SCREAMPLAYS! WRITING THE HORROR FILM

 

By Lisa Morton

 

 

            Your novel is due in a week, you’ve got a month of work left on it, and you wisely decide you need a break, so it’s down to the mall to check out the latest big-budget shocker at the cineplex, or to pick up the new no-budget cheesefest on DVD. You’re halfway through this cinematic masterpiece when you think, Cripes, my last grocery list was better written than this! That’s it – I’m going to save the horror film by turning my genius to screenwriting (and conveniently make a ton of money in the process).

            All well and good, until you realize – you don’t know anything about screenwriting. Well, hey, you’ve published 42 short stories, 5 novels, and some film reviews, so how hard can it be?

            Unfortunately, screenwriting is as different from prose as, say, waxing a car is from painting a house; sure, both require similar hand motions and both are about making something that looks nice. However, they require radically different tools, and more different talents than you might realize.

            Let’s start with the nuts and bolts: No other form of creative writing is as rigidly formatted as screenwriting. Not only must the writer create a compelling story with a solid plot, interesting characters, and memorable images, but the writer must also possess the technical skills to put these into movie terms. Remember, as a screenwriter you’re part of an entire movie team, a team that includes a director, actors, a cinematographer, set designers, sound designers, special effects wizards, and more. They’ll all be using your script as their blueprint, and so you need to be able to speak their language. Words like “exterior”, “interior”, “fade”, “dissolve”, “cut”, and “reveal” must become as natural to the screenwriter as rotting is to a corpse. The screenwriter needs to know how to break his story into small scenes, how to balance dialogue and description, and how to pace his action; he also needs to learn to be comfortable writing in present tense, since a screenplay written in past tense is guaranteed to be rejected by page 2.

            So, does our hypothetical prose writer need to put everything else aside so s/he can go back to school for four years just to get a film degree? Hardly (although it wouldn’t hurt…). The first step in a screenwriter’s education is simply to watch a lot of movies, and most horror writers are inveterate movie buffs; for one thing, probably no other genre of literature is so intertwined with its cinematic equivalent as horror, where a hit movie can fuel a literary sub-genre for years. And many horror writers have probably done a fair amount of reading about movies, too, especially in this media-savvy age; our Joe/Jane Writer probably already possesses a fair knowledge of movie lingo.

            So, what’s the next step? It’s probably obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: If you’re going to write scripts, you need to read them first. Get a hold of some scripts and study them. I know there are plenty available for free download on the Internet, but I’d avoid those – they tend to be typed up by fans, and are often based on the finished movie (what might be called a “continuity script” in the biz), rather than the other way around. And don’t just buy a book that reproduces some scripts; again, these tend to be cleaned up for publication. You need the real thing; you need to see exactly how it looked when it was bought by a producer and studied by a cast and crew. Buy some from ebay; borrow ‘em from friends. Whatever; just get yourself a few feature screenplays to examine, preferably from films you’ve seen. You’ll be able to not only see the way the formatting of the screenplay works, you’ll also be able to see how it translated to the finished product (and be warned - the results may leave you well horrified).

            Now, you may be asking: What about writing books? There are hundreds out there on crafting screenplays, and a number are by respected gurus, like John Truby or Robert McKee. Well…while I don’t want to say I think these books are completely useless, bear in mind that most are targeted towards people who simply don’t know how to write anything. At all. They’ll discuss things like creating characters and “story arcs” and plotting and genre. If I was going to recommend a single screenwriting book, it would probably be Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting  by Syd Field; it includes plenty of useful formatting and technical information as well as the more traditional writing instruction, and good cheap used copies are easy to find online.

            The next question our aspiring screenwriter will probably ask is: To software or not to software? The answer to that question will depend on one thing: Do you want to be a professional screenwriter, or are you just messing around? If the answer is choice B, then stop reading now and go be happy. But chances are you want something you can actually shop around once it’s finished, and so I’m afraid I have some bad news for you:

            You need software. And it ain’t cheap.

            About a dozen years ago, producers started wanting their screenplays delivered on diskettes, and they were happy with something typed up in Microsoft Word; but then perhaps a decade back, an insidious little thing happened to the industry, a little thing made up of two words:

            Final Draft.

            The Final Draft screenplay software is now the accepted standard throughout the film business. Even though other programs have been better, they’ve all fallen by the wayside like Beta did to VHS. You don’t necessarily need the most current version of Final Draft (which retails at a whopping $289.99), but be prepared to drop well over $100 even for a used older version. You might also consider something like Movie Magic Screenwriter, which retails for slightly less than Final Draft ($249.99), and offers the ability to export in Final Draft format. These programs are available in either Windows or Mac formats.

            The good news is that the software programs really will do a lot of the formatting work for you; they know just where to start dialogue, for example, and they’ll automatically capitalize character names for you. They’ll even put in scene number for you, although that’s a bad idea unless you’ve had a producer ask for ‘em.

            Now, our writer has the basic knowledge and the tools they need to get started…and uh, how does that getting started part go, exactly?

            This is the part where I get to create suspense, because you’ll have to wait until next month’s installment, when I’ll discuss more of the actual mechanics of screenwriting, including dialogue, scene descriptions and act breaks.

            Until then – go back and finish your novel!

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