It's that time of year again when I find myself compelled to scamper around watching as many Oscar films as I possibly can before the big event. (Sort of a PokémonGO activity for movie fanatics.) This year, I've sort of outdone myself and broken down the walls into genres I tend not to care about so much. Arrival and Hell or High Water were the biggest departures from my book and film comfort zone, and I am so glad I decided. How the academy is picking a best movie from this year's insanely moving and powerful nominees, I have no idea.
And as many other writers, I hope a special spot in my heart for both original screenplay and adapted screenplay awards. Realistically I will sadly never grace the screen with Leo or Brad, but what if...just what if a short story or book I write ends up getting adapted by a screenwriter? Or better yet, I hone my skills and adapt something myself? There's a lot to be learned from the adapted screenplays which is why whether it's Brokeback Mountain or Hidden Figures, I often try to read the source story first. Watching what translates to screen is an excellent exercise in learning how to edit the fat down and make dialogue and action points more authentic. In fact, doing so for a number of years helped me evolve my own writing activity for my short stories, one that I'd love to share and strongly encourage if you're looking to discern the heart of your story.
It's not too terribly difficult, either.
First, go to a site like First Draft and read one of their tutorials. If you fall in love with doing this, you might progress to purchasing screenwriting software, but it's not necessary. Plenty of free ones out there. Celtx is a personal fave of mine.
Once you've learned the ropes, highlight digitally or with a good old-fashioned highlighter all the lines of dialogue in your story. These are your bread and butter and have to carry themselves well without excessive narration. In isolation, you may find that some of the lines fall flat - a good hint that in the story itself they need more oomph and purpose.
This part is tricky. Start slashing narration. Look, instead, for the action moments and include more of those. The narration is still needed, but a screenplay visually leans on dialogue and action. Narration is on a need to know basis. If it's not essential, it doesn't make it to the script.
Finally, and this is where having a writing group counts, ask a few folks to read the script for you. If they stumble over the dialogue, there's a problem. It will also allow you to see how easily they fall into character and if you've created characters that have different voices or are they really echoes of one another. Take notes. Lots of notes.
And when all is said and done, return to your story with a fresh eye to reexamine what could be cut and what perhaps is missing to build the tension, to flesh out the characters, and to give your story a pulse. All of this may seem like an extra phase in the editing process, but I promise, it's fun and a need way to stretch your brain in terms of writing skills.
And who knows, maybe you'll fall in love with screenwriting and I'll see you on that Oscar screen in a few years. Happy writing!
A mother, teacher, and writer who enjoys all good stories and believes in the magic we can make every day by telling them.