What Makes a Good Screenplay?

One aspect of my book The Screenplay as Literature that came in for pointed criticism was my brief treatment of the subject of “what makes a good screenplay.”  Here the critics were right.  Not because what I had written was not valid, but because the subject really had no place in a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature—just as the subject of “what makes a good novel” would have no place in a book entitled “The Novel as Literature.”  The question is much too subjective; and the variety of reasons why a screenplay may be considered good, may have nothing at all to do with whether or not it should be considered as Literature in the first place.

Certainly we would be inclined to think that a screenplay that is turned into a good film would be considered good. Screenplays (or versions of the same) are written for various purposes, and why they are good depends on the purpose for which they are written.  For example, a screenplay written on speculation, that is, for the purpose of being sold, might be written one way; whereas a screenplay written to be directly filmed might be written in another way (e.g. a shooting script).  Some writers may write a screenplay that leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader (or director); others may write in a manner that leaves nothing to the imagination.  Sergei Eisenstein once remarked that a shooting script is “an instrument to transpose a fact, abstracted into a concept, back into a chain of concrete single actions.”   But it doesn’t have to be that way: that is, a screenplay doesn’t have to be taken to the shooting script level; furthermore, a shooting script doesn’t have to break down a concept into concrete single actions:  it can remain on a metaphorical level.

Arguably there is no right or wrong way to write a screenplay, although there are certainly conventions.   So do I have any advice for the aspiring or working screenwriter?  Yes, I do, which follows.

My most important advice for the screenwriter is that it doesn’t matter how you get there—that is, to a completed screenplay—just get there!  Do what works for you.  Start at the end and jump to the beginning.  Or start in the middle and jump to the end: it really doesn’t matter.  The important thing is to start—to start writing.  The late French writer-director Eric Rohmer wrote that “To shoot a film is always to shoot something.”  For, as he said, “one never makes a film out of nothing.”  And it is the something that is the most critical—and elusive—element: no one can tell you where or how to find it.  In most cases it simply happens.  Ingmar Bergman wrote that for him a film begins as “something very vague—a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation    It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street.”  According to Michelangelo Antonioni, “A picture probably has its birth in the disorder within us, and that’s the difficulty: putting things in order. . . . to recognize an idea out of the chaos of feelings , reflections, observations, impulses which the surrounding world stirs up in us.”  Lajos Egri (who I discussed in an earlier post) states that you can begin your work “with a character or incident, or even a simple thought.”  Tennessee Williams related that his renowned play A Streetcar Named Desire began simply as a vision of “a woman in her late youth . . . sitting alone by a window with moonlight streaming in on her desolate face.”

Once you have found that something—that beginning–what comes next?  Again, it is what works best for you.  Ingmar Bergman and Erich Rohmer early in their careers would write their first drafts in the form of novellas.  In the case of Rohmer, he would often write in the first person, but in subsequent drafts and the final film, this first person narration would disappear almost entirely or be conveyed through the dialogue of the other characters.

Today, screenplay writers tend to write master scene screenplays, that is, screenplays that are not broken down into shots.  This is in contrast to the detailed shooting script that Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote for the break-through Last Year at Marienbad (1961) because he could conceive of it in no other way than through concrete images.  Again, what is important is what works for you: what turns your formless inspiration into a completed work.  Furthermore, with script formatting software you can always edit your first draft in whatever form you feel is most acceptable for the intended reader.

It should never be forgotten by the screenplay writer that film is a collaborative art.  Don’t be afraid to avail yourself of the talents of the costume designers, music composers, special effects and stunt coordinators, and numerous technical advisors that will be associated with the film.  You don’t have to think of everything—but you could.  In that vein the very successful American screenwriter and novelist William Goldman remarks that in comparison to the novel, the screenplay gives him a certain freedom from research.  The screenplay has few conventions and even fewer rules—and rules can be broken.  It is a literary form that allows its practitioners complete freedom to express themselves—but only if they should choose to avail themselves of this freedom.

 

 

 

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