What Writing a Screenplay Taught Me

creative doing Feb 03, 2019

A couple years ago I wrote a screenplay. I’ve always been a film buff, but I’ve never had ambitions in The Cinema. So I was as surprised as anyone to find myself developing a pilot for a TV series. It all came about unpredictably, too.

I was talking with a friend who knows my life pretty well. She made a broad comment that my life story seemed to represent much more than an individual life, and deserved to be shared. In that statement, she planted a seed.

I found myself returning to her comment in the days that followed. In doing so, I think I was helping the seed grow. Different ideas came to mind: a short story or essay? Pictures? What was the right medium and method? I’d written some essays before and tried a short story once (a complete dud). Somehow, a screenplay seemed like just the right response. Moving pictures. Narrated images.

It was easy to dive in because the seed was germinating. Quickly. I started reading books on screenwriting. I started blocking out scenes and making notes. Developing characters and getting to know them. I read screenplays of TV pilots I especially admired. The project gathered momentum and increasingly took on a life of its own.

I worked on it here and there. During 15 minute breaks at work, and hours here and there at home. It didn't feel like a big deal. I was just tinkering. Because my own sense of scale about what I was doing was small, the work wasn't threatening. 

I invested in screenwriting software that would help me write and revise smoothly, without worrying about the strict formatting required by the professional world of TV and movie-making. That helped my ideas flow. I placed my characters in their individual scenes and listened for what they might say. From that close listening, dialog naturally followed.

I put the project away from time to time, which gave me the distance necessary to return to the work anew. The revisions naturally arose from the clarity of a fresh outlook.

Finally, I analyzed the underlying structure of those pilot screenplays I so admired, identified key components lacking in my own work, and made one more major revision.

I was done.

I entered my screenplay in a major competition and was thrilled to make the first cut! I wasn’t one of the chosen few, ultimately, but it didn’t really matter. I learned so much: about screenwriting, about myself, about my story. Needless to say, it was therapeutic (though that wasn’t the intent).

Writing that screenplay reminded me of the importance of tending those creative seeds once they’re planted. It reminded me of the thrill and discipline of the creative process. It reminded me that stories are designed as much as they are written.

And it reminded me that creativity has a life of its own, when we allow it to.

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