Screenwriting – Is it Worth the Study?

screen writing

If you are as much of a writer as you are a film geek, then perhaps screenwriting is something that tickles your fancy. But is it really worth studying this style of writing in order to be a good screenwriter? Annique shares her thoughts on the matter.

Before I even begin, I would like to remind you that this article does not investigate the question of whether or not the study of screenwriting is necessary. I can answer that one for you quite quickly – no, it’s not. However, is it worth it? In my opinion, yes.

I am by no means an experienced screenwriter. The biggest success I can claim thus far is having won the UCT Robin Cohen Prize for the best Senior Research Project (my screenplay) in third year. I still plan to make something of that story.

I am not here to talk about how to be a good screenwriter, or to give you a magic writing formula. I am here to encourage any aspiring screenwriter to consider a basic training in the art and skill of writing a film or TV script.

The UCT Screenwriting Production Course

I only heard about the screenwriting course towards the end of my first year at varsity. The course is one of the specialised production streams available from UCT’s Film & Media department and starts midway through second year up until the end of third year.

Since one of my majors was Film (theory), and I have always loved creative writing, applying for the course was self-evident to me. After compiling the required portfolio and motivational letter, I was accepted into the course, and my degree changed from a general BA to a named degree. In 2013, I graduated with a distinction in my BA in Film & Media Production degree with specialisation in screenwriting.

The Technicalities of the Script

In essence, a screenplay is to a film like an architect’s blueprint is to a building construction, or like a music sheet is to an orchestra. It tells everyone what needs to be done in order to collaborate and achieve the final envisioned product. A solid, good screenplay with captivating dialogue is the key ingredient to a great film. Without a script, there is nothing.

Screenplays have a very strict format and demand specific writing conventions to convey information to all the departments involved in the production of the film. There are standardised rules regarding the script format – for example, the font and spacing, as well the text layout. It’s quite formulaic, because not only does the screenplay communicate the narrative (the story), dialogue, and the essence of the characters, but it contains all the information and instructions necessary to get it from paper onto the screen.

Everyone involved in making the script into a film extracts important elements from the way you have written it – and I mean everyone – the producer, the director, the actors, the art director, the make-up artists, the cinematographer, the costume designer, the locations manager, the editor… and anyone else involved in the production!

Have a look at this video by FilmmakerIQ where John Hess talks about The Origins and Formatting of Modern Screenplays.

Studying Screenwriting/ Scriptwriting

Lovely. We all agree that a screenplay is the most important thing ever, and that it needs to contain all the information for the story to be produced as a film.

If you want to become a screenwriter and write visual stories, then you need to learn the art of screenwriting and its conventions. As I have said, it is not necessary to study this.

You can learn the basic formula of how to write a screenplay by

  • learning it from someone else who knows the drill
  • reading books on how to write one (check out Linda Aronson’s The 21st Century Screenplay)
  • reading other screenplays – any screenwriter should be doing this in any case (you should find most scripts available online for free – for example on IMSDb, or just Google whichever screenplay you want and usually there will be a link to the Pdf)
  • turning to the Internet or other sources that explain the conventions etc. (if you have Facebook, join the group Screenwriting – sometimes people post very useful links to blogs, videos, competitions, or articles about screenwriting, and members can ask each other for advice or opinions).

However, nothing substitutes practical experience. It can be extremely useful to dedicate some time to a screenwriting course or workshop that will drill these conventions into you and help you take the first steps toward becoming a skilled screenwriter. The more skillfully you can write your script, the higher the chances that the director will translate the story in the way that you picture it. You aren’t supposed to instruct the director what to do, but with crafty screenwriting knacks, you can steer him or her in the direction that you want. The more you practice writing in these technical confinements, the easier it will become to let your creative vision ooze through the format’s limitations.

Here are some benefits from attending studies/courses/workshops in screenwriting:

  • work closely with an experienced screenwriter or industry person
  • hear about direct industry-related experiences and personal tips (and ask as many questions as you can)
  • get supervised practice with the screenwriting format and conventions
  • learn how to use screenwriting programmes (for example Celtx – I always use this one. It’s free and does the job.)
  • receive personalised and detailed feedback on your script (from your teacher, as well as class mates)
  • practice writing for different screen media – feature films, sitcoms, etc.
  • learn how to pitch your script and get to know the importance of a logline (that catchy line that sells your idea)

The study of screenwriting has slowly become more and more respectable, as the world is starting to appreciate it as an art form.

At UCT, students even have the opportunity to write a screenplay for their Honours and Masters, in place of an academic Thesis! If you want to find out more about undergraduate and postgraduate screenwriting courses at UCT, visit the Centre for Film & Media Studies website.

Points to Consider for Aspiring Screenwriters

  • Let it go. Screenwriting is a collaboration.

The film will never look exactly like you envision it when you write the screenplay, not even if you direct it yourself. In some cases the screenplay is hardly recognisable in the end product, because once you sell your screenplay, any changes made are out of your hands.

You need to learn to let go – if you keep your script tucked under your pillow, because you are too scared that someone will mess it up or fail to get your vision, you might never get to see your story on the screen at all. If a director completely fails your vision, it means that either your script is badly written, or he or she is a…tart.

I admit I am being a bit of hypocrite here… Letting go and handing over your script is not easy. Even just to have someone read and make suggestions can be a hurdle (How dare you challenge the presence of that random poster in the background?!). It’s ridiculous how protective we get.

  • Your creative inner genius will have to suck it up at times.

Screenwriting can limit your creativity. The format and writing conventions prevent you from writing anything that you cannot see on the screen – it’s all about ‘show, don’t tell.’ For example, you can’t write, “As he watched her walk hand in hand with another man, he felt the walls of his heart collapse in surrender to the end of their love.” No, no, no. No one can see that literally on the screen. You would need to reduce it to, “As he watches her walk hand in hand with another man, we see a flinch of pain travel across his face.” We can see the flinch on the screen, which implies his inner turmoil visually. Get it?

Also, budget constraints can make it very frustrating to write if you are used to the abundance of limitless, creative writing like in fictional prose or poetry. In a novel, for example, you can dress your characters in whatever you want, no questions asked. But a producer might say, “Look, we can’t afford to dress Character X in Armani exclusively. Can you please add some H&M to his wardrobe…and actually, in the breakfast scene – can he please eat local Cheddar instead of imported Camembert?” I think you get my point.

  • Don’t rely on Screenwriting to generate your income.

It’s really, really tough to make a success of Screenwriting. If you want someone else to produce your film, you need to write what sells. Or else, produce it yourself.

Especially in South Africa, screenwriters don’t experience success easily, and those that do tend to be involved with writing for TV, not film. In his article Screenwriting: You Get What You Pay For, Kevin Kriedemann investigates whether there is a business model for being a screenwriter in South Africa. It’s a very insightful article, and a bit of a reality-check. How much do screenplays go for? What can a professional screenwriter earn in SA and abroad? If these are questions that interest you, definitely check out his article.

Conclusions…

You don’t need to spend years studying and learning how to write screenplays. It’s not necessary to have any specific degree or tertiary qualification to sit down and start writing the next big blockbuster.  But dedicating a bit of your time to a basic training in screenwriting is definitely worth it, because once the foundations of formatting and screenwriting conventions are set, and you understand plot structures and narrative arcs, you can go wild – even play with new structures. So even if you choose screenwriting as an elective or attend a weekend workshop, this will without a doubt be very valuable.

EduConnect 2cents

If you are struggling to write a specific scene because you’re not sure what the formatting is, refer to the script of a film that features a similar scene. For example, if you want to write a dream sequence, but you’re not sure how to translate your imagination into technical screenplay lingo – think of a similar scene from a movie you have watched, then see how that scene was written in the script.  You can use it as a reference, and tweak it to make it your own.

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