A primer on screenwriting
6 min read

A primer on screenwriting

A primer on screenwriting

I want to talk about writing for the screen, whether it be a thirty second YouTube screen or a big budget blockbuster screen. We’re going to gently dip our toes into what it is to write a good screenplay, because scriptwriting doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I hope this might help you craft a better script, wherever and whenever that might be.

Screenwriting is an underrated art form. People come away from watching movies knowing the director and lead actors, but few could tell you who the writer was. Yet it is their words, their vision, and their ideas that create much of what you see and hear.

Why is it that we focus so little on scripts? And what should be done about this?

I have a background in video production, so I’m perhaps a tad fussier than the average person, but I see so many videos produced that have horribly turgid scripts. Oftentimes, the writing merely acts as a vessel to carry messages and facts – nothing more.

It's like sitting down to read a good book and suddenly you realise you're holding a dictionary. Yes, all of the words are there, but it's not going to move you one bit.

A good script that carries a good idea can take you far and we need to be more transcendental and less literal when we create.

So, let us meander through this subject and see if I can find my way to a coherent closing scene.

You talkin' to me?

I'm currently re-reading Transcendental Style in Film by Paul Schrader, a celebrated screenwriter and director.

In it, he explores the spiritual and artistic side of filmmaking through three auteurs: Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Th. Dreyer.

Schrader’s interest lies in how film styles are used to separate the difference between experience (the everyday) and expression (the meaning). Seeing 'nothing' happen while watching the movie does become something.

By showing us how ordinary and boring the world is, cinema helps us perceive the ordinary in a radically new way.

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” - Samuel Johnson

I first learned about Schrader when I saw his name pop up as the screenwriter for Taxi Driver – a movie that made my jaw drop.

The words, or lack of them. The shots of 70s New York. Robert de Niro's intensity. The soundtrack. Everything pulled me in so far I must've watched it ten times in a month after my first viewing.

While the film comes to a dramatic conclusion, the story itself stemmed from Schrader's personal experience.

"When I got out of the hospital I realized I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin." - Paul Schrader

“How is this related to me and making a YouTube video, Simon?” I hear you ask.  Glad you asked.

Finding your style

When writing a script, starting with personal experience and using metaphor to express it will always do better than simply delivering a fact.

Nowadays, too many online videos communicate their message in a too linear fashion: “We do this which results in this,” or “This is the situation now and this is how it should be if we do this”.

People like Schrader show us how to do it differently.

As a writer, you usually know what you want the other person to know. But the thing is, they'll likely forget the fact. What they will remember is the feeling it gave them, and that comes through good writing, and good writing comes through feeling through it.

"My advice is to reach deep into yourself, pull out something unique and meaningful to you, then try to take that raw piece of meat and see it in the context of commercial film: how can I transform this raw meat into something a million people want to see?" - Paul Schrader.

The personal might be niche, but once you have that seed you can find ways to package it for a larger audience. Schrader ended up in hospital, reflected on how his life was going and put that experience into the context of what interested him: European cinema, American culture, news…

Too often I see videos that lack any grounding in shared reality.

Many videos only offer facts full of jargon written for the people making them. Good writing takes time. Yet for some reason, when it comes to scripting videos, the process is often done wrong.

It's done by committee, it's done in a rush, it's written to serve a list of facts. It comes out boring, lifeless, and disappears into the sea of YouTube videos.

The fact that elements in a video can be ‘dressed up’ – with animations, moving text, music – means that many people give poor scripts a pass. It’s a shame to be spending a good sum of money if a key element, the writing, is not being treated as it should be.

How to treat screenwriting

Ok so I understand we’re not all writing Hollywood screenplays. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to add more depth to a video you may create, making it more likely to move people.

The key is to seek the big idea first. Have your facts, your brief, and your aims to hand. But rather than figuring out how to piece these elements together, instead first seek the idea that will carry your key message.

A few years ago I worked on a 360 video, when it was all the rage, for the United Nations about Roma populations in Albania.

We didn’t start production planning with "how do we get the facts across to audience?". We started with the seeking the big idea: what would pull you into this world, and hopefully leave some of this experience inside of you?

The idea we came up with was for the protagonist, Fatmira, to speak directly to us. It sounds simple but this wasn't previously done with 360 videos and carried with it a number of technical challenges.

Using the video as a personal diary, Fatmira would break through the wall, looking directly at us saying: “Yes I know you’re watching me, let me show you around”. We didn’t just want to show the situation, we wanted to get viewers to step into the world alongside Fatmira.

I remember writing Fatmira's opening lines quite quickly after that. Once the idea had been identified, the language and style quickly followed.

And this is why I’m banging on about the work of Paul Schrader, because he treats screenwriting as the most serious of serious businesses. But he’s not alone, there are thousands of examples of this around us.

Another example of transcending the everyday is the poem Good Bones by Maggie Smith – her experience of motherhood and seeing the world through her children’s eyes.

The poem went viral because she transcended a feeling that sits hidden in the hearts of millions of parents, a feeling that lacked words or pictures until she expressed it in this way.

And, much like Taxi Driver, it speaks to the compromises we make as we grow older when we realise the nature of life – and does so in only 140 words.

The screenwriter and the poet both deliver their messages in wholly different forms, but what they do is take a slice of life and hold it up to us and make us say, “yes, we have witnessed and felt this”.

And here’s some news for you: you’re a human being who feels things, meaning you can find these threads of reality to use in your work as well.

I’m approaching the final scene now, and I suppose my key message is that we need to be less literal. Less fixed on delivering the facts.

Facts don’t win people over, feelings do. We need to be more transcendental in what we create.

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