Sunday, December 14, 2008

WRITING INSIDE THE BOX


Hello, my name is Marty, I am a writer of both screenplays and novels and the blog author of Dark Star Discovery. Our friend, Joylene Nowell Butler, has graciously invited me to guest blog here today.

Writing a screenplay differs from writing a novel in that (for a screenplay) everything that happens must take place inside the box. That is to say, the screenplay writer does not have the luxury of internal thought to provide reason for actions taken. Even the most astonishing turn of events must fit inside the flow of the story without reference to personal human perception.

To do otherwise, would make the screenplay too "talky" or the action too unrealistic. Motions and motives can later been explained but that explanation must also fit within the framework of the film. The following scene is from the first act of my screenplay "The Book of Tobit" a story based on one of the deuterocanonical books found in the Catholic Bible.

EXT. THE WATERS EDGE -- NIGHT
A boat is silently moving in the night haze. We see GABAEL cowering in the shadows. As the boat approaches the shore he cautiously creeps out to the light. Gabael notices a figure running near the waters edge and falls back into the shadows. To his surprise and relief, it is TOBIAS. The two men meet and embrace briefly as the boat makes a landing.

The landing party consists of three men. TWO GOONS hang back while the third person approaches Tobias and Gabael. This is the CAPTAIN of the boat. He is bearded and beady-eyed; gruff in the manner of a smuggler and extortionist.

CAPTAIN:
Have you got the rest of the money?

GABAEL:
Yes, it is all here...five thousand dollars!

CAPTAIN:
It is not enough for the two of you.

GABAEL:
But is the sum we agreed to... it is all we have... it is everything we have.

CAPTAIN:
Things have changed; five thousand dollars only buys you ONE passage. I picked up a man earlier and I could not get him to leave his children behind. There is little room left in the boat.

A view of the boat shows a father huddling two children close in his arms. Although he looks terrified he is reassuringly running his hand through the children's hair. The captain develops a growing smirk.

CAPTAIN: (CONT'D)
But for an extra two thousand I am sure I can persuade him to leave one of the children behind. And for five thousand more we could all reach the Swedish Coast in comfort.

The Captain and his men stand with Tobias and Gabael near the water.

GABAEL:
We have no more money, our family's whole fortune has been taken from us, confiscated, stolen by the Nazi's and other men like you. Our contract was...

Gabael steps forward - but the goons now come menacingly into the scene irritated by his last statement. Suddenly, Tobias steps to the center.

TOBIAS:
Captain, please give us a moment to confer.
(addressing Gabael)
Come with me, there is no use in arguing here - come.

The captain waves off the goons and speaks with irritation as Tobias pulls Gabael out of the scene.

CAPTAIN:
Decide quickly how you will pay or we leave without you. We must keep to our schedule if we hope to make it through.

Tobias pulls Gabael far away from the Captain and his men and turns to face him. The boat is bobbing in the background between Tobias and Gabael. As they face each other their exhale in the chill night air inter-mingles and obscures the shadow-draped boat.

GABAEL:
(angrily)
We have no more money to spare for this man. The price of passage to America still must be purchased.
(in resignation)
Maybe we could earn another two thousand while in Sweden, but that may take us years.

Tobias looks out toward the children in the boat. A small boy is sleepily looking back at him.

TOBIAS:
(comforting)
Gabael, listen to what you are saying.
Are not the lives of these children as sacred as our own?
We are no better than the Nazi's if we can bargain away their existence.
You go; the price for one to travel is five thousand dollars... take all the money and go. Others may later demand double price for the trip to America. Take MY money... it will assure you of survival. Accept this gift and GO!


Tobias (unseen by the others) holds out his PURSE to Gabael. Gabael is in shock by Tobias' offer; he is shamed by his own selfish concerns; and he is humble in the discourse that follows.

GABAEL:
Tobias, I am sorry for my words and my weakness. I pledge to you that I will never again, think to harm another. I promise you, that half of all I ever own is yours. In America, I will labor with your gift always on my mind. May God preserve you until the day when we can meet again. Then you shall have all that I promise you. I make this promise perpetually, to you and, if God wills, your children. Only remember my name; Gabael Ben-Gabri and I will remember yours; Tobias Nahum. When these two names are spoken in turn, I will honor my pledge.

Gabael takes the money from Tobias' hand and they embrace. Suddenly something is happening over by the waters edge. The captain and his men are running to the boat. The sound of a truck is heard in the distance and the sweep of headlights is seen approaching. Tobias and Gabael race to the boat.

The Captain and his men are grabbing oars, and tossing them into the boat. There is great anxiety and expedience in their action. Tobias and Gabael rush to the side of the Captain.

CAPTAIN:
(quickly)
The night patrol is early. We must leave now. What have you decided to pay?

TOBIAS:
Five thousand dollars will buy us one passage, we will take one.

CAPTAIN:
Uh!?!

The captain is startled by this unexpected answer and chagrined at the loss of extra money. But with the night patrol closing in he has no more time to bargain. He motions for the passenger to get into the boat. Gabael quickly steps forward and climbs aboard.

CAPTAIN: (CONT'D)
Come on get in, get in.


Gabael standing in the boat turns and strikes his fist over his chest and again pledges his promise to Tobias.

GABAEL:
I promise you, that half of all I ever own is yours. To you and to your children. REMEMBER our names are TOGETHER!

The goons push the boat out into the water and then climb aboard and row into the night and out of the scene. Tobias is alone, the sound of the truck is now very near. Tobias turns to run from the scene. A series of AUTOMATIC GUNFIRE rings out and bullets erupt in the sand at his feet. A chorus of SOLDIER'S VOICES beginning to rise ahead of him.

SOLDIER'S VOICES:
Halt! Halt! Halt!

15 comments :

  1. Makes me realize that screenwriting is a good practice for any kind of fiction. You're left making the words/dialogue express the characters feelings without the aid of tags, descriptions or narration.

    That would be an excellent way to learn how to write effective dialogue.

    Thanks, Marty!

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  3. Joylene, thank you for allowing me the opportunity share this post with your readers. It is true that in screenwriting dialog drives the story - but, it is the collaborative effort with directors and actors that elevates the written word to art.

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  4. Is screenwriting difficult to write, Marty? How do you deal with setting?

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  5. Oh the joys os writing screenplays. I know them all too well. I have a screenplay written for each one of my books. What a transitional form of writing, to say the least. It took me a while to get used to inside the box. Nice article and all too true.

    Ernie - aka Author Ernie Johnson

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  6. Sam, I thought about my story for ten years before committing to paper. There are many excellent books on creating screenplays and several software programs available for formatting. The real work remaining is to create realistic dialog and a captivating storyline. Still, screenplays are hard to write, and although my screenplay is a great story it has proven harder to sell. I do have another couple of screenplays in my future but my current project is a mass market novel.

    Ernie Johnson, Thank you sir for your comments - your statement "transitional form of writing" is one of the best descriptions of the screenplay experience that I have heard. Indeed - because they are meant to be acted by others - screenplays by nature are fluid and uncompleted until filmed.

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  7. since both Marty and Ernie have written both screenplays and novels, which is easier, and why?

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  8. Thanks for stopping by, Ernie. I have to admit, I know absolutely nothing about writing a screenplay. I've thought of it though, especially after I've watched a really bad movie and thought "Even I could do better?"

    Sam's got a good point. Which is harder: novels or screenplays?

    Is there a specific reason why some screenplays don't transfer well to the screen?

    Novels need strong characters and a believable plot. Isn't it the same for screenplays?

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  9. Sam and Joylene, Writing only for myself (and with my limited experience) I honest feel that both genre present very different challenges to the writer. My current novel started out as a screenplay but when I encountered a story point that I could not tell "inside the box" I had to make a decision; either convert to a novel format (where I could explore the moral makeup of my characters) or forget the story altogether. To this point I have written the equivalent of three screenplays without an end in sight - but the story is going well and I am still happy with my decision.

    I want to return to writing screenplays in the future, because I do enjoy telling a story within the structural framework that a screenplay provides. In the end, I want to tell the best story that I can - and I will use whatever method is required.

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  10. The good thing about this is if your novels are ever turned into films, you'll be able to offer your services in writing the screenplay. This very thing has always struck me as a vital part of success.

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  11. Joylene, Actually part of my "reasoning" in writing a novel was to gain name exposure for my screenplays.

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  12. Sam, I'll tell it like it is. I'd rather write a book. It's so much easier to write a book than to sit down and write a screenplay.

    In a book, every thought or idea, I can convey through either dialogue or narration.

    If you write a screenplay, if the camera can't see it, or hear it, it doesn't go on the screenplay.

    Example: In a book, you can say - He thought about jumping off the bridge as he stood there on that dark and cold night.

    In a screenplay, however, you can't see a person's thoughts. That same scene, would have to be portrayed through dialogue.

    Ernie

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  13. Joylene, some books don't transfer well to screenplay because of the example(s) I just mentioned. If a book has too many thoughts or ideas, it's hard to convey those thoughts or ideas into credible dialogue. Dialogue, in screenplays, cannot seem forced. When you transpose a lot of thoughts or ideas, that weren't in the original book, a lot of times they are forced, and distracts from the quality of a screenplay.

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  14. Thanks, Ernie & Marty. You explained yourselves very well. I understand. I also get it why "Dexter" is full of voice over. So much more is conveyed that the viewer wouldn't understand otherwise.

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  15. Some of the best screenplays written are available online. I think they're an excellent learning tool.

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