Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Okay, so it pisses me off that 90% of Internet discussions about screenwriting focus on formatting issues. Screenwriting can be roughly (and unequally) divided into content and formatting. Formatting itself can be subdivided into quantitative formatting and qualitative formatting.

What the hell does that mean?

Quantitative formatting is how wide your margins are, how far indented your dialogue and character names are, what font you use, where a (beat) or (O.S.) goes, etc. This is the trivially easy stuff, and way too much time and energy is spent discussing it.

Qualitative formatting covers things like, should I write action in the "vertical style" of having a blank line between each sentence, or should I compress my action lines more, or should I avoid having more than four lines of text in a single dialogue block, etc. This is mostly stylistic choices. They can have an effect on the interpretation of the content, but not the, er... content of the content, if you dig. We still spend too much time discussing this.

What remains is content. What happens, what the characters do and say, and how they say it.

We don't spend enough time talking about how to create good content, and that pisses me off. The reason seems obvious: content is the really, really hard part of storytelling. It's easier to fall back on discussing the simple realm of formatting. Creating an original, interesting, intelligent, insightful, exciting, logical, dramatic story... hard. To make it worse, you can only really discuss creativity in the broadest terms: the common dramatic elements of storytelling. Make sure your story has 'em, but without knowing exactly what your story is about, I can't say much more than that. And then I'm writing your story, which... is your job, not mine, and why am I spending time analyzing your story instead of writing mine?

Screenwriting is hard. It's very hard. It's the aspect of filmmaking that's hardest to do well, or even competently. It's the easiest to do poorly, since it has less overhead than any other aspect of filmmaking, which require equipment and supplies, all of which are more expensive than what a writer needs: a pencil and some paper.

Wait, there's acting, too. It doesn't really require less overhead, because you can't act until you have material, so the overhead for acting is a script, which is pencil and paper plus hundreds of hours of bleeding foreheads.

And because every chump who speaks English and can string a sentence together thinks that means they can write, we get the infinite monkeys banging at the gates, showing us just how hard it really is to do this well. (Not to mention getting in the way of the monkeys who know their ass from a typewriter.)