18th May 2011

Recently a friend of mine had one of his screenplays produced. After the initial excitement wore off, he found himself wrangling with the producers over potential changes to his script. He saw things one way, the producers another, cue heated negotiations and various bouts of metaphorical hair pulling.

I’ve been writing screen plays, plot outlines and treatments for the past three or four years, so I understand my friend’s frustrations. The feedback process can certainly leave the writer feeling lost and out of control. A salient point to remember, is that screen writing, like film making, is a deeply collaborative process, with producers, directors, development executives, etc all taking part.

Hence my metaphor of the month, screen writing as map making, or ‘script mapping’. Before computers, in the ‘olden days’, maps were hand painted by skilled draftsmen. You’ve probably seen prints of these, featuring beautifully rendered dragons swimming in the sea and ornate compasses. Yet despite these artistic touches, a map is still a map, and it must contain certain information located in specific places. The artist can’t suddenly decide to move England somewhere else because it looks better. And if they did, we’d have a lot of confused ships on our hands.

Similarly, a screen play is a map for the final film. Something that helps to guide all of those involved towards a mutually agreed outcome. It is also a continually shifting object that must be repainted when a new country is discovered. The key thing to bear in mind is that unlike a novel, there is no final script. Even those that are published (usually shooting scripts) will have altered during shooting. Equally, like maps, scripts are expected to adhere to a fairly strict set of rules and guidelines. Should the writer choose to break with these conventions, he or she risks leaving the audience to sojourn across the sea without a compass.

When a writer accepts the screen writing process for what it is, and recognizes that writing style is merely icing on the story cake, it becomes much more enjoyable. At the end of the day, if an artist wants to paint the Sistine Chapel, he or she shouldn’t be whiling away the hours conversing with the flowers and painting dragons in the margins of maps.


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