THE PAGE IS YOUR INSTRUMENT
The blank script page is your instrument, in the same way a guitar or piano or horn is a musician’s instrument. The guitar doesn’t play music by itself; left to its own devices, it will sit there in silence. That is, until it is picked up and played, at which point the guitar becomes a tool through which you are able to transform your talent, emotions, creativity, practice, and experience into sounds we call music. The same can be said for the page, and writing.
However, screenwriting is unique because it involves a duality. With a novel, short story, or poem, the relationship is simple: the writer writes the words, the reader reads the words, the end. But a screenplay exists as a blueprint for a movie. While a script can be enjoyed in and of itself, that isn’t its true use in the world. There is another step to be had, turning it into a movie.
In that sense, we might say that a screenplay is similar to lyrics for a song, or a layout for a building. But while a screenplay can be well-written, it can’t have the poetic nature of a song; it needs to also serve as a blueprint for the production of the film. While a screenplay can work as a blueprint for a film, it can’t limit itself to the blunt functionality of a layout; it needs to also tell an engaging story, using the craft of the writing arts to do so.
For this reason, a screenwriter needs to develop a multi-dimensional set of skills and sensibilities. Since a script is the blueprint for a movie, it’s good to watch a lot of movies, see what works, and write in a cinematic manner.
Not just the movies that are our favorites; we should push outside of the comfort zone. If you don’t usually like horror movies, watch horror movies. If you usually watch genre, start delving into indie dramas and romantic comedy. Watch everything that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Watch films from other countries, cultures, languages, time periods. Watch TV; we are in a continuing Golden Age of incredible television storytelling.
But ultimately screenwriting is still writing, so watching movies isn’t enough; reading is the other key component.
Reading screenplays is important, of course, because we should see how other writers have solved issues on the page. But we can’t limit ourselves. We should be shoving as many words in our heads as possible. Novels and short story for the pure writing and enjoyment of story; articles, essays, and non-fiction books to understand the world (and get story ideas). Poetry and lyrics for the craft of turning a single line into a powerful image or emotion.
Someone who doesn’t read has no appreciable advantage over someone who can’t read. The craft must be developed and nurtured. The word is the tool of translation from dream to screen, with the blank page the medium; the instrument.