No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"We'll have no lynchin' while I'm Sheriff" - Writing the Photoplay

Cinema hasn't been around all that long.

What are we talking? A hundred years and change? Close enough.

At the turn of the century in 1900, not long before Captain Nemo piloted his steampunk submarine through the perilously narrow underwater corridors beneath Venice (work with me, people), motion pictures first bumped into the concept of 'continuity' -- that individual shots could be strung together to create cinematographic narrative.

No longer limited to showing a single shot of a puppy crossing the road, now filmmakers could show a series of shots in an edited sequence, eliciting a much stronger emotional reaction from the audience:

  1. Shot of man driving a 'motor wagon'
  2. Shot of puppy playing on road
  3. Shot of man driving a 'motor wagon'
  4. Shot of puppy playing on road
  5. Man driving a 'motor wagon'
  6. Puppy playing on road
  7. Man driving
  8. Puppy playing
  9. Man...
  10. Puppy...
  11. Puppy explodes
  12. Man explodes
(Think I'm making this up? Go visit the Wikipedia article, people! Don't expect to see the bit about Captain Nemo because some clueless revisionist reverted my edits. For those of you new to the intarwebs, Wikipedia is like a big, loud party where the only guests are funny drunk NASA scientists, unfunny sober Historians, and a whole bunch of those Morons who dress up as Knights of Ye Olde Round Table and drink homemade meade and carry D20s in their codpieces. And ALL of them are yammering in your ear at the top of their voices. Except Stephen Hawking. He's in the corner making out with a girl dressed like Princess Leia. That's W-I-K-I-P-E-D-I-A. Nailed it!)

So. Continuity. That created a problem. Now the burgeoning film industry needed somebody to think very carefully about what to shoot and how to put those shots into meaningful order. Somebody had to pre-imagine the narrative, then break it down into individual shots flowing together to form a cohesive and compelling story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

That 'somebody' was NOT Michael Bay's grandfather.

That 'somebody' was ... The Screenwriter!

Who would've dreamed that a century later I'd be graciously accepting the Nobel Prize for summing up 100 years of screenwriting history in a couple of paragraphs involving a steampunk submarine, a puppy, and the word 'cinematographic.' Certainly not me.

So. Cinematic storytelling. Much has changed in a hundred years, right? Generations and their cultural shifts have come and gone. Things must've changed a lot for screenwriters in between those Olden Days and these Modern Times.

Well, let's look and see. Here's a screenwriting manual from 1913 titled Writing the Photoplay. That link is for Google Books; you can get the text version from Project Gutenberg.

What's this book about?
"This book aims to teach the theory and practice of photoplay construction. This we shall attempt by first pointing out its component parts, and then showing how these parts are both constructed and assembled so as to form a strong, well-built, attractive and salable manuscript."
You're forgiven for thinking you've stumbled into a McKee seminar. Put your wallet away. You won't have to pay a dime for this advice from a couple of fellows who were there at the birth of your profession: J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds.

Now, 'photoplay' means a silent movie, right?
A photoplay is a story told largely in pantomime by players, whose words are suggested by their actions, assisted by certain descriptive words thrown on the screen, and the whole produced by a moving-picture machine.
No spoken dialogue? That has to be a major drawback to storytelling, right? How did screenwriters -- ahem, I mean photoplaywrights -- deal with such a disadvantage...
The spectator at a photoplay entertainment must be able promptly and easily to discover who your characters are, what kind of people they are, what they plan to do, how they succeed or fail, and, in fact, must "get" the whole story entirely from what he sees the actors in the picture do... The photoplaywright depends upon his ability to
think and write in action, for the postures, grouping, gestures, movements and facial expressions of the characters must be shown in action, and not described as in prose fiction.
Man, that is brutal: the whole story told through the actions of the characters, with only the ocassional title card for dialogue or direction?
Action is the most important word in the vocabulary of the photoplaywright. To be able to see in fancy his thoughts transformed into action is to have gained one goal for which every photoplay writer strives.
Telling a story through action. Almost a hundred years later, has that requirement changed?

Do you write a treatment or block outline before you launch into the first draft of your screenplay? These can run 20 pages, 30 pages, even 60 pages. Those of you who do are writing a photoplay as described in this book. You are following the same storytelling process used by photoplaywrights from a hundred years ago. Fancy that!

In your outline/breakdown you'll write mostly action, conveying the entire story in its broad, bold strokes, and you'll drop in snippets of important dialogue, similar to photoplay title cards. When you progress to the next step -- your first draft -- what you'll be doing is adding dialogue to convey the parts of the story that can't be told effectively through actions alone. Sure, you're also adding dialogue to normalize the story, because it would be creepy to watch a film lacking the normal ebb and flow of human conversation. But essentially you are writing a photoplay.

And the rules back then are the same rules now driving the art and craft of storytelling on screen: tell your story so that the audience can "promptly and easily discover who your characters are, what kind of people they are, what they plan to do, how they succeed or fail."

So I hope I've encouraged you to spend an hour reading Writing the Photoplay and see what's changed -- and what hasn't -- during the hundred years of the Photoplaywright's trade.

PS. I need a snappy catch phrase for signing off my posts, e.g. You can't sell it if you don't write it (Script Girl); Go INTO the story (Scott Myers); Just effing entertain me! (Julie Gray).

I'm thinking along the lines of:
  • The voices told me to!
    Yes, I know it won't hold up in court
  • They can't fire you if they can't find you
    Too glass-half-empty?
  • All this AND hookers?
    Let's not count our chickens just yet
  • Art is what's left when you take the F out of fart
    That'll do, pig. That'll do.