By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on February 08, 2016
"Many a times, there's always a possibility that what you write as a screenwriter might be changed. There's only one thing I can tell you, and it's something Mahesh Bhatt told me. Make your script director-proof. Write in a visual language and there are chances that what you write translates exactly to the screen,". When one of the senior-most writers in Hindi cinema tells you that, you know it's worth a million bucks.
Anjum Rajabali is not only a successful and prolific writer himself, who has written films like Ghulam, China Gate, Pukar, Rajneeti, Aarakshan and Satyagraha, but he is also a great mentor for the young generation of writers. He heads the Screenwriting department at Whistling Woods International Film School and is also the Honorary Head of Screenplay Writing at the Film and Television Institute of India. An Executive Committee Member in the Film Writers Association (FWA), he has since long stood by the writers' rights and has been instrumental in negotiating a fair deal for them.
We recently had an opportunity to attend a workshop by Anjum Rajabali on screenwriting, organised by Springboard and it was a day well spent. Springboard is a Pune based agency that is organizing a series of workshops for creative professionals with their next workshop on 'Understanding Visual Design' scheduled for Feb 13th.
He started off with the most difficult task for a newbie writer, 'narrowing down the idea on which to work upon'. As writers are full of ideas, there's always a surplus and when it comes to narrowing down on one idea, most find it extremely difficult.
Making it easy (well, less difficult) for us, Rajabali noted the three most important factors to consider before you start writing the story. The process begins with asking these questions.
We, as viewers, always root for novelty in films. So, even as screenwriters, one needs to look for newer elements in the story. Also, not all the ideas you hit upon have the potential to turn into a full length feature script. Each story comes with its own form and the job of a writer is to recognise the form the story demands. An idea might be excellent for a short film, but might not work out well at all if stretched into a feature film. As a writer, one needs to gauge that.
Also, if you've thought of an idea a few years back, probably an innocent wonderment from school years, and it still hasn't deserted you and you find yourself going back to it - that might just be it. Something that can occupy your mind for such a long time, shows potential and also your involvement in it.
So, once you have found the right idea and want to develop it into a screenplay, how do you go about it? Here's a seven-step plan given by Anjum Rajabali, which offers a direction and the path to follow for aspiring writers.
Once you begin thinking about your idea, the first step is to narrow it down to a premise. The working premise does two things:
Firstly, it defines who your main character or protagonist is.
And it brings to the board, a central situation.
In other words, when you figure out the working premise, you know who your protagonist is and what kind of struggle he's going to go through. "Any film is an interplay between the character and the situation. With conflict, you start to discover the human characteristics. If your character desires something and he gets it easily, it's not an interesting story you'd root for. The energy comes from the struggle."
A working premise, can also be called a logline, which is often used while pitching the idea to the producers in the initial stages. But apart from being a marketing tool, this one-sentence summary of the story functions as a helpful guide to focus on the most important aspects while writing. In other words, it helps you stay on track.
The next stage is to develop the plot (we often hear the two words, plot and story being used interchangeably). The plot gives you the idea of events that occur in your story and how it's going to progress. The plot ought to be roughly a page long, where the character becomes a bit more refined and defined.
While thinking of the plot, there also needs to be a consideration of the structure. Each story follows it's own structure and form, it cannot be predefined. Yes, there's the popular 3-act structure, that has developed through the ages, evolving out of Greek dramas and is widely employed in storytelling today. The three act structure has three parts, the setup, the confrontation and the resolution. Not limited to the stage, it can be spotted in films, novels, comic books as well as short stories among other art forms. But it is important to not limit yourself by these structures. These structures are there to help you, not limit you. Find your own structure.
"You need to know the plot of your film before you start researching the character. What you need while writing your film isn't the biography of the character, it's the character sketch."
Once you have the plot ready, you can turn to your character and start finding the nuances and character traits. Now is when you get deeper into the physiology, sociology and the psychology of your character.
Up until now, at some point in the process, the key characters have already sprung to life. It’s time to dig into them. Explore more and explore those areas, which are relevant to your story.
"There are two things that are the most important when it comes to the characters. Your character needs to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is life, that's where people empathize with your character."
Here's how screenwriter Scott Myers goes about his process of characterization. He says in an article, "Think on that word: evolve. It had never occurred to me until recently, but it’s implied in the word 'development', isn’t it? So as we develop our characters, in the best of all creative worlds, we’re letting them evolve into being."
Anjum Rajabali during the workshop on screenwriting
Rajabali threw light on his process, "The single biggest key I find about working with characters is to be curious about them. Ask them questions. Interview them. Talk with them. That works for some characters; sometimes I write a narrative of their past. I don’t know why that is – again, I just follow my instinct."
Once we know the plot and the characters, we need to take some time to elaborate and put everything together to bring it into perspective. Here enters 'the 4-pager' as Rajabali calls it.
We might consider the word 'synopsis' for this one, but we need to keep in mind that though the 4-pager might be similar to a synopsis, it's not a synopsis in the sense that it's written before you write your entire script. It's not a summary in any way, it's a four page account of how your story is going to take turns to reach the end.
Once you have your 4-pager, it's time to start thinking about your story visually. Ultimately, you're writing cinema, an audio-visual medium. Rajabali describes this as the stage where your plot transitions from being a story towards becoming a screenplay. Here, you have all the events that are going to happen in your story. This is the stage where the visual genesis of the scenes happens.
This document can be compared to a short story, written in the present tense. It should present the entire story including the ending, using various key scenes.
Also, treatment is where the structure of your film comes out more prominently. Treatment is written by breaking down the progression of the story. Once you have a written draft in front of you, sometimes you see new ways that the characters connect or the conflicts unfold. Exploring these creative possibilities, you might land upon something novel and fresh in your story, which hadn't revealed itself so far.
Since these documents are used for pitching the projects, brevity is always advised.
By now, the screenwriter has found his story and has a good mental sketch of all the scenes. A step-outline is much more developed than the treatment and is broken up into distinct scenes. Also called as 'beat sheet', step-outline is like telling the story in detail, describing every scene.
Here you briefly detail every scene and one can often find indications for dialogue as well as character interactions. It's advisable to number the scenes, which makes it convenient. You write a paragraph to describe 'the action' taking place in the scene. You basically create a list of these short paragraphs, one para per scene. At this point, you don't need to struggle with little details: no dialogue, no mise-en scène details, no secondary and tertiary characters unrelated to the central action of that particular scene. All of that comes in the next step, which is the final stage, the script.
"When you're writing your scenes, you should always remember that every scene is in the story for a purpose. A scene should either take your story forward or it should reveal something about the character. If it's not doing any of the two things, it's redundant, leave it out."
Step-outline especially is of great help during the editing and rewriting stage of the script, as it has the structure of your story planned, which can be referred to while rewriting.
This is the final document that you'll end up working on while rewriting (with reference to the step-outline).
Script is where you write the dialogues. This is where you fill in all the blanks that are there- the little details, the color of the curtains (if that's relevant!), the secondary characters and the subplots. Sometimes, the screenwriter might also have a hunch of the way the scene needs to be shot - you might as well find references to angles and camera movements.
"When you write a scene, three things need to be kept in mind.
Firstly, what is the state of the mind of the character as he or she enters the scene.
And secondly, what are the characters' expectations from this scene.
Then, what is the scene doing to your story.
Once you are clear on these three points, it's much easier to etch out the scenes."
"Your script acts as the blueprint for your film. Approximately, a feature film has about 80 to 120 scenes and the write-up goes to about 95 to 110 pages."
Anjum Rajabali with the participants after the workshop
The workshop was quite an eye-opener. We learnt about screenwriting, listened to anecdotes and experiences, watched short films, scenes and analysed those.
We left with Rajabali's voice booming in our ears, "Writing is a tough task. None other than Hemingway has said that while writing, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. But if you have the qualities to be a screenwriter: if your are deeply curious about human nature and if you feel the need to express, share the story, you'll simply enjoy writing!"