“There’s an old cliché: ‘work smarter, not harder.’ As it turns out, the process of skill acquisition is not really about the raw hours you put in…it’s what you put into those hours.”
The First 20 Hours, How to Learn Anything…Fast
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Painter Salvador Dalí
Is it possible to write a screenplay in one day? A feature film screenplay? Even if you’ve never written one before? Yes, to all of the above. What’s the catch? You’re not going to write that original screenplay in your head, but one that’s already been produced.
You’re going to transcribe a film. As in you are writing the script based on an existing movie you’re watching on your TV, computer, tablet or phone. (If you happen to be a court reporter that skill could come in handy here.)
I heard this “Transcribe a Film” piece of advice over the weekend from screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club) on a CreativeLive seminar he gave called The Screenwriters Toolkit.
“Here’s an assignment for you, transcribe a film. Everybody has a way of pausing and rewinding films as they’re watching them—this is a big assignment. It’s a big job. But it’s a very, very valuable thing to do. When we’re writing we’re seeing a movie while we’re writing our movie. We’re imagining it. So that’s similar to watching a film, and transcribing what’s happening. Don’t read the screenplay first and cheat that way. Transcribe it the way you’re experiencing it. Put in the slug lines, put in the action description lines, transcribe that dialogue, put in the parentheticals where you think that makes sense. It’s a very, very good exercise. And what it will eventually do is create a facility to handle transcribing your own imagination as you’re thinking of your film story…You should transcribe the whole film without questions.”
Screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club)
CreativeLive seminar/ Vocabulary & Basic Style Rules
That’s the freshest screenwriting tip I’ve heard in the last decade. It should instantly go into the screenwriting advice hall of fame.
Why do I think it’s such great advice? Because there are many people who for years have been in love with the idea of being a screenwriter—but they’ve never finished writing even one screenplay. This fixes that in one day. Granted it’s not a screenplay that totally came out of your imagination—but it’s a start. (And it might take you all day—as in 24 hours. To help yourself here pick a movie that has a sub-100 minute running time like Pieces of April—80 min., verses The Godfather—175 min.)
But at the end of the day (or the end of the week if you chunk it out) you’ll have a feature script you wrote. Then you can track down the screenplay of the movie you transcribed and compare how the screenwriter(s) who got paid to write the screenplay did it.
Then you can begin to analyze how that script is different from yours. But for now we’re just going to get it written. (No pressure here. You don’t have to show this to anyone.)
If you’ve never read a screenplay, read a book on screenwriting, or taken a screenwriting class there are just three things I want you to do as you dive into writing your first screenplay; Slug line, scene description, and dialogue.
1) Slug line/ scene headings
This is what’s written at the beginning of every scene. Examples:
INT. O’ROURKE’S BAR – DAY
INT. O’ROURKE’S BAR – NIGHT
Does that seem simplistic? Those are slug lines from the Oscar-nominated screenplay The Verdict by David Mamet. There are other slight variations (DUSK, DAWN, AFTERNOON, etc.) but INT or EXT (for interior or exterior) and DAY or NIGHT are the most commonly used.
2) Scene description / action
Example (again from The Verdict screenplay);
Gavin and Laura are in a booth. The remains of a dinner and drinks around them. They are both smoking cigarettes, intent on each other. Both a little drunk.
Four sentences that give you a clear idea of the setting.
(For the sake of economy try to limit those descriptions to three sentences or less. If you have to write more use another paragraph. In writing action movies you may have a burst of short sentences and paragraphs flowing down the page.)
Here you’re going to just write down the dialogue the characters say. Put the character’s name in ALL CAPS with the dialogue under it in the center of the page. (Screenwriting software makes the formatting a breeze.)
Example from Oscar-winning Juno screenplay by Diablo Cody. (Major spoiler alert.)
You can do that, right? Now, there are other aspects of basic screenwriting like parentheticals, transitions, character introductions, capping SOUNDS, camera directions, MORE, CON’T, etc., but unless you already know how to use those just stick with slug lines, scene description, and dialogue.
Here’s what those three look like when put together from the start of one scene by Damien Chazelle from the Oscar-nominated Whiplash script.
There are many other nuances involved in screenwriting (structure, subtext, subplots, theme, etc.) but I’m trying to demystify just the core process as much as possible for this assignment. If you have screenwriting software like Movie Magic Screenwriter ($179.95), Final Draft (on sale today for $169.), Highlander ($29.95 and from screenwriter John August and his team) or Celex (free) it simplifies the formatting process, but if you don’t just do it in Word or Pages using 12-pont Courier font. Some working screenwriters handwrite their scripts so you can even do that. (It’ll just take you a little longer and you won’t be able to have the satisfaction of having your screenplay look like a real screenplay.)
While doing this you’ll be developing muscle memory. Building confidence. Not getting caught up in analytical aspects—and sometimes esoteric concepts—of screenwriting.
One of the hardest aspects of learning how to surf is actually learning how to catch a wave. And if the waves are 3 feet or bigger it can seem like an impossible task. But go out with a surfer/surf instructor on a calm 1-2 foot day and have him or her give you a little push at the right time and all you have to do is watch your balance and stand up. You won’t be Kelly Slater, but you’ll be surfing in an hour or two.
Transcribing a film is like that. Just giving you a little nudge before you head out into the big waves by yourself.
And for the doubters out there, this method is in the ballpark of how Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino started his writing career. While taking acting classes he used to write scenes from memory of movies he’d seen. Along the way an acting coach realized that the writing was not only deviating some from the actual movies, but was actually better written in some cases and encouraged Tarantino to begin writing his own scripts.
P.S. The day after I wrote this post I decided to try this out for one scene to see how long it would take. I went to Netflix and landed on indie film Swingers (1996). Using a yellow pad and pen it look me 20 minutes to write out the opening dialogue driven scene. What I wrote lined up within one sentence of the Jon Favreau script. It was a good exercise. If I was typing it could have been done in 10 minutes so I’m guessing it would take anywhere from 6-12 hours to do a whole script.
Scott W. Smith