"Know 'What' Story You Are Writing, Before You Figure Out 'How' You Will Write It"

By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on January 02, 2016

Anjum Rajabali is one of the most visible screenwriters we have. This is partly because, in his role as a teacher, he travels across the country, explaining the nuances of screenwriting to eager young minds. Rajabali is known for writing films like Drohkaal, Ghulam, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Arakshan, Satyagraha, and Raajneeti among others.

Alongside this, he is also one of the most important figures in the Film Writers' Association (FWA) where he's been an instrumental figure in negotiating a fair deal for film writers. He heads the screenwriting department at Whistling Woods International Film School while serving as the Honorary Head of Screenplay Writing at the Film and Television Institute of India. Deeply passionate about his craft, he comes across as a warm, large-hearted and jovial man. With a booming voice that compliments the intensity of his words, Rajabali is the ideal mentor figure for aspiring screenwriters.

The prolific writer is conducting a workshop on screenwriting in Pune on January 9, 2016. The workshop is an excellent opportunity for aspiring writers to understand professional screenwriting and the power of storytelling. If you can, make sure you attend the workshop. Know more about the workshop here or you can directly book your seats here.

Anjum Rajabali 2

We spoke to the noted writer on the aspects that he will cover in the workshop, the 'what' and 'how' of screenwriting, habits of a screenwriter and much more. Do read it right here.

1. What are you going to cover in the 1 day workshop? You’ve conducted many workshops earlier, which range from a single day to a slightly longer period. So could you tell us about the structure and what people can expect from the workshop?

There are a lot of people who are interested and curious, but are unaware of what is really involved in becoming a screenwriter. The main aim is to demystify the process by trying to bring out what is the essential orientation or attitude that one needs to approach the field. How is it that one formulates a script, what are the basic pillars one has to be aware of, what is the division between art and craft. Because, art cannot be taught or learnt, it has to come from within. But the craft helps you to formulate an expression. The urge has to come from within, so one has to decide if this is for them or not and if it is for them, then, what are the essential factors or elements that go into it.

Then I’d like to talk about the importance of story, which is unfortunately bypassed many a times, as people start emphasizing and teaching how to write a script and bypass what is it that they need to write. Between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, I want to emphasize the ‘what’. It is important that you try to focus on why is it that you want to write a script, what is it that you want to say. Is it something that has profoundly moved you? It is not about writing just because you had a thought; people are not interested in that. So that is what I want to go into.

  1. How is it that one starts?
  2. What is it that you need to keep in mind, the elements of the craft?
  3. What really goes into the making of a film; the pillars. How does a new writer go about making a decision to write down something worthy?
  4. What is the uniqueness of screenwriting as opposed to other fields; particularly focusing on an example or a scene. In screenwriting, your aim, your story is fulfilled by you, creating moments, and those moments are crafted into scenes.
  5. And once you begin, you get into the profession, then how do you make your way through the industry. This is a big question that people ask. Questions like how do you get heard by people, what is it that you need to be careful about. In that sense, what are the professional imperatives that you need to keep in mind.

This is the most I can cover in a day.

Basically, this will be a kick-off on how to continue their learning and if people are interested, I will be happy to share my guidelines. Is it possible to learn on your own? Yes! But, you need to follow a certain kind of discipline; you need to pay attention to the fact that these are to be learnt, it doesn’t always come naturally.

2. Is this something that you see a lot these days, where people jump into the ‘how’ of it and forget that there is a ‘what’ also?

I do. Because of the initiatives I am involved in, I have to read a lot of scripts every year. 75-100 scripts a year. In many of the cases, I find that the problem is not with the structure (there might a problem with the structure too), but the more fundamental problem is that the story is not substantial. The relationship between the writer and the story is not strong enough, which means there is not enough emotional investment in the story.

If you ask me to isolate an element, I’d say the character experience.

A story is an experiential formulation, an experiential expression. So the writer himself has to experience what the characters are going through, not always in real life, but at least in the writers imagination. It is life which is unfolding, regardless of whether there is a magical element involved or a supernatural element or fantasy, the emotional experience of the character is real. Whether it is the Superman facing the Kryptonite challenge, or Batman and his dilemma, or a Salman Khan film, what touches the audience is that emotional experience. They believe that this is real. I sometimes find that this kind of investment is bypassed.

So when you ask the writers, what is it that they are trying to say, the answers are conceptual or abstract. It isn’t really an experiential answer, and this is what I feel is a major problem. Understanding the character, forming a relation with the character is very important because the film is experienced by the viewer through identifying or relating to the character and what the character goes through. It isn’t merely an informative exercise; it isn’t merely a descriptive experience.

3. You also touched upon how those who are aspiring to write scripts should know whether it is a story worth saying. Is there a way to figure out if a story is worth saying?

There is no material answer that I can give you because it is not quantifiable. But, there are certain essentials that you need to keep in mind, and the most important essential is, ‘has it moved you in any profound way’? Does the author feel deeply for it? That is the emotional aspect.

Another factor that needs to be considered is, does it have the potential to last out a full feature film? There are many scripts that I receive, in which the story is done within the first 20-25 minutes. There is a way of assessing that, if you look at the dramatic potential. You also look at the turmoil or incidents that are actually unfolding in the relationships between the characters; within the character.

Apart from that there is no quantifiable measurement for this.

4. Most of the people attending the workshop will be people who are keen, or want to learn a bit more. What are some of the key things that these people need to know before they venture out? What are the things you would advice young aspiring screenwriters to keep in mind before they start?

One good way, is to learn from good examples. Now good examples have no strict measurement. For example, you might love a film which might not work for me.  A good example is something that has worked for you. So I would recommend you to make a list of dozen or fifteen films which have touched you or which have remained with you, and then to study those screenplays. Why did they move you?

You don’t have to write what is in vogue or what you think will work well. All that is nonsense, that doesn’t matter. What matters is your relationship with the story, therefore, I am asking you to seek your relationship with your own ideas, by looking at examples which have worked for you; ones that you can relate to. Then look at the craft, look at the structure, look at the characters, so it makes you realize that there are many ways by which one can formulate a script which will actually achieve the purpose of moving the audience. So treat yourself as an audience, treat yourself as a viewer. Write like a viewer, write what you want to see, write what appeals to you. That is very important to build a personal relationship between the writer and the medium.

5. Could you tell us some of the good habits that screenwriters can follow to sharpen their skills?

I am going to be very abstract, but very firm about this. First thing is that a screenwriter needs to live life. They need to engage with life, they need to have an emotional response to their reality. When you read something in the newspaper, do you become curious about what is it that the people involved in that incident have been through? Whether it is Syria, or the refugees or what is going on in India or whether it is the pollution issue in Delhi, I don’t care. Are you able to look at the human experience in that? Do you have a reaction to that? You can’t say that I am a screenwriter, but I am not interested in people. You can’t be interested only in the issues. You are interested in those issues, because you are interested in what happens to the people involved. So the curiosity of the human condition is absolutely imperative. And one needs to therefore, engage with the reality around him/her.

The second thing is to inculcate the discipline to be able to put down your thoughts in the form of story sequences, moments, narrative situations, every single day. I don’t care if you are busy or depressed or if you don’t have money or if your girlfriend has ditched you, all these experiences are rich enough to propel you towards writing. You want to be a writer; you have to learn to write, regardless of what mood you are in.

First comes the phase of writing on your own. Even if there is no director or producer waiting to give you a contract, you have to write. It sounds idealistic, but this will give you a long and sustainable innings in screenwriting. There are very few people who last out there, they become directors or something else. The stamina collapses precisely because there is no personal engagement with the experience of writing. The difficulties of writing are also attractive.

It’s not always that ideas come free; most of the times they don’t. But for a writer, inspiration and ideas come when he/she is working on the keyboard. You need to do that.



Things will happen. Possibly 60-70% of what you write will be nonsense, but that doesn’t matter. That is the process. So your attitude has to become the base of your urge to become a screenwriter.

6. Could you tell us a few common mistakes that screenwriters tend to commit?

You get so eager to get an assignment that you compromise on your legitimate dues. I find that problematic. In the excitement of somebody accepting your script, you sometimes squander away your work. You compromise on so many things, because you have a contract. You have to do artistic work, but with professional attitude. Unfortunately, today it is imperative that a professional screenwriter has to be aware of lawful processes. What are your rights, contracts, clauses? It is important to know that and people don’t pay enough attention to that and regret it later.


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