Monday, June 6, 2011

So You Wanna Write a Screenplay?

I met Barb Lund-Gerry when we were both writing as columnists for the Spokesman-Review VOICE about four years ago. We realized right away we were kindred spirits and since that time have become dear friends. This amazing woman celebrated her 80th birthday last year and recently decided to become a screenwriter. To me, her energetic, can-do spirit serves as inspiration; and proof that age is only a state of mind. I am so pleased this lovely, talented woman agreed to share some of her writing thoughts with us. I hope you enjoy her post.

Barb Lund-Gerry
Barb was born Chicago, in the height of the Depression. She worked in the fashion industry in Chicago and in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, area until age 50. She did modeling, platform speaking, fashion show production and even had her own television show on charm and beauty. She retired and moved to California, for R&R; riding her bicycle along the beaches for two years before getting back in the race. She worked as an independent marketer for various industries, a job that demanded she write ad copy, promotional brochures and instruction sheets for fashion programs as well as for biological monitoring programs for industrial doctors. She moved to Coeur d'Alene from California, in 1988. In 2003, she served as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for Agency on Aging and began writing a monthly column for them in the Coeur d'Alene Press in 2004. In 2007, she branched out to writing columns for The Spokesman Review’s VOICE and the Panhandle SeniorGazette newspaper. Her latest adventure – a stretch, she says, “like everything else I’ve tackled,” is learning how to write screenplays. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, but I’m hooked.”

So You Wanna Write a Screenplay?

Yes, I do...or, so I thought.

Gee whiz, I said to myself, when I first read a screenplay. This looks soooo easy…it’s a whole lot easier than writing a book. Just think of it: the movie set, with its d├ęcor, lighting, sound effects, and furnishings; and the actors, with their dialogue, facial and body language, their costumes and general personas - they're all doing the (writing) job for you.

Hmmm, I already knew that…and that’s what appealed to my inner lazy bum about screenwriting…it just looked so darned easy. There was no need to struggle with pages and pages of tedious description.

Well then, if it is so all-fired easy, why am I having such a hard time doing it?

The screenwriter’s job is to show not tell the story. And…there’s the rub.

It’s our job to write dialogue, give information on time of day and location of action, and to give the director and actor brief, written instructions to clarify the intent of the scene they’re about to do. But I seem to be trying to cram the story into these lines of instruction that precede the lines of dialogue.

That’s a big no-no.

I’m afraid there’s a lot more to this screenwriting thing than meets the eye, but it’s fascinating, fun and challenging. So, I was delighted with the idea of joining the screenwriting group that Mary Jane is facilitating.

This group’s members run the gamut from novice (me) to people like
Mary Jane herself, whose award winning script is now being readied for actual filming and production; it’s scheduled to start filming this July. (Congratulations, Mary Jane!)

Another group member is Bob, a grandfatherly sort – a film industry professional who has enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, the Mecca of film production. He’s been involved in all phases of film-making – he’s written original screenplays; he’s re-written scripts, he’s produced, directed, and he has acted in films. This easy-going guy knows the ropes – the real “nitty-gritty” of writing a good and saleable script. And, he enthusiastically shares that wealth of knowledge with all of us.

Attending the screenwriter’s group is a real shot in the arm for me at least three reasons. One, it gives me incentive. I don’t need to remind you, my fellow writers, writing is a pretty solitary sport. Not only do we fret about being good enough, but, we have to cleverly head off the dreaded writer’s block.

Two – a productive discussion about our project is of immeasurable value.
No matter how many times we re-read our piece, we can still miss the fact that we have mislead, lost or confused our reader.

We need to know if our work is clear; is it compelling? Are the characters believable, interesting? Do we whet the readers’ appetite for more (so they will turn to the next page?)

The third reason why the group is a shot in the arm is it just feels so good to be in the company of screenwriters.

Last night I went to the workshop with 6 copies of a scene from my screenplay, eager for the groups’ critique. It was with great anticipation that I passed the copies around. As the group read my 7 pages of script, the silence was palpable for me and I nervously searched their faces for some reaction.

Actually, I didn’t know what kind of reaction to expect. Finally they looked up from their reading, exchanged looks with each other and with me. Then, in a very professional manner, each person offered me good, honest, yet kind, suggestions about my script. This evolved into a productive discussion about my script and its story.

Their consensus: I was telling, not showing my story. The group gave me examples of how to “show” my story through the dialogue instead of telling it in the director’s notes. So helpful! I was pleased with their sincere interest in the theme of my story. Best of all, they all agreed it was indeed a tale worth telling.

The take away lesson for me: every word of dialogue is there to advance the theme of the story and unfold the plot. Aye, that is the rub.

This screenwriting thing…it looked so easy…it’s anything but. However, I am hooked.

The screenwriting group Barb refers to is the Screenwriter’s Special Interest Group(SIG) through Northwest Independent Film & Video Entertainment Society (kNIFVES) of which we are both members. The group meets the third Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in Coeur d’Alene. Anyone interested in screenwriting may attend and check us out. Please call me at 208-691-9730 for more information.


Beth Bollinger said...

Very interesting summary of the process - and isn't it the truth? The switch from prose to dialogue - to the visual - takes effort, I agree. I've had the chance to talk with Barb too - a great lady! Sorry I missed that installment of the writing group. Will try to attend next time.

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks Barb. From the little I know about screenwriting you are right on. It's amazing how differently one must think when writing for the screen where your story is experienced through sight and sound rather than words on paper. Fun stuff.