- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

No longer is the dream to write the great American novel; it is writing the great American screenplay, says Kevin Downs, a local screenwriter who teaches seminars and classes on screenwriting.

To realize this dream, aspiring writers don’t need to relocate to Los Angeles, says Mr. Downs, instructor of documentary screenwriting at Georgetown University in Northwest. He is a board member of Creative Screenwriting Magazine in Los Angeles.

“The business itself has changed,” says Mr. Downs, who has been screenwriting for more than 20 years and currently is producing and directing his own television documentary. “Newcomers are accepted more seriously than they were in my day.”

Newcomers do not need industry connections or a membership in the Writers Guild of America, a labor union with divisions in the East and West, Mr. Downs says.

They do, however, need talent, persistence and a love for the screen, he says.

“You [have] to be lucky enough to get the script to the right person and have a quality product,” says Cori Fry, vice president of Giraffe Productions, a film, television and Internet production company based in Los Angeles.

Getting that quality product requires learning the craft, both in the technique of writing and the format of the final product, which typically runs 90 to 120 pages, screenwriters say.

“All scripts are written the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most innovative that you’ve ever seen,” Mrs. Fry says. “What’s in it is up to you, but you have to follow certain steps.”

To learn the steps, writers can take a college screenwriting class (in the metro area, American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University and Montgomery College offer classes, degree programs or both), or attend workshops, conferences and seminars (try the introduction and advanced workshops at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda).

Other options include taking online writing courses, using screenwriting software programs and reading books that focus on different aspects of the craft and the creative process.

“One of the best ways to learn about screenwriting is to buy screenplays and read them,” says Joseph Lajam, studio accounts manager for Final Draft Inc., a Calabasas, Calif., company that offers screenwriting software, services, publications and events.

Screenwriting is a concise way to write with all of the elements in the script serving the story or the characters’ development, Mr. Lajam says.

“You have to recognize scriptwriting as a different type of writing. You have to learn to think visually,” says Linda Seger, script consultant and seminar leader in Cascade, Colo. “You have to express the story through images and dialogue,” she says.

Unlike novels, screenplays cannot go inside a character’s head or provide descriptions, Ms. Seger says. Instead, thoughts have to be externalized through dialogue and action, she says.

“Screenplays tend to be much more reliant on a strong, well-structured plotline than your typical novel would be,” says Jonathan Eig, adjunct instructor of screenwriting and history of film at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus. He teaches screenwriting workshops at the Writer’s Center.

The story line of screenplays is conveyed through action, image and dialogue, he says.

“Everything starts with the idea,” says Robert Eisele, a screenwriter and TV writer who most recently wrote the movie “The Great Debaters,” which opened in December. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West, where he served as strike captain and on a strike committee during the recent labor dispute.

“You have to have an idea that has potential for conflict and a conflict that illuminates the human condition,” Mr. Eisele says.

In addition, screenwriters need to be passionate about writing, enough to want to rewrite and polish their work, he says.

“Then the craft elements fold in,” he says. “Screenplays are an economic form. They’re distilled. You have to do it all with dialogue and sense of locale, so it’s leaner than a novel.”

The creativity that screenwriters employ needs to fit into the format while they remain responsible to the audience, says Vicci Lovette Saunders, associate professor in the radio, television and film department at Howard University in Northwest.

“The challenging part is keeping the audience in their seat,” Ms. Saunders says.

To do this, screenwriters need to know how to structure and focus a story, create three-dimensional characters, sequence the story so it has momentum and a strong conflict, and provide short, concise scenes with transitions between each, Ms. Seger says.

“You have to have a story that begs to be told on film,” Mr. Downs says.

To actually get the story to film, however, does not require living in Los Angeles. Some screenwriters have never lived in Los Angeles, while some travel there or live there until they break into the industry, Ms. Seger says.

There are other ways to break in, including sending query letters, networking, working in the industry, attending pitch fests, and entering screenwriting contests, screenwriters say.

Scriptapalooza, an annual screenwriting competition for new writers, is one such contest.

“We’re here to get them through the door,” says Mark Andrushko, president and founder of Scriptapalooza Inc. in Hollywood. “In Hollywood, there’s no rules, there’s no schooling. You come in and try to break in.”

The American Screenwriters Association (ASA), a professional association based in Beverly Hills, also offers an annual International Screenplay Competition.

“What does it take to get a script noticed? First of all, if the writing is really good, that’s going to help,” says John Johnson, ASA executive director. “A good screenplay is a balance of description and dialogue and moving the plot along.”

Screenwriters typically do not sell their first screenplay, but often must write several before selling one, Ms. Seger says.

“You have to be pretty committed, and you have to love to write. Same thing for novelists,” she says.


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