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Micro Lesson: Michael Shilling on Five Screenwriting Tenets

Posted Thu, 9/29/2016 - 12:05pm by  |  Category: , ,

MicroLesson-01You’ve finished a screenplay, or a lot of it—congrats! In Intermediate Screenwriting Workshop, we’ll critique each other’s work, and on occasion look at scenes from movies and TV shows that represent the best in visual narrative storytelling. Here are the basic screenwriting concepts and tenets we will use as locus points:

1. The Skeleton, Not the Body

A great screenplay is like a skeleton—you shouldn’t notice it, but you can’t live without it. When a screenplay draws attention to itself, it gets in the way of drawing attention to what matters to the audience—the acting, the direction, the cinematography, and the other visual elements in a visual medium. Think of it in comparison to a novel. The prose writer must create every element of the world being presented, while the screenplay needs to present a set of objectives that actors use as a tool to define character as they and the director see fit. Which leads us to #2 . . .

2. Leave Everything Out

Great screenplays are full of terrible dialogue. Sound bad? Quite the opposite. Life is full of terrible dialogue too, and screenplays should mirror that living experience. Generally, we say as little as possible in our daily lives and let our body language convey 95% of what we want to communicate. With the exception of comedic storytelling, a superb page of screenwriting is mostly a bunch of grunts, one-sentence responses, and pauses.

3. The Pop Song Model

With rare exception executed by narrative masters—see Memento and Chinatown—a screenplay follows a highly predictable structure. That doesn’t make it any easier, but it does give us a simple jumping-off point when workshopping structure. A screenplay is like a pop song; you know what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less exhilarating, artistic, and significant. Just ask the Beatles.

4. Exposition Is Action—Not Explanation

Exposition, aka when characters starts explaining what is happening, is the great killer of otherwise strong screenplays. Exposition must be a form of action, showing us what cannot be inferred or understood through action, acting, or other elements of film. That said, there are a few specific ways that exposition is useful, and we’ll both look to make those moments as economical as we can and scour our work of any exposition that simply explains the obvious.

5. Raise. The. Stakes.

Effective visual narratives are about building tension in every scene, and it is the job of the screenwriter to define that tension between characters in every interaction, so that the actors and filmmakers can imbue scenes with tension, conflict, and friction. Movies are crucibles—the protagonist and his/her/their world will never be the same when it is over—so in workshop, we’ll look to purge scenes that advance this crucible and improve scenes that aren’t quite there.


michael.pngMichael Shilling is the author of the novel Rock Bottom (Little, Brown). The musical adaptation of the book was staged in 2014 by the Landless Theater Company. His stories have appeared in The Sun, Fugue, and Other Voices.