by Gina Sestak
One week ago today I had the unnerving experience of speaking to our local chapter of Sisters in Crime on the subject of screenwriting. I say unnerving because I know practically nothing about the subject. My claim to expertise comes from a lifetime of movie viewing and one (one!) class, an introduction to screenwriting taught by Lorraine Heidekat at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Still, I was willing to share the little bit I know.
Screenwriting is very different from novel writing. You don't need to tell nearly so much. In a movie, the audience can see what Scarlett O'Hara's dress looks like. The costume designer will figure that out, so you don't have to write a detailed description. Nor do you have to spend pages developing characters -- the actors do that, using your words. In a book, you tell the story your way, and maybe an editor or two suggests revisions. In a film, dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of skilled people stand between the screenwriter and the finished product. I like to think of the screenplay as a seed from which a movie grows.
Screenwriting is different from playwriting. In a movie, you can see the Eiffel Tower; the characters don't have to tell each other they're in Paris. And a monologue that might hold your attention in a theater can be deadly boring on the screen. A movie needs more action while most plays consist mainly of dialogue.
Screenwriting is an art and, like most arts, it helps to view the work of other artists. I'm not just talking about watching films. I'm suggesting reading screenplays. There is a website where links to the screenplays for hundreds of movies are posted: simplyscripts.com. It's fun to watch a film, then go read the screenplay and see how the writer(s) put the action and dialogue down in words. Try it and tell me what you think.