Strong screenplays are more than sales papers, they are precise blueprints for a film production

Writers are often told to write their screenplay in the most reader-friendly manner. They should also work like literature. There is nothing wrong about it. However, from a filmmaker point of view, a screenplay is much more. This is why they require not only well-trained writers but informed and qualified decision-makers and readers.

A Screenplay is a blueprint

The screenplay is the foundation of the film. Basically it informs us about the story and the characters. It tells us what images we will see. It has a certain structure. It tells us also about the mood. The screenplay is often the first part of the package to attract buyers, investors or a distributor. This is why they should often work as a “sales paper”, an entertaining piece of writing. The problem: In order to make it reader-friendly we need to reduce often important descriptions. The screenplay is also the very foundation of film production. It is the key document to plan the calculation and to inform all departments about the needs for the production. It informs the actors and the DOP.

For a long time, the saying was that these practical parts are not the writer’s job. There are a director and a preproduction phase. But: There is a huge advantage if we use the screenplay as a blueprint.

The architect’s plan

The blueprint is the architect’s plan. It contains any important information about the project. It tells us how the house should be built. Any element is necessary. It can’t be changed without further planning since otherwise, the building would collapse. This is exactly what a good screenplay is about. The architect’s plan need also an informed reader. Everyone can basically understand the ground plan but not everyone has the necessary understanding of the meaning of certain elements. The ground plan can’t just be a simple sketch it needs precise information.

The screenplay as a lighthouse: A solid foundation makes things happen

A screenplay which is also more an interactive blueprint is a useful tool to make productions happen. We aren’t any longer in the linear process of jotting down ideas, writing several drafts and get into production. Digital transformation changed a lot of things and opened up new opportunities. The screenplay can be our lighthouse in all stages of film production. We can, for example, do a pre-visualization of scenes in the computer with different software like FX-Home or blender. Therefore we need a precise description of the scene. The screenplay is a ground plan where we start. We need it to figure out different production options. The first tests might encourage changes in a certain scene. It helps us to avoid unpleasant surprises in the filmmaking process. The detailed screenplay as a blueprint is particularly for independent productions an important key for success.

So, what should we change?

First of all, it is not the writers who need to change everything. It is mostly the decision-making process which needs adjustment. Readers and decision-makers need to understand that a screenplay is not just about a good (or comfortable) read. Since they need to be precise they are often complex. They need concentration and also a fundamental understanding of what this is all about. It is about a story but also about a unique audiovisual experience.

By Peter Engelmann, March 08, 2020.

Peter Engelmann is a writer, producer and filmmaker.