So yesterday morning I opened my inbox to find a shiny email from NYC Midnight The Screen Writing Challenge to say that the first round was officially open and we had eight days to write our twelve page screen plays based on the genre, subject, and character we have been assigned.
Well I had the following:
Character: Witness To A Crime
So everything should be fine right? I mean, eight days to write twelve pages? That should be easy. That’s a pretty nice genre to get, pretty broad ranging if you think about it. Witness to a crime, well that’s pretty broad as well. Earthquake is a little odder but not impossible to work with. What’s the problem?
Oh yes, I’ve not done this before and I don’t know how to write a screenplay.
That might be an issue.
Now let me clarify something before we continue. I’ve written two screenplays in my life. Both were during six form. That’s now six years in the past.
The first was part of a extra-circular project in school and was a national competition. I wrote a piece about my Grandmother’s experience of moving over England when she was eighteen and starting to study nursing.
I don’t remember the exact plot but I do remember the playwright who was mentoring our school said I should included a bit about women’s suffrage. I nodded at the time but later realized that a) it was the wrong time period and b) my Grandmother was Irish so trying to shoehorn in English politics might be a bit of a stretch.
Screen play number two was written in a tea fueled haze at three in the morning, based on a collection of notes that I’d been given by a group of lads who wanted to shoot a zombie movie. They wanted someone to write dialogue and that was about it. I wrote it, they seemed to like it, they only ever shot the trailer.
Luckily for me there’s a short ‘how-to’ manual on the NYC Midnight site that explains clearly, and concisely how a screenplay should be formatted. It’s helpfully called ‘How To Write A Screenplay – The Basis’. If you’re thinking about trying to write a screenplay for the first time, or you want to make sure your formatting is correct, then I’d highly recommend printing off a copy. It was a lifesaver for me as I couldn’t dredge up a single memory on how a screenplay is supposed to be laid out on the page and as it turns out, there are quite a few rules to follow.
It’s actually a little surprising how quickly you get used to writing in the format. I thought I would struggle quite a bit as it’s a completely different style of writing from what I usual do.
For example. Take the following opening to my short story ‘The Last Of The Embers’:
Sunrise was not for another hour but already the sky had taken on the grey haze that suggested morning was just around the corner. Elaine let her rucksack slip from her shoulder and hang in the crook of her arm while she fumbled with the knackered zip. The bottle inside was almost half empty, not enough to see her back down the mountain, but enough to see her to the top. She wrestled it free and used her teeth to pry to cap open.
‘Are you coming?’
Damien watched from where he’d stopped further up on the steps, bare legs and arms, tanned and muscled. He was younger, fitter as well but that had little to do with age, at least that was what Elaine told herself.
‘Just give me a minute,’ she called. The water was lukewarm and sour on her tongue but she swallowed it and snapped the cap shut. Her sweat had her clothes sticking, every crease and fold in the fabric welding itself to her limbs. She could swear the last time she’d made this climb it had been easier, but then again, the last time she had more faith to help things along. A little more faith and a little more time.
‘Do you remember before?’ Damien asked. He held out a hand when she finally reached him. She let him help her and paused for a breath, lungs hitching as she dragged each mouthful of air in.
‘Which before?’ she gasped. ‘The one before this or the one before that? There have been too many changes, too many befores to count or to know which before you mean.’ She pulled her hand out of his and forced her legs to push ahead, ignoring the way she had to lock her knees on each step.
‘I mean the before when we were strong,’ he said. ‘When we were still gods.’
If this was written as a screenplay it would look more like this:
There is very little in the way of description in this apart from the scene heading and the action lines at the top. There is one other action line part way down where Elaine drinks from her bottle but the rest is all dialogue. This means if the dialogue falls flat, the whole piece falls flat.
Typing this piece out into a screenplay format also made me read this piece in a different light. When you write something and proofread it, you can miss certain blips simply from being too close to the work. By looking at it through a different lens you can sometimes catch those blips. The thing for me with this piece was noticing that the speaker isn’t always crystal clear when you’re reading the dialogue. You can be halfway through reading a piece of speech and notice that the other character was the one talking the whole time.
Aside from playing around with the format to analyse the dialogue quality of old short stories, I did manage to type up twelve pages of what I hope is a semi-decent screenplay that I can polish and tidy over the next few days.
The bit that got me, is how short twelve pages actually is. I could have written a much longer screenplay and as it is I’m worried I might have skimmed over too much in an attempt to fit more in within the page limit.
Either way, I have until Saturday to work up a final draft and submit it for the First Round and today has been a new learning curb for my writing, something that I don’t find to such a degree these days.
Also, there’s nothing to stop me going back to this screenplay when the competition is done and making it longer then. Actually, I think I might do just that.