Scriptwriter John Patrick Shanley once said, “If you put someone in a room with no script to direct, they’re just going to sit there. Writing scripts is the execution for a show. Then the director takes that and hires people. It’s like trying to build a house without any bricks. You need a great script.”
The importance of the script tends to be overlooked in films and theatre. No surprises there, considering that it’s the finished production that we watch.
A script is a vision, your staged show or film is the product. For the final product to be desirable, the script has to be pretty damned good. Scriptwriters therefore have a responsibility to ensure that they do the best they can by their scripts. For a new scriptwriter, you may think that once you’ve got a script in your mind, you’re all set to go. But the reality is that scriptwriting itself is a journey of discovery, not just for its future audience, but for you as its writer.
Let’s say you’ve written your first draft. What next? It’s likely that you’ll do multiple read-throughs, end up making countless revisions, cutting your script with a chef’s finesse and a surgeon’s precision. At every stage, you’ll be doing research with an academic’s zeal, ensuring that your storyworld is as flawless and as believable as you can make it.
In the process of writing and revising, you will inevitably find inconsistencies in your own story. it could force you to tighten the rules of your storyworld, making it more plausible. Your notes on your storyworld may never even see the light of day, but will serve to make your story more believable for your audiences. The Duffer brothers, writers of Stranger Things, for instance, actually had a 30-page document on the Upside Down containing material that they didn’t even end up using in the first season of the show, and which may never even be revealed in its entirety (Variety).
While re-reading your script and re-thinking events, you may get new ideas for complications that might make your script more exciting. The same can be said for research. Say you’re writing a script set in San Francisco in the 1920s. Discovering that the television was invented there in 1927 might suddenly open up the possibilities for your story. Although, a word of caution from Stephen King here: “If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”
Your characters themselves can be a form of discovery. They are unique because they are distinct individuals with particular characteristics that make them, them. As you write them, they will have to change in some way. And in doing so, you learn more about them. Chances are that you will find yourself inhibiting the same storyworld as them (in your head, at least). Spending time with them can give you more insights into who they are and how they would behave in different situations. People you meet in real life may influence your characters and their development. Conversely, your characters can also influence how you see people in real life.
Knowing your characters can help your story progress. Complications keep your story going and your audience interested. Your character’s reactions to certain stresses can lead to interesting outcomes and perhaps even more complications that resolve themselves in unexpected ways.
What about your story itself? Do you know what it really is about? You may have a hilarious comedy. You may have the next tearjerker. But what is the core issue that drives that story, the soul of the story? A comedy about two drunk guys is not just a comedy about two drunk guys. It can also be a commentary on a society’s drinking culture. Yes, that does sound a tad too heavy for a comedy. But it’s important for writers to remember that scripts never exist in a vacuum. They are always affected by place and time, and will always thematically boil down to something more than what it seems like on the surface. Asking yourself what your story is really about, even if it is at the revision stage, can give you more clarity as a writer and let you craft a more compelling story.
Just like these, there are a myriad of things that your script can reveal to you as you write and revise it. You may also discover more about yourself. The kinds of topics you tend to write about, the way you write about certain things – all these can reveal to you aspects of your own character and thinking.
You may wonder why it is important to think of scriptwriting as a journey of discovery. The thing is, knowing that things will change along the way can be an encouraging thought in overcoming that hesitation to start writing, especially for first-timers. For those who have written scripts before, knowing about yourself can also inspire you to challenge yourself to get yourself out of your comfort zone. John August, in his film Go, challenged himself to experiment with overlapping narratives, while in Big Fish, he explored his own personal story to make the narrative tick (read his entire post on the lessons he learnt during his screenwriting career here).
Scriptwriting is a tedious process. It may take you days, or it may take you years. But if you feel the urge to write that script, then it is something you should do, even if it is just for the experience of having written it. After all, you’ll certainly got nothing to lose!