28 October 2010

In which Our Hero writes a screenplay.

Because why the hell not?

OK, let's backtrack a smidge.  Last month I finished Draft 10 of HI and sent it fluttering off through the ether for review.  In the meantime, I decided to start a new project.

Then it stalled.  I tried another one.  That one stalled.

I played Europa Universalis III.  It's the year 1730 and the Byzantine Empire stretches from Provence to the Philippines, but nobody wins a Nebula for playing computer games.

Tried another one.  Stalled.

I started a new game in Franchise Mode in Madden NFL 2006.  In five years, I turned moved the Cardinals to Los Angeles, renamed them the Raptors and gave them spiffy new powder blue and white uniforms, and built a Super Bowl winning team based on hard-nosed running and vicious defense (protip: when you're rebuilding a team, start up front; you can win a lot of games with five Pro-Bowlers on your offensive line). 

Nobody wins a Nebula for playing Madden, either, though in 2005, the idea of the Cardinals winning the Super Bowl in any incarnation probably seemed like science fiction.

Tried another one.  Didn't even get past the outline before I realized the idea was stupid.

Watched a lot of baseball.  That was fun until Cody Fucking Ross came along. (PS: anybody who says they thought the Giants would light up Cliff Lee and chase him in the 5th last night is a stinking, filthy liar).

Funny thing about editing a novel for three years--you get used to having the story already written.  Faced with a blank page for the first time in years, I had nothing.  I went back to the Voyager project and actually produced some updates, but I have to admit, my heart's not in that one anymore.  I want to finish because people I like like it, but that's not going to be the project that gets me moving again.

I don't really know how other people react emotionally to writer's block, but for me, it's equal parts frustration and a vague, terrifying feeling that I'm wasting my talent/career/life, with a dash of suspicion that I only really had one good story in me.  Usually, I can break out of it by writing something else--a short scene, a side project, something like that.  HI actually started as a block-breaker project that kept going.  This time, though, even the block-breakers were blocked.  I needed to do something different.

So finally, one night I sat down with a pack of Camels, half a bottle of V.O., and a 5-year old Mac, and Googled "screenplay format".

The first thing I learned was that screenplay format is a pain in the fucking ass.  Fiction manuscripts have strict requirements--1 inch margins, .5 inch tabs, left-aligned, double-space 12-point Courier and deviate from that at your own risk.  But once you have the manuscript actually set up, you just type the fucking story, and assuming you understand basic mechanics, the only thing you have to worry about is plot, setting, characters, mood, description, theme, dialog, oh god is this any good oh god its terrible oh god oh god oh god.  You know, the usual. 

For screenplays, however, practically every single element has its own tab settings, capitalization rules, spacing, everything.  This would be an unimaginable headache for me on a regular word processor.

Back to the Google.  "manuscript software mac free".  Emphasis on "free".

And wouldn't you know it, I found one, and it was compatible with older PowerPC Macs (Apple switched to Intel processors years ago).  Suddenly I had a program that would handle the formatting bullshit for me and I had no excuse.

I'm not going to pretend to be any kind of expert on screenwriting here, but give me a moment to explain some of the differences between a novel manuscript and a screenplay.  Film is a visual medium, but more than that, it's a director's medium.  A novelist is responsible for everything in the story: the physical appearance of the characters, settings, and objects, and all the action, on top of the dialog and the character's inner thoughts and any background information you want to tell with the narrative.  But in a film, much of that is the director's responsibility, and much of what doesn't fall on the director falls on the actors or cinematographer or set designer (though ultimately the director has a veto over all of them).  So a screenplay is largely dialog interspersed with short, bare-bones description, like this.


CAPTAIN JOHN FITZTHOMAS, 40, sits in USS New Jersey's control room, a circular space crammed with lights, gauges, monitors, and control panels.  In the center is a large main viewscreen.  We see an oblong brown asteroid, 617 PATROCLUS,  with a miniature city on one pole.
     Ten minutes to docking, sir.

     Thank you, crewman.

No physical description of Fitzthomas--that will be determined by whoever plays him.  No description of his uniform--that's the costume designer's job.  Just a bare sketch of the control room--set designer--and Patroclus--FX guys.  The dialog is just the raw lines; it will be up to the actors and director to decide how they're delivered.  If you were wondering if a scriptwriter has to deal with things a novelist never does like camera angles, background music, or lighting, you'll notice there's none of that.  Directors hate writers who tell them how to do their jobs.

So what you wind up with is something almost like a plot outline with all the dialog fully written.  One other thing you can't do in a screenplay is resort to inner monologue or narration to deliver backstory, the character's inner thoughts, et cetera.  The story has to be there in the dialog and the bare description.  And the story does have to be there.  The acting and music and FX will fill it out, but you need a story. 

So what am I going to do with a screenplay?  Well, the idea right now is to treat it as a plot outline with the dialog fully written.  Why?  Because I hate writing description and I love writing dialog; screenplay format lets me do a...not exactly a first draft, but maybe a draft 0.5.  An alpha build, if you will.  If the story comes together, I can fill it out into an actual novel with description and narration and the characters' inner voices.  Or hell, maybe it won't work and this is a waste of time, but at least I'm writing, which is more than I was doing last week.

Incidentally, the story?  It's set in New Jersey in the late 1990s, and involves cars, teenagers, sex, and chess.  No science fiction at all.  Maybe I needed a break from the fantastic, too.

Post Script: I know I promised the History of HI; that's still coming.  In fact, HI and this story are actually related, in a way.

Post Post Script: The software I'm using is called Celtx.  It can be found at this website: http://celtx.com/.