Why screenwriters should take the oral before the written

by on August 20, 2010

in Screenwriting tips

Oral storytelling around a campfire

A lot of screenwriters won’t share their stories until they’re “finished”. Here are 2 reasons you should tell your stories before you write a word of your screenplay.

One of the early exercises we do in the Graduate Certificate of Screenwriting at AFTRS is get people to tell a story of an event that changed their lives. Not write a story. Tell a story. To the class.

For many, this is a nervous occasion. Writers are often shy by nature. But do you know what? I’ve never heard a bad story. And I’ve heard some truly cracking yarns. Before they’ve had any coaching in storytelling, our students are able to tell compelling tales with a clear beginning, middle and end. They naturally hook, escalate and resolve. They make us laugh. They make us cry. Often in the same story. How are they able to do that? Because they’ve had a lot of practice.

By the time we reach our 20s and 30s, we are seasoned oral storytellers. We’ve told stories to our friends at school. We’ve told stories around the family dinner table. We’ve told stories at the pub. We’ve told stories – often slightly exaggerated – on dates. And in job interviews, we’ve told absolute whoppers. We’ve been telling stories orally pretty much every day of our lives. So we’re good at it. We know what works and what doesn’t work – without ever having had to take any classes in it.

By comparison, how much experience do we have in written storytelling? Not a whole lot. While we’ve told literally thousands of oral stories, how many stories will we have written? 100? And in many of those, we’ll possibly be relating what we’ve already honed orally. How many fictional stories have you created on the page? 10? 20? We haven’t had as much practice at it and so, not surprisingly, we’re not as good at it. How do we get better at it? By using our highly developed oral storytelling muscles. By sharing our stories verbally before we commit them to the page.

Most screenwriters – in Australia at least – don’t like to tell people their stories. Why? Out of fear mainly. We’re scared someone’s going to tell us that our ideas aren’t as good as we hope they are. That’s human and entirely understandable. But it’s no way to run a career. Here are 2 reasons why I would encourage you to share your film ideas and stories orally before you write a single word of the screenplay.

Firstly, it might save you wasting years of your life. If your film idea isn’t strong enough to interest funding bodies, producers, directors, actors or the cinema-going public, why spend time writing it? Sure, it might be cathartic, but if that’s all you’re after it would be cheaper and smarter to engage a therapist. If you’re serious about making a living out of screenwriting, you need to work on ideas that have a better-than-even-money chance of getting made and putting bums on seats. Even films with strong ideas and well-crafted screenplays struggle to get made and find an audience. If your idea can’t cut through the media clutter to generate a buzz, all the craft, dedication and perspiration in the world is unlikely to get your film made or deliver a return to your film’s optimistic investors. So isn’t it better to find out sooner rather than later and commit your energies instead to developing a stronger film concept?

But, getting feedback from other people isn’t the main reason I encourage you to share your ideas. The most beneficial part of orally telling your film stories is that it lets your draw on your highly developed oral storytelling instincts.

There is some weird kind of disconnect that goes on when we put words on a page. We know how to tell a good story. Yet, for some reason, when we sit in front of a computer and type into Microsoft Word or FinalDraft, our storytelling sense sometimes vanishes completely. The story isn’t working. But we can’t see that it isn’t working.

Yet, the moment we sit in front of someone and start to relate what’s on the page, the failings of the story become apparent. We don’t need the listener to tell us that it’s not working or see them nod off, we can tell as the words come out of our mouths. Why? Because we’re seasoned oral storytellers. Because we know how it feels to tell a good story. Because we’ve been doing it all our lives.

I know it’s hard. And I know it’s scary. But if you really want to be a screenwriter, I encourage you to overcome your fears and share your stories BEFORE you write your screenplay. Got a new idea for a film? Share it with someone you trust. Have a rough shape for your 3 acts? Share it. Have a fully developed story outline? Sit someone down over a meal and talk them through it. The listener might provide a reaction or feedback that can help you direct your creative energies more productively. But, more importantly, you’ll air your story to the ears of a highly seasoned storyteller. Your own.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gael November 21, 2010 at 10:52 am

This is a very good point. If you’re really shy you don’t even necessarily need to tell it to another person. I use a voice recorder all the time now. I write in prose everything that happens in my story and then record myself as if I’m telling it to someone else. If I start dropping off while relating some bits of the story, I figure out where the problems are.

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