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On Writing a Screenplay

I have been looking into the process of writing a screenplay for some time. I have taken several classes on the subject, and thought hard about what I would write about and how I might do so. I had one project in mind to do a biography of Thomas Hardy, and I'm still holding out for that one, but there is such a lot of research that is needed to support the project, it is in a slow spin. Instead, this summer, after finishing my work on revisions, I decided to try my hand at a screenplay in relation to my book manuscript Third Testament.

Third Testament is a prequel novel for The Ido Chronicles. It describes the so-called Emergentist Rebellion, which took place at the end of the Second Exodus, more than a thousand years before the events of the Chronicles, and that led to the creation of the document called the Third Testament, cited by almost everyone in the Chronicles. I had already presented the overall story to the folk at the Synagogue in Quebec City, and they had been enthralled. One of their number claims to have an "in" with someone at Netflix, and we talked about doing something further with the story. But it would be good to have a screenplay in hand before doing so.

In my courses on screenplay writing, I was told repeatedly that the only real way to learn how to write a screenplay is to plunge into the process. There is, however, a narrative structure, called "Save the Cat", used by both screenwriters and novelists, that could help organize the project. So I adopted the Save the Cat format (you can see this in the panel on the left in the figure, which has broken the process down into page ranges for each structural element), and made a stab at it. My first efforts focused on the historical framing of the story, but I have decided that that is too complicated, and have turned back to the basic story as presented in the novel. However, that is probably too large for a single TV episode. I may end up proposing a small mini-series instead. We shall see.

The structure of a screenplay, and the process, seem quite different from those involved in novel writing. Everything is compressed in time and place, and the thought processes one can dwell upon in a novel need to find expression in other ways, as dialogue or as visuals. Descriptions of places can be present, but they need to be short and pithy. What I've been doing is copying over passages from the novel and then restructuring them for the screenplay. It is a long and challenging process.

Most people seem to think writing a screenplay is easier than writing a novel, and I guess in terms of overall time involved, they are probably right, but I find the job not at all easy. Maybe it gets smoother with practice. I certainly feel I am learning a lot by doing this. Perhaps my first screenplay will not pass muster, but it is an important step in the process of learning to do this. I don't plan to write tons of screenplays, but I do want to understand what is involved, perhaps with a view to overseeing someone else doing so with my novels.

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