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Why is Screenwriting So Hard?

By Britton Perelman · May 14, 2019

Think about the last time you went to the movie theater. 

Ticket stub ripped, popcorn in hand, perfect seat found. You sit through the previews until, finally, the lights dim and the main event begins. And the film that appears in front of you seems effortless. It’s loud and large and fully realized up there on the big screen. Its perfection seems inevitable.

But, of course, we all know that the masterpiece movie on the screen wasn’t a masterpiece when it was just a pile of messy pages on someone’s living room floor. 

Therein lies the difficulty of screenwriting. 

Movies — the finished products — make the process itself seem easy.

But anyone who has opened Final Draft and typed the daunting first words “Fade In” knows otherwise. Screenplays look simple. “There’s so much white space on the page,” you might think. “There’s barely any writing!” Ha. Ha.

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Screenplays, at their very essence, are indeed simple.

They’re made up of slug lines, action paragraphs, and dialogue — with the occasional parenthetical or transition thrown in for good measure. But those “simple” elements are anything but when you sit down to actually craft a story.

Unlike novels, in which authors have as many pages as they want and can write superfluously flowery writing, screenwriters have to keep their writing as tight as possible. Only the most important, essential details are left in. Only the absolutely necessary actions make the cut. 

Whereas authors can be as detailed as possible to paint a clear, gorgeous picture in the reader’s mind, the screenwriter must be aware that (if his or her screenplay is made into a movie) there will be hundreds of other people involved in the process of bringing that screenplay to life. Costume designers, prop masters, production designers, hair and makeup artists, lighting techs, and even the actors themselves. There are hundreds of thousands of decisions to be made in the moviemaking process, and the screenwriter’s job is to not dictate every single one. 

Screenplays are action and dialogue.

That’s it. And that’s incredibly difficult to deal with as a writer. You must be economical, thoughtful, flexible, and intentional. Every scene, every line, every word must serve a purpose. 

Your 90-120 pages must feel as effortless as the movie that will one day be projected up onto the big screens. Effortlessness doesn’t come easy. It takes time, practice, and a lot of effort, which yes, is very contradictory. 

Screenwriters must become comfortable with that dichotomy in order to succeed. The truth of the matter is that screenwriting is so damn difficult because it seems simple. All we screenwriters can do is cozy up in the contradiction that is the writing we love, grab a cup of coffee, and embrace the mess. 

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

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