Process in Creative Script Writing
School of Communication
The importance of good writing to the media of the new millennium should be self-evident. Professionals at the top of their fields in both television and motion pictures have long recognized the centrality of the script. Veteran television reporter and writer Linda Ellerbee maintains that the writer is the key to success in television news and further asserts that television entertainment requires even better writing (158). Harlan Ellison, an award-winning television and film screenwriter himself, quotes Francis Ford Coppola: “When people go to see a movie, 80 percent of the effect it has on them was preconceived and precalculated by the writer…. To me, that’s the primary act of creation” (299).
The challenge for the modern writing instructor, then, is not justifying one’s subject in the eyes of the profession. Rather, the challenge is reaching what Sharrett calls “the current postliterate generations” (33). At the same time, scriptwriting teachers must keep in mind that certain of their students will share a passion for writing. Thus, they must avoid the temptation to adjust the course to the lowest common denominator, in order to simply engage the student who neither writes nor reads for pleasure.
The approach that seems to work best in the School of Communication to reach both the student who approaches writing with Hunter Thompson’s “fear and loathing” and the aspiring writer who embraces the subject is, first, to begin them with the short- subject script rather than the series or feature, and second to treat the act of script writing not as an event, but rather as a process. Since this is also the way in which professionals approach the work, it simultaneously allays the fears of the inexperienced, engages the interest of the young writers, and simulates the process by which either would write a creative script in the “real world” (i.e. on the job). Teaching Situation
The specific class in which this exercise is used is COMM 2210, “Writing for the Electronic Mass Media.” The author has used the exercise in similar courses in other institutions. All such courses were focused primarily on creative writing for video and television. COMM 2210 is required for three of the six current concentrations in Communication (Media Production, Broadcast Journalism, and Media Studies) and is a prerequisite for almost all advanced courses in those concentrations.
The class composition ranges from sophomores to seniors. Most are Communication majors who have taken the prerequisite COMM 1002 “Media Writing,” an introductory media writing course which focuses on the print media and does not address narrative fiction scriptwriting. The class also contains some students whose minor is Communication; most often, these students are majoring in English. These students are more likely to be aspiring writers than the Communication majors. The bulk of the Communication majors do not primarily see themselves as writers; in fact, many of them see themselves as anything but. The class is thus divided between an overwhelming majority who do not want to become creative writers and a minority who do.
Due perhaps to the behind-the-scenes nature of the screenwriter’s work, both the students who avoid writing and those who embrace it are surprised by four of the basic principles of creative writing for the video screen.
The first principle is the most basic: writing creatively for video is a process. Certainly some writing for mass communication is not the result of a lengthy procedure. (News writing, for example, in both the print and broadcast arenas is almost invariably tied to immediate deadlines – though even here, guidelines such as the inverted pyramid develop systematic thinking about writing.) Nevertheless, the romantic notion that the creative screenwriter begins with a blank sheet of paper, or computer monitor, and proceeds immediately to the finished shooting script is inaccurate. This idea of process is well-established in the classroom and in the crafts of television series writing and motion picture feature writing. Bean, whose text is central in the ECU writing institute, states it categorically: “When Assigning Formal Writing, Treat Writing as a Process” (8). All of the scriptwriting texts of which the author is aware (examples include: Straczynski’s Complete Book of Scriptwriting; McKee’s Story; Field’s Screenplay; Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey) also teach creative writing for the screen as a step-by step procedure. As students grasp this reality, the reaction is usually relief on the part of the non-writers and piqued interest on the part of the aspiring authors.
The second principle is just as crucial, but not as immediately evident. Writing creatively for television relies primarily on the strength of the characters in the script and secondarily on the plot. Emphasis on character is necessary due to the transitory and serial nature of the medium. For most of television history, viewers would usually have two chances to see any television episode: once in the first run, and once in reruns. Thus, the episodic plot was less crucial to a show’s success than was the appeal of the characters, which would remain constants from week to week. Though this transitory nature has changed somewhat with the rise of syndication and, especially, home video, viewers still remember the total impression of the character far better than they remember details of individual plots. The character of Andy Taylor, for example, has become an integral part of American popular culture, but only the most devoted fans of the show recall many specific episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. Furthermore, the fact that the story is ongoing requires that the viewer must be attracted back to the same characters, week after week. The importance of the character can be demonstrated by the fact that few anthology shows, no matter how well written, have achieved lasting success; the only two which have endured in the public eye, The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, used the recurring “characters” of Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock as the constants from one week to the next.
Some might object that, since the outcome of the exercise is not a full-fledged series, the emphasis on character is overdone. In the short script arena, the writer’s emphasis on character is at least as important as it is for the series. It is a common mistake among beginning writers to spend all of their script on dialogue; action, of course, is far more interesting and more revealing. The author often reminds his students of the adage, “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.” Dialogue also takes up more page space than action in the script format, and format is crucial in screenwriting.
The second principle in turn leads to the third: writing creatively for video requires strict adherence to format. By format, we mean the physical set-up and appearance of the script on the page. The author uses the screenwriting format approved by the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition. This layout is essentially the same for both motion pictures and television. It is crucial to adhere to the established format because the script is the foundation for the shooting schedule and for the budget to bring the screenplay to fruition as a completed whole. Breaking down a script into a shooting schedule assumes that each page will, on average, translate into a minute of screen time. A deviation from format as minor as using the wrong font size will invalidate this assumption. Too small a font, and each page contains more material than the norm; thus, the video that was planned to be 30 minutes will run long. Too large a font and the opposite occurs. Therefore, not adhering to format can cost literally millions of dollars.
The final principle is the most onerous for students. Writing creatively for video requires careful proofreading. While dialogue may, and often should, be informal and slangy, creative spelling and punctuation have no place in the descriptions of the script’s action. The competition is intense; one source estimates that agents, the middlepersons between the writer and the producer, receive 200-1000 scripts per year – and there are dozens of agents. In other words, while all would welcome the next William Goldman, in practical terms all are looking for a reason to reject the script. Poor proofreading is the mark of the amateur, and thus the surest path to rejection.
With this in mind, the first assignment that will ultimately lead to the completed script is a story summary (Appendix 1). In this assignment, the students watch a current episode of their favorite show and summarize it in the form of a short story. The assignment, which counts for one percent of their final grade in the class, accomplishes three things: it eases the fears of beginning writers; it reveals the structure of a television show; and it produces the inverse of the upcoming treatment. A “treatment” is the writer’s concept of the show in story form. The treatment-story is then rewritten as a script. The script in turn is shot on film or videotape and edited into the finished program, which is then televised. Summarizing a finished show thus eases the student into conceiving a story as the screenwriter conceives it.
The next step is a character description of the main character in the script (Appendix 2). Also counting for one percent of the final grade, this exercise requires students to thoroughly explore their character by getting most of the character’s basic life facts down on paper. Phrasing the exercise as a series of questions, rather than as a story or a script, allows the student to concentrate on the details of the character. This intimate knowledge of the details of the character’s life will make it easier later to illuminate the character through scripted action for the screen. A welcome side effect of the exercise is that drawing out such intensive detail in a preliminary exercise reduces the temptation to waste time on less-important detail in the script.
The third step requires the students to try their hand at a sample film style script (Appendix 3). Students must access the web site of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to retrieve the official screenplay format used for its Nicholl Fellowship (http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/format.html). The instructor then goes over the format in class prior to having students write a script. Completion of the task requires a firm grasp of the format, but is not part of the major project and only counts for one percent of their grade. This “low-cost” exercise allows students to experiment, to make format mistakes and then have them corrected before the major portion of the assignment. Sample mistakes are corrected individually and reviewed (anonymously) in class.
Once the basics have been established, students write a treatment (Appendix 4) for their upcoming script. Again, the treatment is simply a script in story form; in other words, students tell the video that exists only in their imaginations in the form of a short story. Despite its simplicity, the treatment counts for five percent of the final grade; since the stakes are raised, the students understand that the preliminary work is over and the hardest work has begun. To assist students in structuring their story, the instructor uses a “formula” proposed by Straczinsky: “Characterization + Desire = Goal; Goal + Conflict = Story” (25). The most common failing of first-time scripts, in the instructor’s experience, is weak conflict. Students write “road trip” movies in which there are nothing but good times with no roadblocks or detours, or romances in which “boy meets girl” (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl) and the story moves directly to “boy gets girl” without “boy loses girl.” Straczinsky’s simple mnemonic works well to diagnose what the story lacks.
In the penultimate stage, the students tackle the script itself (Appendix 5). Using the”1 page = 1 minute” formula, students are limited to no less then ten and no more then fifteen pages. The short length forces clarity in concept and clarity through action. Since action takes up less page space, most students resort to action over dialogue simply to keep the project within its limits. The script itself is worth twenty percent of the final grade as the most demanding assignment of the semester. The reason it is so demanding is that, when correcting the script, the instructor focuses on three questions: Is the format correct? Is there a beginning, middle, & end to the story? And, is there the beginning of dialogue -- for example, the use of contractions? Thus students constantly have to switch mental gears between the precision and technical correctness of the format and scene descriptions and the informality and imprecision of the dialogue. While doing this, they must keep in mind how both action and dialogue bring the story to completion in no more than 15 pages.
The last step, once the script has been corrected and returned, is a required rewrite (Appendix 6). The rewrite allows the student to correct all mistakes and to strengthen any parts of the story that are still weak. Though only worth two percent of the final grade, the rewrite does allow a student to redeem some of any points lost on the initial attempt. More importantly, it is essential in producing the desired result of the assignment.
All students who complete every step of the process produce a 10-15 page script, professionally formatted and competently proofread, which tells a story with beginning, middle, and end. The students succeed by finishing the script and the rewrite completely and on deadline, at C level or above, as measured against Academy format, standard US spelling, and the instructor’s experience in storytelling. For those who want to become writers, the experience is their introduction to the professional process. For some of those who began the semester not wishing to become writers, completing the process leads them to change their minds – or at least to become more open to the possibilities of being creative writers. For the rest of those who do not want to write for a living, the process leaves them with a lasting understanding of the difficulty of professional screenwriting. If that is all that any student takes away from the experience, the experience can still be counted a success.
Finally, instructors in areas other than television or film can adapt this process for use in their own courses. The process works very well in print fiction writing, for example, with a short story as the final outcome rather than a script. Instructors could also use the process to guide their students through scripting documentaries for their subjects. The character description would be replaced with a subject description, but the script would still tell a story, albeit a non-fictional one. In a time when communicating through multiple media is becoming an essential survival skill, understanding the centrality of the script to all media is a useful concept for anyone.
Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging Ideas: the Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Ellerbee, L. (1986). And So It Goes: Adventures in Television. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Ellison, H. (1989). Harlan Ellison’s Watching. Los Angeles: Underwood-Miller.
Sharrett, C. (2002, September). “Past Classics, Summer Rubbish.” USA Today Magazine, 33.
Straczynski, J. M. (1996). The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. View the Word document version of this paper.