Quentin Tarantino once said, “Scripts are meant to be read. Movies are meant to be shot.” He was talking about how he tends to write a lot of extra material into his screenplays – inner-monologues and prose, for instance, that are never meant to be included in the final product. He has also referred to this writing style as creating “the blueprint” for a movie, which is why the Kill Bill script was less of a traditional screenplay and more of a beautifully written novel with elements of screenwriting mixed in.
“It was like […] going onto a set with a novel and adapting it every single solitary day,” he said of his process, which provided a more flexible, collaborative, and interpretive style of filming –as well as a rare and very tangible treasure trove of character resources for the actors to plunder.
Could this be the secret to why Tarantino films are often so masterfully executed? Well, obviously this is not the only reason that his movies are taught in filmmaking classes – his directorial skills and the talent of the actors who bring his scripts to life are equally important as well – but it is an intriguing and potentially instructive way to approach our writing, nonetheless. Maybe the best way to write a screenplay is to not write a screenplay at all.
At least not at first, I mean. If you are writing for the screen, of course you will have to do some screenwriting eventually. But perhaps there is some untapped value in not conceiving of your screenplay as such in the strictest sense, especially in the beginning stages of committing your story to the page. But in a generative way – when it comes to giving your story and characters the room to grow into something truly substantial and/or transformative (that’s what we’re all after at the end of the day, isn’t it?) – experimenting with writing in other forms can open up new possibilities, discoveries, character traits, scenes, stylistic possibilities, and thematic through-lines that may not be discovered within the limitations of a singular form.
In other words, let’s say that I’m writing what I think should be a short story. I know roughly what I want it to be about, or maybe I at least have a really solid protagonist and a world for her to inhabit. However, once I finish establishing my setting and introducing my character’s relation to it, I hit a wall. Instead of bashing my head against it for hours in hopes of breaking through, maybe I’ll have better luck saying something like, okay, well, what would this story look like as a poem?
Or, if I think that the block could have come from my character not being fleshed out enough, I might think, Hm…I wonder what it would look like if my character were to actually write a poem herself. Maybe the poem somehow finds its way into the short story. Maybe just a line or an image does. Maybe you get really lucky and discover that the story in question was meant to be a poem all along. Maybe you throw the poem in the trash and never speak of it again.
Whether this additional piece of writing actually gets used in the final product, though, is irrelevant. What matters most is that you successfully tricked yourself into writing more, and you probably have a fresh perspective on your story and/or character for it. Everything that we write, after all, feeds into and informs everything else that we will write in the future.
The thing that people often forget when it comes to the screenplay is that it is, just like the short story or the poem, a literary form. Pompous English professors may like to self-righteously debate this point, but if we are to define capital “L” literature as a piece of writing with artistic merit, well, then there is no doubt about it: screenplays are Literature.
I don’t say this to give us all congratulatory pats on the back (good work, old sport, now you’re a real Author!). I say this to illustrate how there is less of a divide between writing a screenplay and writing in any other genre than we might have been taught to think.
A script tells a story. A novel tells a story. A play tells a story. A poem tells a story. A movie tells a story. A writer tells a story. Not every story wants to be told in the way that you want to tell it. So, at least in the drafting process, listen to your story. Accommodate it to the best of your abilities. Like a ceramicist, mold it into different shapes and see which one most accurately resembles your vision. Then you can glaze it up to resemble a screenplay before you fire it in the kiln.
Oscar Wilde did not live long enough to write for the screen, but the central thesis of his 1889 essay, “The Decay of Lying” holds true today: “…the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and […] Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” To do this effectively, as artists (as writers), we must find the right form of expression for the particular aspect of life that we wish to explore, critique, or extol.
If the script doesn’t get you there on its own, if you ever find yourself stuck and on the brink of giving up, look into where the life of the story wants to naturally grow and follow it. Allow your screenplay to morph and breathe and evolve until it becomes something like an adaptation of itself – richer, more textured, and as deeply realized as can be.