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Changing from Narrative to Screenplay OF

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Hey all! So I was recently inspired to try my hand at writing a different kind of original fiction than I've done in the past, and that is by writing a screenplay! 

It's a medium I am very interested in trying out, but I've also never attempted a screenplay before either, so I'm not sure what it's like to transition from typical narrative fiction pieces to screenplay fiction. I've got a loose idea for a sci-fi piece (short) but am anxious about writing it because of the minimalism of description/scene setting there tends to be in screenplays/plays versus novels. 

Does anyone have any tips to help me get started? 

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Well, Madi, if you're looking to write a sci-fi screenplay I think I might be the guy for you. I'll give you a few basic tips here that I've learned while working on mine, but feel free to get in touch for anything specific you come across! 

The first thing you need to know about writing screenplays is that, because you won't be writing huge paragraphs of description, you need to make sure that the few scene setting lines you do include have the maximum utility possible. You want to say the most with the least, basically. 

In scene two of my screenplay 'end of the world, after all' I have a sequence of description that I'll put in spoilers for those who haven't read it - 


Maze and Ros sit in silence, having returned from the funeral of their two year old daughter. Maze opens his mouth to speak for the umpteenth time, but little more than faint gasps fill the air. They each clutch a funeral program in their hands, the printed smile of baby Elena frozen in time. 

I knew that I had around three sentences to establish the scene. And I knew that I had to find a way to set up the conversation to come without forcing the characters' dialogue to sound needlessly expository. So, I have to establish what has happened to their daughter, the mood of the room, and for good measure - an extra detail about neither of them being able to set down the funeral program - as way of indicating that they hadn't let go of the pain just yet. 

I always go back to a piece of advice from the director Ernst Lubitsch - "Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever."  I think it applies so well to this format in particular. You want to leave those spaces for the reader to figure things out through the dialogue. Sometimes I worry about not spelling things out fully for people, but it can be really fun to figure things out and there's a perfect balance to find! 

And the last piece of advice feels obvious, but it deserves mention. Visualize! The screenplay format is all about painting a picture, even more than most other writing. If you can't picture in your head what a scene looks like, then the reader won't be able to either. Give us a place to exist inside of for a while. 

I hope some of this helps in some way! I really just dumped my brain out. Good luck! :D 

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Hi, Madi.

I just started posting my screenplay Relics, which I wrote a couple of years ago for my Screenwriting classes at the local college, and then I saw your topic!

Everything that Joey says in his answer above is good advice.  A lot can be implied in a scene heading of a few well-chosen words.  "Aurelie enters a spacious kitchen."  The reader of the screenplay knows that they are reading the script of a movie, which is a visual medium, so they will envision a suitable kitchen, and even if it is not exactly like the kitchen you envision in your own head, it doesn't matter.  Any detail that is crucial, such as

a butcher knife on the counter top, will get mentioned.  "A butcher knife lies on the countertop."

The story, being largely visual, is told in actions as much as in dialogue, so "Denis walks through the field to the barn" evokes a scene in which the reader will supply their own details. "Denis climbs down the ladder into the trench. He walks along the trench to where the skeleton is. He stops."  Specifying the necessary non-verbal action provides the (figurative) skeleton of the scene, on which the reader can hang the details, just as we can envision a living dinosaur by seeing its (actual) skeleton.   Sound effects can be specified.  "Birds are TWEETING in the trees." (Sounds are capitalized for the sake of the sound-effects guy.)

You can specify a series of brief, wordless scenes with a connected theme.  This is called a MONTAGE. (You will see a couple of examples of that in Relics, especially after I post all the Acts).  It can be a series of items (thus producing a kind of description) or a series of actions.

In a real screenplay (which Relics is not; it will never be produced), the screenwriter does not specify what people are wearing (the costume designer decides that) or what the characters look like, or what the buildings look like, unless there are definite reasons.  For example, in Relics, it was necessary, for the plot of the story, that Denis and Silvestre be tall, blond, and blue-eyed.  I took uncharacteristic liberties in describing the archaeologist Tony Newcomb and the interior structure of the chapel with more sentences than necessary, but not by much.

It is a fun challenge to figure out ways to convey an idea visually that appeared in your original story verbally. The scriptwriter can become quite inventive.

Your science fiction setting might need a bit more specificity in descriptive details, since it will be more alien that the "spacious kitchen" I mentioned above.  But try to stick to a minimum of specific weird items, only what's strictly necessary for the plot.

A screenplay is a different technique than a novel or short story, but it is fun to get into the swing of it!

Hope this helps.


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Omg @Oregonian I realized I never responded to your post and I apologize for that! This is super helpful advice — I tend to wax a little too poetic sometimes so knowing that my scene headings are meant to give the reader/actors/director/cinematographer some idea of the setting of the scene while leaving most other things alone is something I definitely need to work on. 

I’m also finding it to be very helpful to have others read dialogue and such out loud so I know how it sounds in someone else’s voice and where to cut stuff that is extraneous, awkward, or too wordy. I’m hoping to get a few more scenes posted (and the current ones up edited) soon on the archives!

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