Setting the Scene
I write horror and dark sci-fi. My friend is a writer and an actor with a YouTube channel of short videos she’s made on her own. Last fall we partnered up to make a short film for a local Halloween film contest. I had a ghost story I’d been working on that I thought would be perfect for filming.
We would just need to transfer the story into script form. Or so I thought. I learned through the process that there is a lot more involved in taking an already written work and translating it into visuals for a movie. Taking those scenes and putting them into script form became one of the best exercises in showing the story, rather than telling it.
Finding a Format
I’ve had some experience writing scripts for original plays, but never had I taken a short story and turned out a script suitable for others to follow. I needed to refresh my memory about the basics.* While I was not concerned about sticking as closely to format as I would if I were writing a script to sell, there are some fundamentals to scriptwriting that I wanted to follow. In a nutshell, a script encompasses the dialogue, action, and settings for each scene in a film.
Some stage direction might also be included, but that’s usually left for the director to interpret. One thing you don’t see a lot of in a script is a description of emotions that the characters are feeling. Feelings are interpreted through dialogue and action, which is also what we see in great fiction. Great writers know how to tug on our heartstrings without telling us what emotions they want us to experience. Great actors are also good at this. They show us rather than tell us what their characters are feeling.
Putting it All Together
I was lucky with this script that I knew the story well. I also had a list of scenes and dialogue that the director pulled from the short story as suitable for filming. I couldn’t just copy and paste these scenes and dialogue as written directly into the script. I had to interpret them for the director and actors, to give them a sense of what the characters were feeling or thinking, without using a lot of description.
I had to turn feelings and thoughts into meaningful dialogue, body language and facial expressions in a limited number of pages. One page is equal to about one minute of film. Our movie was capped at 15 minutes. We had to be picky about what we put on film and what we left out. We needed a cohesive story with interesting characters. How were we supposed to do all of this in 15 pages?
I thought about each scene on the director’s shot list. About what thoughts and emotions needed to be expressed by each character in each scene. How the characters might best express those thoughts and feelings through dialogue, body language, and facial expressions. Silence is also a very powerful tool for telling a story without narration. I tried to stay consistent with the story arcs of each of the main characters as well as the overall meaning of the story as I was doing this.
Learning to Compromise
While the script was taking form, my filming partner and I were going back and forth with what I thought were too many substantial changes to the story based on changes we kept making to the unfinished script. We finally realized that what we needed was a better, and agreed upon, understanding of the characters in the story to settle on what it was that they were trying to accomplish in the movie.
We took some time off from the script and created mini-character sheets: what their relationships are to each other, what they want the most, and what is standing in the way of them getting it. We played with these characters for the scenes we wanted and ended up making some changes to their story arcs for the film to work.
This gets me to probably the most important lesson. While the short story I wrote was the basis for the script, the story that we ended up with for the film was not the same as the story that I wrote. In many ways, it was better than what I originally created. For purposes of showing rather than telling, some of the nuances I liked in my short story could not be communicated on the screen. Some of the original relationships between the characters were not presented strongly enough for film.
Rather than see these as flaws in my original writing, I saw much more clearly how the story arcs needed to be changed to show the story we were trying to tell for the movie. It helped me understand the characters better, by exploring them through the eyes and mind of my filming partner. I saw how I originally communicated the story in writing and how reinterpreting the characters’ motivations made them more believable.
Making these changes was tough for me, at first. I had some strong feelings about my story that I quickly learned to let go of in the interest of creating a better production. What we ended up with was a cohesive and chilling tale we are both proud of.
Sticking the Landing
Writing this script gave me many insights into how I write short stories and how I can improve my craft. It also showed me why written stories are sometimes changed for filming purposes. I used to be very disappointed when a film based on a written work did not stick to the story as written. I didn’t realize how challenging it can be to film thoughts, emotions, and nuances as they are on the page. Now, when I watch a movie that started as a novel or a short story, I think about the job of the screenwriters and how much work goes into translating words for the screen. I have a lot more empathy for those difficult decisions that bring stories to life on film.
*How to Write a Movie Script Like Professional Screenwriters (studiobinder.com)
After 20+ years with the U.S. government, A.H. Plotts (she/her) is finally settled (mostly) in California. When not at her desk writing horror and dark sci-fi, she enjoys delicious coastal cuisine, fun in the sun, and blogging about it at www.ahplottsthecoast.com. Find A.H. on Twitter (@ahplotts) and Instagram (@ahplottsthecoast) posting about her favorite authors, books, movies, cities, and restaurants.