Screenplays  - 1

Founder Chat with Nancy Blanton and David-Matthew Barnes

The manner in which a small group of friends helps one another with thorny writing problems is one of the roots of Amelia Indie Authors. Occasionally, we'll share a Founder Chat -- one of the founders interviewing another author about an area of particular interest or expertise. Here, novelist Nancy Blanton checks in with David-Matthew Barnes about writing screenplays -- something for which he has won numerous awards. 

Upon completing a recent blog post, I realized I had the core for a new book set in the 17th century. I began blocking the content right away and began the first chapter. Starting a new project like this is an exciting time full of outrageous dreams and marvelous promise. As I watch historical programming on BBC, Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere, my story could be a movie, at least, if not a series like Poldark, Outlander, or Versailles.

But I have never tried writing for the screen before. Am I crazy? Should I just wash the dishes and get a hold of myself?

Fortunately, a dear friend introduced me to someone with some answers. David-Matthew Barnes is the award-winning author of several novels and collections of stage plays and poetry. He has written over 50 stage plays that have been performed in three languages in nine countries. His work has appeared in over 100 publications. And so I am deeply honored that he has agreed to answer some questions about writing screenplays. Thank you, DM, for sharing your knowledge and experience. Here goes:

Nancy: First of all, how do you know if a story idea has potential as a screenplay?

DM: Screenwriting is really a form of visual storytelling. When I start working on a project, one of the first things I do is determine what form suits the story the best. When a strong visual component is there, that’s a big indicator that the story needs to be told on a screen instead of on a stage or page.

Nancy: Some film or series productions are based on novels, while others are developed directly for the screen. Either way, there has to be a screenplay. What are the main differences between a book and a screenplay, other than length?

DM: There are many differences between books and screenplays, all of which can make the adaptation process difficult. In most cases, when audiences reject a film version of their favorite book, it’s related to the screenwriter's difficulties adapting from one form to another. Novels and screenplays are written so differently that they’re not always compatible when it comes to adaptation. One of the biggest challenges is adapting a novel written in first-person narrative into a cinematic story. In a book, we have insight into the character's internal thoughts and emotions, but translating that onto the screen can be tough.

Nancy: When would it make sense to start with the screenplay instead of a book?

DM: I recommend writing any story in multiple forms and then deciding, as the writer, which form is the strongest choice. Some stories will only work in one form, so the decision is made for you. I often know immediately that a story is a screenplay when I visualize the story more than I hear it.

Nancy: What if I already have a novel with potential for the screen? What is the best starting place for an author to adapt a book into a screenplay?

DM: This can be a really helpful exercise for any writer who thinks their novels have cinematic potential. By adapting your novel into a screenplay, they will inform each other. For example, whenever I adapt a novel or play of mine into a screenplay, I always end up going back to the original story with new discoveries I’ve made by writing the same story in a different form. Writing a screenplay is challenging, especially because the format is so specific. I really recommend that if a writer is considering a screenplay, they should take a screenwriting course. If anything, this will help with learning and understanding the complexities of the format, the rules, and why they’re necessary.

Nancy: Is it common for authors of novels to do their own screenplays or is it better if done by another writer?

DM: I highly recommend that if a novelist indicates interest in adapting their book into a screenplay,  they write the screenplay. I know many writers who will write the screenplay version while they’re writing the novel simultaneously. Emma Donoghue did this very thing with her novel Room. When producers came to her wanting to adapt the film for the screen, she already had a screenplay ready for them. Who knows the story better than the person who created it?

Nancy: It is my understanding that all good screenplays follow the same basic structure. Is that true in your opinion? Have you tended to follow any particular guideline, or does the idea that ‘rules are made to be broken’ apply in this case?

DM: Screenplays for most American-made films follow a fairly similar three-act structure, with significant plot points happening at prescribed times in the film. This has much more to do with an audience's attention span rather than storytelling. For this reason, I tend to watch and admire foreign films and TV shows more, as they tend to not only break these rules but demonstrate a greater devotion to true storytelling, especially where character development is concerned. I’m all for breaking the rules, but it’s important to learn the rules first so you know how and when to cross those lines.