I have heard several anecdotes debating the merits of screenwriting. In some of those anecdotes, a literature professor tells an aspiring screenwriter that screenwriting is a “lesser form of literature”? But is it? I argue that screenwriting is merely a different form of literature, with its own rules about form and content.
The word “screenplay” itself tells you a lot about this document’s primary goal–to offer stage direction for a film’s directors and actors, as opposed to those working in a theatre. However, that doesn’t mean that screenplays can’t work as stories. A story is still at the center of a screenplay, after all. However, whereas fiction has pretty simple formatting rules (with dialogue rules probably being the most complicated), the screenwriting format is considerably more complex.
A screenplay starts with the words “FADE IN.”, followed by a scene heading (i.e. “INT. DENTIST’S OFFICE – DAY”). Next comes a succession of either action lines (i.e. “Bob walks the dog down the street, passing many fellows pedestrians”) or lines of dialogue (i.e. BOB/ Hi, Jane! How are you?). A screenplay always ends with the words “FADE OUT.”. I won’t describe the specific formatting rules here, because you can find them in other, more authoritative online or print documents. I just want to give you an idea of how instructions govern a screenplay’s format–and also its content. First, let’s break down the aforementioned screenplay parts. “FADE IN.” signals to filmmakers that a film is beginning. Thus, the cinematographer knows what the first shot will be, the editor knows how to introduce that shot (as a fade, rather than an iris or a wipe), and the director knows what shot will begin his or her film. The director doesn’t necessarily have to film it first, but it does have to be the film’s first shot. The scene heading tells the filmmakers and actors whether the scene will be indoors our outdoors, where specifically it will be, and at what time of day it transpires. The action lines tell actors what to do, and dialogue lines tell them what to say. Lastly, “FADE OUT.” signals to filmmakers that a film is ending.
So, how does a screenplay’s format govern its content? First and foremost, a screenplay can only describe what the audience can see or hear. If a character is thinking something, the screenplay must describe it as voice-over. If a film suddenly moves in time from the present to the past or future, the screenplay must specifically indicate these flashbacks or flash-forwards. And if a character suddenly moves from one location to another, new scene headings must indicate this travel. In recently writing a screenplay for an online contest, I learned this firsthand. Whereas in a short story or novel, a character can move many places within each chapter, a character can only be in one setting during each scene. The resulting screenplay may not look elegant, but a screenplay is not concerned with elegance. A screenplay’s primary concern is getting across instructions to filmmakers.
For better or for worse, a screenplay’s format can also hinder creative liberties. For example, in a novel, a writer can suddenly switch from narrative formatting to newspaper formatting, in order to indicate that a character is reading a newspaper article (the author can also do the same with letters, e-mails, or other documents). If an author wants to be really creative, he or she can insert photographs, drawings, and other illustrations, either on their own pages or in-between passages of text. A screenwriter can do none of this. That’s because a screenplay offers only visual description, and the director is in charge of visual presentation. Many people say that film is a director’s medium, and this is one example of why that might be true.
However, as I mentioned in the first two paragraphs, a story is still at the center of a screenplay. A screenplay can still feature settings, characters, and a plot (but not necessarily all three, especially for the more experimental filmmakers). If a screenplay features solid representations of all three story elements, it can still convey meaningful ideas and themes. It can be challenging to communicate these messages in the screenplay format, especially for neophytes (like myself). However, with practice and confidence, I believe that a screenwriter can produce as screenplay that is as fine a piece of literature as any short story or novel. Because a screenplay still requires words, the writer can establish a unique voice through action and dialogue lines. If that voice is unique enough, readers might even be able to determine authorship just by those lines alone. And who knows? One day, you might find your screenplay in bookstores, alongside Quentin Tarantino and just a few shelves over from Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. Different mediums can shape stories in different ways, but they don’t necessarily have to lessen the impact of those stories. So, is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane a great piece of literature? Of course–just as much as any classic novel.