Questions for a Screenwriter
edited: Wednesday, June 06, 2001
By Sarah Mankowski
Posted: Wednesday, June 06, 2001
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Thoughts on screenwriting and placing scripts online
Since placing three screenplays on-line in July/August 1998, thousands have read them, and I have received several hundred e-mails. Because many people asked similar questions I decided to put together a FAQ, revised for this article.
By far, the most frequently asked question concerned the similarities between my screenplay "Fallout" and the movie "Blast From The past". Others asked about the process of writing scripts, or about my own experiences.
Q: How long does it take you to write a screenplay?
A: A basic first draft, outline, sketch takes me about 2 to 3 weeks. But that's kind of meaningless because it's only then that the real work begins. I revise and revise, then revise some more. I never think about the length of the revision process because it doesn't matter if it takes six months or a year. I revise until I'm satisfied.
Revising a scene is like choreographing a dance. Whether the scene is comical or dramatic the back and forth, action-reaction, should flow with exquisite timing. It's difficult, but when it works, it's beautiful. This is what I love about screenwriting. I have discarded a number of script-ideas because they simply couldn't keep me energized through the first draft. The revision process requires concentration and commitment. I don't want to go forward unless I can maintain the same level of enthusiasm.
Q: I have an idea for a screenplay, but I don't know how to get started?
A: Watch lots of films, not only critically acclaimed films, but a few really bad ones as well. Ask yourself what made the film really good or really bad, memorable, clichéd or predictable. Read all the scripts you can find. Beyond books on the art and craft of screenwriting available at your local bookstore and library, there are plenty of useful sites on-line.
Q: Have you sold any scripts?
A: No. Although, I have come close, and I advanced to the semi-finals of a national contest a few years ago.
Q: How do you register a screenplay?
A: Visit the WGA page - http://www.wga.org/ for more information about registration. Also visit The Copyright Web site and U.S. Copyright Office Home Page.
For those planning to place original material on-line, I strongly recommend visiting Ivan Hoffman Attorney At Law - http://www.ivanhoffman.com/ for many more links and articles.
Q: Was the film "Blast From The Past" based on you script "Fallout"?
A: I have no reason to believe that it was. It is quite possible that with the 30th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1993, several people came up with similar plots independently. I wrote "Fallout" in 1992. At the time I placed the script on-line, the summer of 1998, I hadn't heard about "Blast From The Past", although it was well into production. In hindsight, I'm really glad that I placed the script on-line -- many people read my story first.
Q: Have you received any offers since placing your scripts online?
A: When you place original material on-line, realize that it's going to be read by all sorts of people. Some may be intelligent, professional, valuable contacts. Others may be …who knows? I realized this at the outset. Still, I am surprised that so many people have written to say they'd like to produce or direct one of my scripts. Of course, inevitably, they can't pay me because they're just starting out themselves. Look, if you're just starting out, write your own material. Why should a total stranger, knowing absolutely nothing about your credentials, hand over a script? Besides, I'm really skeptical of any would-be filmmaker who is seriously considering a script containing a large cast and numerous locations. To me, this conveys ignorance of the realities of production costs.
Filmmaker wannabes can learn all sorts of valuable lessons from successful independent films such as "The Blair Witch Project". How were they able to see the project through on practically no budget? A simple yet original story requiring zero special effects, few characters, (three principals) a minimum of locations, costumes and props. They didn't even use a soundtrack! "Clerks" is another example of a interesting film shot on a minimal budget. Once again, success was achieved with a good script requiring few characters and locations. If you're serious about becoming an independent filmmaker, write a great script requiring zero special effects, only a few locations and no more than four principals.
Q: I've been thinking about placing some of my scripts on-line. From your experiences, do you think this is a good idea?
A: My three were older scripts that didn't sell, that nevertheless meant a great deal to me. I wanted to share them. If you have a script that you're currently shopping around, with the potential to sell, particularly a high-concept script, DO NOT place the entire thing on-line. Excepts, perhaps. On the other hand, if you have some older scripts, perhaps one that's not commercial, then go for it! At least it will be read.
Since placing the scripts on-line, a number of people have offered critiques. Many of these have been helpful, offering suggestions that had never occurred to me. Two or three left me shaking my head because the person obviously didn't know the first thing about screenwriting, or hadn't read very carefully. When you receive critiques, use your best judgment. If suggestions make sense, give them serious consideration. If it's ludicrous, respond with a polite thank you and move on.
Q: Do you still write screenplays?
A: For the past few years I have concentrated all my writing energy on my novel. Echo's Voice began as a script, but after sketching the first draft I realized I had too much material for a script. Besides, I saw too much potential for the story to become garbled on screen. Filmmaking is a collaborative process -- the writer's carefully revised script becomes only the first draft, outline, sketch for the completed production. Unless the writer is also the director and producer, she has little or no say over the final cut. Therefore, I have concluded that if the story matters to you, it's probably best to present it first as a novel or short story.
I tried to maintain the sense of reading a script with Echo's Voice the novel. Instead of chapters I used brief scenes. As I said, I love writing in the format of a screenplay, but writing the novel was also a lot of fun.