As Old as the Hills
Portrait of Two Actresses, circa 1850s
Make no mistake, the craft of screenwriting is not easy. If it were, I guess more people would be doing it. Unless you are a rarely gifted individual (and I have met a few), it takes countless hours of repetition and practice before you can churn out professional-grade work, and that’s not even considering whether it sells or not. The usual evolution of the writer goes like this: first you start getting a feel for naturalistic dialogue. Then, a semblance of scene craft with an ability to shape the beginning, middle, and end of scenes. Then you start to grasp the fundamental concept of sequences—the building blocks of acts, which then build your plot. Next, you start to grasp the idea of a coherent act, followed by being able to design and execute an efficient, flowing and dramatic three-act plot, with rising actions and plateaus of “rest” after each climax, all the way to the end.
By far, the hardest element of the craft to master is subtext. Rarely in real life, and even more rarely in well-written screenplays, do characters say what they men. There are always shadings, inferences, misdirections and feints, often leading them to say the opposite of what they mean, with the meaning flowing out through subtext—what is not said. Great actors are so skilled at doing this, and without subtext, it will be difficult to attract elite talent to your work. The best way to get there? Practice. Start by observing subtext in film and TV. Next time your characters say something direct, a line that may be on-the-nose, see if you can have them say the opposite and still convey the same meaning. And I don’t mean being snide, sarcastic or snarky. Subtext serves even the most arduous dramas.
That said, our job is not rocket science. Unlike rocket scientists, to become a proficient and hopefully successful (i.e. earning and produced) screenwriter, you do not need a PhD. You need stamina; you need a dedication to improving your craft with each draft and every writing session, but most of all you need a good story, well told. Efficiently, with entertainment value and emotion.
This makes what you are doing not that different from the earliest human storytellers, who would gather the tribe around the fire, and regale and thrill and frighten them with … story. The spoken word. So that you don’t get lost in the weeds, and do not pursue an overwrought, mechanical “system” of screenwriting that simply does not exist, first and foremost, you must see yourself as a teller of stories.
What is your story? What is it about? Who is it about? Who will be interested in hearing you tell your story? Not everyone is a natural storyteller. It helps if you are, but even if you are not, you can get there by practicing your craft, tirelessly. You have to really want it.
Storytelling is crucial to people, and it always has been. Technology may change, but the need for story does not. Some smarter than I have argued that the glow of the screens about which, we gather for our stories replicates the glow of the storyteller’s fireside. I buy that. Storytellers have always been revered for how they reflect their societies and the people who inhabit them. Through our stories we learn who we are, and how to be better people.
Good storytelling. That’s your job. It’s as old as the hills.