The Blank Page
The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write.
A short time ago, I was having dinner with a group of friends, and as is so often the case, the subject turned to movies. We talked about films we had seen, films we liked, films we didn’t like, and what we liked or disliked about them, which covered a broad spectrum ranging from the acting performances to the editing and photography to the music, special effects, and so on. We talked about some of the great moments in films, lines of dialogue that still reside in our awareness, and while the conversation was intriguing and stimulating, what I really found so interesting was that nobody made any mention of the screenplay. It was as if the script didn’t exist. When I mentioned that fact, the only response I got was, “Oh yeah, it was a great script,” and that’s about as far as it went.
I immediately noticed a short pause in the conversation, and then one of the other guests, an actress and television talk show host, mentioned she had written a book and several of her friends wanted her to turn it into a screenplay. She confessed she felt she needed a “partner” to help her take her novel, her own story, and write it as a screenplay.
When I asked why, she explained she was frightened of “confronting” the blank sheet of paper. But she had already written the novel, I replied, so how could she be frightened about turning it into a screenplay? Was it the form that challenged her? Or the visual description of images, the sparseness of dialogue, or the structure that frightened her? We discussed it for a while and as she was trying to explain her feelings, I realized many people have that same fear. Even though she was a published author, she was afraid of dealing with the blank page. She didn’t know exactly what to do or how to go about doing it.
This is not such an unusual scenario. Many people have great ideas for a screenplay but when they actually sit down to write it they are seized by fear and insecurity because they don’t know how to go about actually doing it.
Screenwriting is such a specific craft that unless you know where you’re going, it’s very easy to get lost within the maze of the blank page. The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write. If you
don’t know what your story is about, who does? Throughout my many years of teaching screenwriting, both here and abroad, people approach me all the time and tell me they want to write a screenplay. They say they have a great idea, or a brilliant opening scene, or a fantastic ending, but when I ask them what their story is about, their eyes glaze over, they stare off into the distance and tell me it’ll all come out in the story. Just like Miles when he tries to describe what his novel is about to Maya in Sideways
When you sit down and tell yourself that you’re going to write a screenplay, where do you begin? With the dream of a heroic action like the Max Fischer character (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore
(Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson)? With still photographs that show us the era in which your story takes place, like the Great Depression in Seabiscuit
(Gary Ross)? In a darkened bedroom, with a clock ticking loudly and two people moaning in sexual passion, like Shampoo
(Robert Towne and Warren Beatty)?
If you tell yourself you want to write a screenplay and then vow to commit weeks, months, or even years writing it, how do you confront the blank page? Where does the writer begin? It’s a question I hear at workshops and seminars all the time.
Does the writer begin with a person, location, title, situation, or theme? Should he/she write a treatment, outline it, or write the book first and then the screenplay? Questions, questions, questions. All those questions really reflect the
question: How do you take an unformed idea, a vague notion, or a gut feeling and transfer that into the roughly 120 pages of words and pictures that make up a screenplay?
Writing a screenplay is a process—an organic, ever-changing, evolving stage of growth and development. Screenwriting is a craft that occasionally rises to the level of art. Like all literary arts, whether fiction or nonfiction, plays or short stories, there are definite stages a writer works through while fleshing out an idea. The creative process is the same no matter what you’re writing.
When you sit down to write a screenplay and confront the blank page, you have to know what story you’re writing. You only have one hundred twenty pages to tell your story, and when you begin writing it’s apparent very quickly that you don’t have much room to work with. A screenplay is more like a poem than a novel or play in which you can feel your way through the story.
James Joyce, the great Irish writer, once wrote that the writing experience is like climbing a mountain. When you’re scaling a mountain, all you can see is the rock directly in front of you and the rock directly behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. The same principle holds true when you’re writing a screenplay; when you’re writing all you can see is what’s in front of you, that is, the page you’re writing and the pages you’ve written. You can’t see anything beyond that.
What do you want to write about? You know you have a great idea that will make an awesome movie, so where do you begin? Are you writing a challenging character study? Are you writing about a personal experience that impacted your life? Maybe you read a great magazine or newspaper article that you know will make a great movie.
One of my students in a recent screenwriting workshop was a published novelist and former editor of a major book publisher. She had never written a screenplay before and shared with me that she was somewhat nervous and insecure about writing the script.
When I asked why, she replied that she didn’t know if her story was visual enough. She wanted to write a script about an active middle-aged woman who suffers a life-changing traumatic injury, and had doubts about the main character’s confinement to a hospital bed during most of the second act. This raised another concern: would the main character be too passive? Could the interest in the character’s plight be sustained with this limited sense of visual action? These were all valid, major considerations, requiring significant creative decisions.
During her preparation period we had several discussions, talked about the possibilities of opening it up, using the visual components found in the hospital: tests like EEGs, CAT scans, PET scans, and X-rays, and having the action broken up by the arrival of emergency cases and the various activities of the nurses on the floor. I wondered what would happen in the character’s life while she was in the hospital. I suggested that she could show bits and pieces of the woman’s former life, possibly through dreams and memories, and weave those flashbacks throughout. Because the main character was so static during the Second Act, she could add several more visuals to the story line about what the woman was thinking and feeling.
Feeling more secure, my student began preparing her material. She did her research, structured the First Act on cards, wrote up the back story, designed the opening sequences. As a novelist, she had always researched her idea thoroughly and gradually, and it would be through the actual writing experience that she would find her story and characters. She told me she did not want to know “too much” because, in her experience, she wanted to let the story guide her to where it wants to go. I replied that you can do this when you’re writing a novel or play, but not when you’re writing a screenplay. A screenplay is a specific form; approximately one hundred twenty pages in length and knowing the end is always the first step in writing. You can “feel” your way through a four hundred-fifty-page novel, or a one hundred-page play, but not a screenplay.
A screenplay follows a definite, lean, tight, narrative line of action, with a definite beginning, middle, and end, though not necessarily in that order. A screenplay always moves forward toward the resolution, even if it is told in flashback like The Bourne Supremacy
(Tony Gilroy), or American Beauty
(Alan Ball.) A screenplay follows a singular line of action so every scene, every fragment of visual information, must be taking you somewhere, moving the narrative forward in terms of story development.
This was somewhat difficult for my student to understand because it was unlike her previous writing experience. But after she had done her preparation, when she knew her structure and had done some background character work, she was ready to start writing. She began writing the first act, the emphasis on the professional life of her main character, an active and dynamic woman responding to the challenges of the workplace with energy and integrity. As a professional woman, it was clear her character was active, likable, and well drawn.
But when the main character entered the hospital after the traumatic injury at the end of Act I, the tone
of the story changed. The character was now confined to a hospital bed, weaving in and out of consciousness for several pages. Feeling the story becoming boring, my student became insecure and started looking for new cinematic areas to explore rather than focusing on the main character. One day she called to tell me she was writing new scenes with doctors and nurses, then told me she had a sudden inspiration to bring in the main character’s daughter, an executive who always seemed to have trouble dealing with authoritarian male figures like doctors. I told her to go ahead and try it; after all, if it works, it works, and if it...