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The 7 Challenges of Writing a Screenplay

frustrated-writer

Image via susanarscott.com.

Nope, I am not going to talk about the challenges of trying to sell one. Not here. Because I’m not at that stage yet. Although considering the plausibility of my script events has been keeping me awake a bit (Plausibility is included in the list below)…

This post isn’t about finding that brilliant idea either. Yeah, your journey starts with that idea. But it is merely the beginning. Funnily enough, I didn’t use to know that. The naive, pre-writing career me used to think that the most frustrating part of being a writer was finding a great story concept. An idea worth pursuing, characters worth living with…

And while it is indeed a challenge to come up with a story that you won’t mind sharing your life with, the road after you have found your inspiration is not exactly smooth either.

Below are the current 7 challenges I’m facing:

1)   Writing dialouge. Writing compelling, flowing, natural dialogue. Most of the time my characters have interactions in my head. When this just happens, I don’t intervene. I just write down whatever they say.

But keeping the dialogue engaging for 100+ pages is not exactly effortless. And it’s important to write a story that will hook you. But will it also hook the agents or studios or contest judges?

2)   Finding the right title is one of the most difficult aspects of any kind of writing. But I find it harder when it comes to naming fiction.

And let’s face it, a lot of movie titles suck. If all fails, they go and name it after the characte(r), and it can work like magic if characters (and the names) are interesting and colorful.

Tango & Cash, to me, works as a title because the movie has enough conflicts and humor from the main characters’ differences and interactions. But I’ll admit that when I first heard it I thought it’d be about dogs. It’s not. It’s a cop action/comedy with Stallone and Russell from 1989. Tango and Cash are our characters’ surnames. Oh, the creativity…

3)   Plausibility. Especially if you are adding some crime elements. I didn’t think I’d have to deal with this one until I started writing mysteries and thrillers. After all, grounding a drama/romance/comedy in reality isn’t that difficult.

But unfortunately one of my main characters in the romantic drama I’m working on has to go and do something extreme. And I need to be able to justify how he pulls it off.

Of course, in theory, I could change what he is “pulling off”. However, if I did that, the impact would lessen, the stakes would get lower and a lot in the story wouldn’t make sense.

If I get to sell this story, in one form or the other, I’ll tell you what inspired me to write it. And the inspiration alone needs me to write that extreme and make it worth.

On the other hand, some of the stuff we watch doesn’t make much sense. We love them despite the ridiculousness. If any fans of  The Following are reading this, they will probably relate very easily.

I love, love that show. I can’t wait for season two. But even though it is set in our reality, you’ll see some of the most illogical, incompetent, amusing law enforcement behavior ever portrayed.

Yet despite those flaws, or maybe because of them (the behavior results in the villains winning over and over), the show is damn fun and addictive. But of course that show’s script comes with Kevin Williamson’s (Scream series, Dawson’s Creek, I Know What You Did Last Summer…) name and Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy are starring. My story doesn’t have such priveleges. Or any creepy yet charismatic villains (James Purefoy) going around slashing people…

But the existence of The Following does give me hope in the possibility of selling the implausible in the name of some delicious drama and conflicts.

4)   The scene order. Do you go linear or non-linear? Do you write it in form linear with the occasional flashback? Do you do a crazy linear where it starts with the end and ends with the beginning? (Memento is a terrific example.)

Perhaps you just write different timelines for different characters and then have them interact, while the audience has to watch the drama like a detective solving a puzzle. 21 Grams, anyone?

The possibilities are endless. And eventually the director can play/mess with the order so that he will have his version.

But our goal is for our script to get to a director in the first place. It is crucial to write a winning version to get read and liked.

For the most part, I prefer a well-written linear story. I like to surprise and move and entertain in order, though I do have a weakness for some relevant flashbacks.

Some of my favorite linear films:

-Braveheart

-The Man without a Face

-A Perfect World

-Equilibrium (has flashbacks)

-A Royal Affair (through letters, the narrator takes us back in time and tells the story in order.)

-The Crow (has flashbacks- the character has returned from the dead)

The list goes on.

5)   The ending. The ending matters. Big time. It might even matter more than it should. There are movies with a huge fan base, mostly related to the ending. The Sixth Sense, anyone?

The perfect ending makes you happy that you spent time watching the film.  It shouldn’t be too happy if a happy ending would betray the story.

But make it too depressing, at the end of a depressing movie, you could question the writer’s motive. Was he trying to create tragedy for tragedy’s sake?

Then there’s the matter of being obvious. Ideally you shouldn’t see it coming from scene one, especially if it is a thriller/mystery. If it is a drama/comedy/action, it is more or less doomed in the predictability department.

Of course you can go with the modern romantic comedy trend and base the entire premise on the guy not getting the girl (or vice versa.) You might please a lot of cynics and romcom-haters this way, but a part of your audience will feel cheated. Just like you shouldn’t kill Bryan Mills at the end of a Taken movie (and of course he doesn’t die!), I think the main girl and boy should end up together – given it is really love and they aren’t hideous human beings. (Yeah, I’m talking about personality.)

And one other pet peeve…Ambiguity. A little open ending can be inspiring. But too much ambiguity can get in the way of closure.

No one said finding the right ending is easy.

6)   Rewriting. You might decide to submit a previously written manuscript, thinking all you need to do is edit and format. But then you realize the whole thing will need to be rewritten because (fortunately) you are a better writer now, and you know at least a bit more about writing and selling. Of course realizing you have 2 weeks for all the rewriting, editing and formatting is one of the many “delights” of screenwriting.

7)   Length. After you’ve poured your heart’s work onto the page, it might be troubling to realize that you are a couple dozen pages short. Or over.

This is one of my current problems. I do need to cut it much shorter (about 100 pages). But I find that shortening is easier than coming up with events that aren’t there. And since I’m doing a major rewrite anyway…

*

Right now rewriting (to match a deadline) and plausibility are my most troubling problems. After all a title can be changed. Directors can change the plans to suit their vision and for the most part, adding or subtracting a few scenes comes naturally when I’m going over the manuscript anyway.

To see how “valid” these challenges are, I recommend reading Breaking &  Entering: Great Writing – A Love Story on Script Mag, a useful industry resource.

Now, it’s time to head to work and work on the screenplay for this writer. Wish me luck, and please feel free to share all your joys and frustrations about screenwriting or any kind of fiction writing.

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2 Responses to “The 7 Challenges of Writing a Screenplay”

  • This is a great list! I really relate to all these struggles. I think that keeping events plausible is especially important. Mission Impossible, anyone? Great movies, but some of the stuff they have Tom Cruise do… I just don’t think it’s realistic.

  • Pinar Tarhan says:

    Hi Jessica,
    You’re right. Mission Impossible movies, especially the second one, really pushes how much you can suspend your disbelief:)
    But…I do love the series. That kind of gives me hope for the “implausible” bit I need to sell in my script:)

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