difficulty in dealing with the task at hand. At the other extreme, some "blocked" writers have been unable to work for years on end, and some have even abandoned their careers. It can manifest as the affected writer viewing their work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite.

Writer's Block may have many or several causes. Some are essentially creative problems that originate within an author's work itself. A writer may run out of inspiration. The writer may be greatly distracted and feel he or she may have something that needs to be done beforehand. A project may be fundamentally misconceived, or beyond the author's experience or ability. A fictional example can be found in George Orwell's novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, in which the protagonist Gordon Comstock struggles in vain to complete an epic poem describing a day in London: "It was too big for him, that was the truth. It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments."

In her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain (ISBN 9780618230655), the writer and neurologist Alice W. Flaherty has argued that literary creativity is a function of specific areas of the brain, and that block may be the result of brain activity being disrupted in those areas.

(to be continued . . .)


Saturday, January 8, 2011

All these years of my writing I’ve been asking myself a question, hundreds of times – what do I have to write as screenplay, so many people like it. At the same time I wanted them to know that I wrote it. OMG! It’s a tough nut to crack.

And this question came up again at the Academy Studio - ScreenWrite.In when a few of my student-writers gathered to work on their screenplays which are getting produced soon.

You can't make films about something the audience knows nothing about. The trick is getting the audience to tell their own stories in the story so that they know what will happen. And then, just before they get bored, you surprise them and move the story in a new direction.

You may call it a theory or a system or whatever but the basic idea is that you’re very much part of an audience with a life, regularly pulsating, emotionally binding, trying to make meanings about many things we are all ignorant and wary about than you’re a writer. At the same time, a writer also wonders about the ignorance and unpredictability of life, which he relives to make meanings.

As many writers had long interpreted, a writer lives, at best, in a state of astonishment. Beneath any feeling he has of the good or evil of the world, lies a deeper feeling of wonder at it. Writing stories is an exercise of dreaming of course, but paradoxically, conscious dreaming, and so, necessarily not apart from living. It’s of course, a double living. 

For the same reason, I believe, a writer needn’t be known personally, but by his reliving in his products – his stories. And only those who need him would know where to find him. That would be sometimes filmmakers, sometimes audiences or sometimes characters themselves long lost in the maze of those wakeful imaginings.

If this is the kind of story that screenwriters select to write for films to communicate, screenplays literally provide the ingredients to make it happen. For the same reason, it becomes a blue print for just emotions and not literary depth and display. It works as an effective catalyst for the story to be told well, audio visually and the emotions carved and guided to the optimal peaks.

And if the screenwriter has to show this great art of structuralizing emotions, he has to wear the attire of a composer of music as he writes. It involves a lot of technique, a lot of rules, a lot systematic specifics and a lot of knowledge of how people respond to emotional packages. A good screenwriter must be aware of all that. If you don’t know the rules you can’t challenge them or break them.

I believe that film is built up with completely banal stories, which everyone knows. But what makes it plausible, attentive and remembered is channeling a unique emotional approach and definitions. And I believe, that is incomparably personal of the screenwriter; and depends on the life experiences and awareness of the many pockets of life conditions the writer has gone through or can identify as emotional springs to mark in his structuralizing labor. That’s what really matters. Only that matters.