Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why a feature film's like a close third person novel

I'm a student on a feature film screenwriting course held at Screen Academy Scotland. I've already got a screenwriting MA, so why am I taking this new course? There's a bunch of answers to that question. For a start, I've never written a feature-length screenplay. Up to now 60 pages has been my limit.

Imposed deadlines is another reason. I've been meaning to write a feature for years, but never actually got round to  doing it. [I was going to write one as the capstone project of my MA, but opted for a TV drama pilot and series bible instead.] Taking the course imposes deadlines on me, forces me forwards.

As a freelance writer, undertaking a major project purely on spec is a scary investment of time and energy. Paying gigs will always tend to take precedence. But you have to be devising, developing and writing new material, adding to your portfolio to showcase your talents and range as a screenwriter.

Last but not least, there are fundamental differences to writing TV drama and a feature film, as I'm rediscovering on the course. I write for Doctors where you're juggling at least two [and, more often, three] storylines in a single half hour script. My original pilot scripts are also multi-stranded narratives.

Feature films tend to focus on a single protagonist and their major dramatic question. Sure, there are subplots and other strands running through the narrative. But the core of your screenplay is usually one character's journey, with all the subsidiary plots and characters reflections or extrapolations of that.

It reminds me of writing a third person novel where the viewpoint is closely focused on the protagonist. Yes, you might have cutaways to other characters and their subplots, but the majority of screen time is devoted to the protagonist, their endeavours, their journey, their story. It's all about them, basically.

The screenplay I'm developing on the feature film course might well end up with Emily [my female protagonist] in virtually every scene. That should help bind the audience to her, hopefully creating empathy for her, and thus cements Emily's position as the central viewpoint character in the narrative.

As you can tell from the above, my project is still undergoing considerable development. Our next task is turning a three-page outline into an eight-page treatment. The outline's job was to communicate the essential plot and pacing elements. Now it's time to dig deeper, convey the mood and tone. Onwards!

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