(Transcribed from McKee’s audio interview with London Screenwriters’ Festival)
What are the most common misunderstandings first-time screenwriters have about screenplays?
First: they think because of all that white on the page, that screenwriting is easier than novel writing or playwriting. They think that real writing is words, and if you don’t have to fill the page with words then it must be easier. What they don’t realize is that it is the opposite - screenwriting is harder in many ways than a novel or a play. In a novel or a play you can write all the wonderful expressive dialogue, pages of discourse and description to get you through the storytelling. On screen, you have to do it for the eye and not the ear, with minimal dialogue and vivid scene descriptions. The ideal approach to any scene is, “How could I write this scene visually and not have to resort to a line of dialogue.” Dialogue is the regretful second choice. Writing in pictures rather than words is much more difficult.
The second misconception that novice writers have about screenwriting is that it is formulaic. They think there is a certain structure or form for telling stories that you have to have, or certain turning points on certain pages, a formula you have to learn. That if you master that formula, you become a screenwriter. That, too, is a false idea. There is no formula for writing a screenplay, novel or great play. You have to have characters live in a world that is charged with certain values. Something happens, the inciting incident, at the beginning of a play, novel, film, television series, that radically upsets the balance of the character’s life and it propels them into action, progressively to the climax of the story. That form is not a formula. It is endlessly variable and flexible. Thinking in a formulaic way or trying to learn or master the formula is very destructive to writing.
The third misconception that novice writers have about screenplays is that they are not really about characters but about external events, not internal events. They have tendency to use types rather than complex, dimensional characters — to start with events rather than characters, and then let the characters fill out those events somehow. The emphasis on to whom something happens and why, and the way they react, is something I see young writers rarely do. I highly recommend you start with a fascinating character, build her out, make her as complex as you might like, then ask yourself, “What would it be like for this character if x, y or z happened.” Once you got a wonderful character in mind, find a fascinating way to put her life out of balance. Start with character, rather than event.
The fourth misconception - there is a long list but I will end at four - is that novice writers create on-the-nose dialogue because they don’t understand subtext. They don’t understand that what is not being said is more important than what is being said. They should try to create a kind of transparency where characters go about saying and doing whatever they say and do, but as they do that, the audience sees through them to the real thoughts and feelings, even subconscious thoughts and feelings underneath; the real pain, suffering, ambition, anger, and the real joys that are going on underneath the surface of behavior. The best way I know to understand subtext is to study films you love and isolate scenes from it, take a pencil, write what these characters actually say and do out loud, and then go back and watch the scene again and ask yourself, “What are they really thinking and feeling? What are they doing to each other that is not on the nose, and what is going on in the inner life of these characters?” When you take those notes, you will see that what is being felt, thought and done inside is a great deal more than what is being said and done outwardly. The inner life is ten times bigger than the outer life.