Why ‘Learning How To Write a Screenplay’ Limits Your Creativity
Or how I learned to stop learning how to write screenplays and love writing.
It is often said that a story needs to have a beginning, middle and end. Some even say that this rule does not have to be strictly sequential, that you can invert it and have a story that starts at the end and finishes at the beginning. This is one of the very few rules that I myself adhere to.
As a filmmaker, you owe it to your audience to convey some sense of structure within the narrative you want them to bear witness to. However, it is simply that; A rule and one of many rules when it comes to writing a screenplay for film or television. What they do not tell you is that the best screenplays are the ones that break rules and do not function via a formulaic understanding of the medium.
You will have no doubt come across various advertisements from ‘high profile’ film institutions promising you that you will be imbued with the screenwriting prowess of a Alan Sorkin so long as you follow their step by step process — and pay them a pretty penny. Such practices are futile in the end because all you end up doing is being conditioned to follow a pattern, robbing your screenplay of the uniqueness and individuality that one would expect from a film.
People forget that far beyond the entertainment, celebrity culture and the studio system, film is an artform of unlimited potential. The potential to pack in heaps of emotion, to surprise the audience (and yourself), to go places you did not even think you could ever comprehend is surely the most liberating feeling, and if we accept that, why would you negate such a feeling by following a template?
Why is there such an aggressive marketing campaign to get screenwriters to write a certain way? After all, we never hear of artists coming across ‘how to paint like Picasso’ pages on the web. The paranoid part of my brain fears that there is a conscious effort in building an army of human machines in order to continue this trend towards cinema of mass, unencumbered commerce where the only ‘success’ is defined by the lack of decimals in a lengthy numerical sequence.
I made my first film at 17 years old. It was a short film as part of my coursework for my A-Levels. I had no idea what I was doing, despite the countless lessons I had had prior to commencing the piece. All of the other students in my class wrote scripts, they lit their projects with these budget tungsten lights and very much followed every rule book our teacher had laid out for them. I did no such thing.
I could not conceive of a screenplay because I could not come up with something clinical and studied, even if it did amount to 60% of my overall grade. Instead, I thought about about the emotions I wanted to convey, so I created a few scenes with my fellow pupils themed on the emotions of anger and jealously. Did this result in a masterpiece? Of course not. It was my first student film, it had no actual narrative and the extended focus on the emotions of the characters was bordering on abstraction…but it was me in my purest and rawest form and nobody else had made anything remotely resembling it.
When you are ignorant of the conventions of writing and untutored in the principles of how to lay out scenarios in ways that are ‘audiences friendly’, you invite spontaneity and vitality into your script. Suddenly, there is a world of possibilities and unpredictability. You pace the story how you want and suddenly, your rhythm is one of a kind, because you defy formal training and you went out and created something purely by instinct.
You cannot hope to create original works by following the tried and tested advice of others. Yes, you can potentially go on to write works that may end up appealing to a certain demographic and even gain a degree of popularity, but that is it. There is no artistic value in writing for an audience if you do not write for yourself.
So scrap those online tutorials, let your imagination run wild and write whatever turns you on, whatever makes you feel invigorated and alive because THAT is where real art stems from.
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