Screenwriters Are Storytellers First

A professional screenwriter said to me recently, “If someone reads my script and says, ‘Man, I really loved the writing,’ I want to punch them in the face. What I want them to say is, ‘I really loved your story.’ There’s a big difference.” He explained that the difference is that we’re primarily storytellers – and not writers.

Being a storyteller implies that the emotional content of our story transcends the words on the page and is emotionally engaging in a way that watching the film would be.

Our primary job is to tell a fantastic story that elicits the emotional response defined by our genre. If we’re writing a thriller, we should have the reader writhing in suspense. If we’re writing a horror, the reader should be terrified. With a comedy the reader should be laughing out loud, and with a drama the reader should be crying. In each case, it is the reader’s emotional investment in our characters and the situations we put them in that compels him to turn the page.

Writing prose is as much about the crafting of the language itself as it is also about the content. To this end, the written word can be thoughtful and engaging, but it isn’t limited to or confined by the same restrictions of cinema and audience expectations.

The example of “The Great Gatsby” was used, because it’s always difficult to adapt internal monologue into cinematic action. Dostoevsky’s works are another example – brilliant writings that don’t translate well to the screen. Wherein fiction can be masterful at getting inside a character’s mind, cinema doesn’t offer us that luxury in quite the same way. Cinema can offer us unreliable narrators, but still it is their actions that tell us who they are and construct the journey. If a prose story is very internal and not acted out in the world, it won’t have the same impact in a film that it would have within the mind of a reader.

So remember in crafting your scripts that what you’re evoking emotionally within the reader is the primary focus.

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