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The Role of the Screenwriter

Contributed By Charles Deemer

Each term in my university screenwriting class, I observe a minority of students whose enthusiasm for writing a screenplay collapses once they learn what the craft of screenwriting and the role of the screenwriter are really about. This is understandable because screenwriting is unlike any other narrative form in two very important ways:
  1. 1. Screenwriting is, at root, a collaborative form of writing.
  2. 2. In screenwriting, storytelling is more important than rhetoric.

Screenwriting As Collaboration

Other forms of writing are collaborative -- playwriting, for example -- but in no other narrative form is the writer less powerful. David Mamet has described the collaborative process in screenwriting this way: "Bend over!" Unfortunately, it's not far from the truth. The contrast between screenwriting and playwriting is revealing. In both, a writer writes a script for performance, and what the audience receives is not a reading experience but a story presented through the intermediaries of actors who are rehearsed by a director. Not one word in a stage play can be changed without the playwright's permission. Period. The text is always in the writer's control. In screenwriting, this is only the case when the screenwriter directs his or her own movie. In fact, a writer can get fired from the team developing his own script, and such firings are not unusual. Producers, directors and primary actors all outrank screenwriters and can suggest script changes. A screenwriter who doesn't make them gets fired.

Filmic Storytelling

Screenwriting is not a "writerly" narrative form. Perhaps in no other form of writing are pure language skills less rewarded or important. The reason for this is simple, although beginners sometimes don't get told so: a screenplay is not a literary document. It is not presented as a piece of writing to be read and appreciated on its own. Far from it. A screenplay is primarily two things: a blueprint for a movie and a business plan. The job of the screenwriter is to tell a certain kind of story as crisply and efficiently as possible, in an effort to get others enthused about forming a team and raising a production budget to make a movie. Flowery prose gets in the way of this effort. Only when writing dialogue does the screenwriter get to "show off" one's rhetorical mastery, and in a screenplay dialogue should be secondary to visual storytelling. Moreover, the language of the screenplay is "minimalist," the very opposite from the rich prose style of many novelists. The screenwriter must write a gripping story using junior high or lower language skills (other than in dialogue). A screenwriter isn't writing literature but a proposal -- let's make a movie!

The Bottom Line

The low station of the screenwriter on the pecking order of a production team and the relative unimportance of rhetorical dazzle are enough to chase many writers, particularly fiction writers, away from screenwriting. So be it. Those of us who remain can get satisfaction that we are telling stories in the primary narrative mode of our culture. It requires craft to tell these stories well, and we can accept the challenge of "minimalism" as a challenge to write a kind of poetry, not doggerel for juveniles. Finally we write screenplays for the best reason of all -- we can't do otherwise.

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