Demystifying Careers: Screen Writing
Everything you see on the screen in a film was once just an idea inside someone’s head. That person held on to the idea, fleshed it out, added layers to it, created characters around it, gave them personalities and situations to endure, and added dialogues that made them come alive as people. That person, who does all the heavy-lifting by herself, much before the director and actors join in, is the screenwriter.
What is screenwriting?
Screenwriting is the craft of detailing the film on paper. Screenwriters create scripts that narrate the film scene-by-scene complete with dialogues and other details such as the location, time of the day and art work needed for every scene. The script serves as the bible for everyone involved with the film and helps them visualize and plan for it.
Screenwriting is akin to storytelling in other forms in that the screenwriter cooks up characters and scenarios and writes the story down. But where it varies from other forms of writing is that it is not meant to be consumed as text but serves as an input to be turned into an audio-visual experience for viewing on a screen.
The main job of a screenwriter is to lay out the foundations of the film for a director and the rest of the crew to build on.
The writing process is unique to everyone and every project. Sometimes screenwriters are the one to originate stories and pitch them to potential producers, directors or actors who may then come on board. Sometimes one of these may already have a concept and hire the writer to develop it. Sometimes more than one person may work on the idea with one of them developing the story and another taking it ahead and developing it into a screenplay, hence the different credits for different stages of writing you might’ve noticed on IMDB or in film credits. This video below gives some sense of how chaotic it can be.
While everyone has his/ her own process, the industry has evolved certain standards as far as pitching of scripts goes. It usually starts with a one-line idea and an associated one-page synopsis of the story that gives a broad outline of what it is about.
Once the one-pager is approved, writers usually move onto a longer treatment of the story. This could be anywhere between 15-30 pages and is a more detailed account of the story with all its plots and a beginning, middle and an end in most cases. Some writers prefer to reach the treatment in stages with a 3-5 pager first. The involvement of the producer/director varies from person to person.
The next step is the step outline which is a script sans dialogues. It’s a scene by scene breakdown of the script that provides details for every scene.
The final step in the screenwriting process is the final script complete with dialogues. Quite often in most Indian film industries the dialogues are written by specialists. So on the same film you might have one person credited for story, another for screenplay and yet another for dialogues. This practice is unique to India.
A day in the life of a screenwriter
Writing is a solitary craft with the writer sitting at her desk, hour after hour, day after day, trying to create something out of nothing. While there’s no dearth of literature online on the life of a writer, this is the central truth of any writer’s life. There is no escaping it and if you cannot imagine yourself sitting alone in a corner for hours at end, good luck to you.
A writer is never not at work. She might be strolling around or watching TV but the mind is always at work. That’s just the nature of the work. If that doesn’t happen then something is wrong. The script doesn’t come out of the writer’s head all at once. It takes time to grow roots and then sprouts out one image at a time.
What skills does a screenwriter need?
A screenwriter needs to be able to turn out scripts. Those scripts need to be filled with engaging characters with whom one can connect emotionally. Anyone who can do that can be a screenwriter, and so you don’t really need any specific degree or qualification. It’s as level-playing a field as any. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s an easy job. A good screenwriter is a great observer of human behaviour. She’s empathetic to the human condition and is a great listener.
But that’s not enough. You need an understanding of story structure and other precepts of screenwriting. Screenwriting is a craft with its own dynamics and knowledge of these is necessary even if you don’t intend to follow them.
Reading scripts and watching films are two ways of getting better at being a screen writer.
Mere knowledge however won’t take you far. You need to have an ability to hunker down and churn out the script, one page at a time. Indian film industries are driven by networks and a lot of the screenwriter’s time goes in meeting and pitching herself. This means that you should be good at pitching yourself and the story. Giving narrations is an important part of the screenwriter’s job since a lot of the actors don’t read scripts. You improve your chances of success by learning how to do narrations.
In an industry driven by networks and box-office numbers, your success depends on who you know and what people think about your work and you. The only way to get ahead is to churn out good quality work and hope that some of them get made into films, which do well at the box-office.
Of course, not everyone is in the same race to write the next big blockbuster. You may want to write a quirky independent film. What you must however realise is that the number of people looking to make a film like that, although increasing, is still very low. Most of the people making small budget films are directors who also write their own scripts. They too probably started out as writers but turned to direction since writers don’t get paid all that well compared to directors and exercise little to no control over their work. The hard truth is that it’s tough being a screenwriter in India. And yet if the passion of story writing drives you and you have it in you to be patient to encounter success you should surely give it a shot because there is a clearly a dearth of good quality work out there.
Meeting fellow filmmakers and screenwriters is important, not only for networking but also to keep your sanity. You need the company of people who aspire for similar things in life to keep egging you on. The journey can be long and tiring and you need to have a community around you to prop you up.
Take any job that comes your way, even if it’s not writing. Assisting on a film or two will only help you understand the dynamics of filmmaking and improve your writing.
Where can you find work?
Start with the places the industries are based in, so Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Kochi would be top of your list. Preferably learn screenwriting before you head out there. All film schools in the country offer full courses in screenwriting. There are other short term courses that experienced writers like Anjum Rajabali keep taking from time to time. While there is no dearth of material online these courses will help you get a sense of how things work in India.
If you are keen to learn, Internet can be the greatest teacher for screenwriters. Interviews with screenwriters, screenplay analysis and lectures on every aspect of screenwriting abound online and are just a search away.
You might have to start by doing the rounds of studios and producers. The bigger your network is the better it is. Make sure that you have some writing of yours to show when you go knocking on people’s doors. Before you start pitching your work, make sure you’ve registered with the Film Writer’s Association.
All your scripts and ideas should be registered with the body to ensure that they are protected.
It’s easy to find email ID’s or tweet to people you want to work with, but don’t expect a prompt response. The best thing to do is connect with people of your age and experience and collaborating with them. Write for free – you may have to do that anyways even with big producers – and get your work out. Short films are a great way to get started.
TV is an industry where the writer is regarded as the king. Oddly, the job isn’t considered as glamorous as writing for cinema, but the perks in TV are considerably better when compared to films. It’s a completely different ball game and requires discipline of the highest order since there’s an episode to be written every day of the week.
There’s no set formula for becoming a screenwriter. The more varied your life experiences the better it is for your writing. The only formula for success is to keep writing. Throw that smart phone away, shut yourself in the room and start writing.
SCENE 1 – INT THE WRITER’S CABIN DAY
A man sits in a dark room lit only by a laptop. He types away furiously at the keyboard oblivious to…