Is screenwriting for me? (2)

Our series of guest posts is opening up to the readers, so it is now your turn. In his contribution to The Story Department, aspiring screenwriter Terrence ponders over the question that has bugged all of us some time: “Is screenwriting for me?” Read Part 1 here.

As much as I loved it for its characters and situations, my first screenplay turned out to be 132 pages long, twelve pages over the 120 page limit for screenplays.  I knew that I had to cut it down to size and began the editing process.  I came to the conclusion that I was trying to throw too much into one screenplay.  As an excited amateur, I tried to stuff all these ideas I had into 120 pages, and it wasn’t going to work. I also found that many elements of the story weren’t working together.  I was trying to force a lot of situations that just didn’t seem all that natural.


One thing I noticed in particular was my struggle to close a character’s storyline.  His name was Frank, and he was supposed to be ultimately revealed as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, a fractured creation of his mind due to the trauma of the experiences we see him go through.
I found it wiser to question whether or not I needed Frank. He was something that I fumbled with, something that just would not fit.  It was in my issues with Frank that I realized something important.  Frank may have been memorable, but he was extraneous to the overall plot.  He was a shortcut to explain certain things about the protagonist.  I had taken the cheap way out.  And because of that, ultimately Frank was cut out of the screenplay, and the story reworked.  The lesson that I learned here: All characters must exist for a reason, and a good one.

So, to elaborate on the topic of those who inhabit the world you are creating for an audience: my expertise is in the creation of unique and interesting characters.  These characters are fueled by my real life observations of all the people around me.  By simply opening up my eyes and ears, I overhear little tidbits of conversations of real people who are leading real lives, all with very authentic and genuine emotions.  I like to think that each individual is just that: an individual.  I find out what makes them unique, what drives them to do the things that they do.
In learning these things about a person, you can create a character in the same way.  Use your imagination.  Why does your protagonist do the things he does, why are those emotions in his heart?  Keep asking yourself why.  In the same way that you get to know a person, become very intimate with your character.


Great characters are not all a good screenplay needs.  As great as I was at introducing quirks and writing a unique voice for each of my characters, my screenplays often lacked a strong structure.

I’m a very verbose and structureless person.  And it’s reflected in my writing and my screenplays.  Considering that it’s in my nature to tell stories in a way that are rather indirect and in a roundabout way, changing my writing style was one of my greatest challenges.  If you asked me how to get to the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan, I’d probably tell you that you could go take the D train to 59th St-Columbus Circle stop.  I know this because I used to work the area as an outside salesman.  You get up from the station, and look north.  Across the street and down a block is a store that I made my first sale for that company.  And boy, let me tell you, it was quite a thrill.  From that day on, I decided that I would become the best salesman ever and learn to close 90% of the time.  That’s how I ended up coming across this book entitled Influence, which I bought on Amazon.  Did you know that Amazon has some of the best prices?  You can even get free shipping and…..

And somewhere along the way, I’d forget to tell you precisely how to get there.  Though you’d end up with a great story about my experience as a salesman, you’d also probably be thinking, “Okay…well, that’s great, but how do I get to the hotel?”

The same goes for your screenplay: each moment in your screenplay must be moving towards something.  Your screenplay may have great character depth, but if those characters have no clear direction, your audience will become uninterested and bored as they watch you wander around with the hero in a disjointed fashion.  As such, you have to create a compelling and dramatic story.  Remember to ask yourself, where am I going with this scene?  Does it enhance the drama?  What does it show the audience?

A screenplay is not just pages and pages of dialogue taking place in various locations.  Nor is it simply a pair of talking heads.  It is the blueprint for a film, the culmination of dramatic story telling and compelling characters.  It is an emotional experience.  It is cinema.


Later that day I meet up with Luanne and tell her about my dream.  I am a little hesitant to tell her about the extended hug.  But I tell her everything and lay it out for her, shot by shot.  As I finish recounting my dream to her, she replies with a sophomoric, “Ewww…”  I was right: she’s not very sensitive.  I make a mental note: if I ever need an insensitive and unfeminine figure in my screenplay, I’ll look to Luanne.

-Terry Ip
Self-styled perennial student of film working towards a career with a pension.

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