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It’s Never ONLY About The Story In Screenwriting – And That’s A GOOD Thing

‘It should ONLY be about the story!’

I often talk to writers about the commercial aspects of screenwriting. As someone who has seen lots of deals happen, I know that money talks. The industry is NOT a patron of the arts. It follows the $$$ because it’s ‘show BUSINESS’ after all.

This means …

When faced with the above, many writers will respond ‘It should ONLY be about the story!’

Let me stress: it’s never ONLY about the story

Most new writers – and some middling – will declare my assertion ‘depressing’. They may even get angry and post everywhere that B2W doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or is even a ‘Hollywood shill’.

In stark contrast, those writers with any modicum of success tend to shrug: ‘C’est la vie’.

This is because they’ve been in rooms doing deals, fighting for investment, distribution and marketing … And it IS a fight.

It is NOT easy.

I often say that if more people realised what exactly goes into making and distributing a film, they’d be amazed any movies get made AT ALL.

Put simply, it is what it is. We can fight this – AND LOSE – or we can move on and concentrate on our own writing.

The Story Versus The Film

I’ve been a script reader for twenty years now. I know it’s never just about the story because I’ve seen it happen, again and again.

It’s very fashionable to say it’s ‘impossible’ to make a good movie without a ‘great’ script, but I call bullshit.

I’ve seen LOTS of …

  • Mediocre screenplays elevated by talented filmmakers and actors who knock it out of the park
  • LOTS of fantastic, well-written screenplays utterly destroyed by pedestrian filmmaking and actors phoning it in
  • Great scripts ham-strung or even killed off by investor demands
  • Yet more GREAT scripts never get out of development hell
  • Whilst TERRIBLE screenplays get investment easily

Hell, I’ve even seen movies with no script to speak of tweaked, changed and improvised to fantastic levels live on set.

One such movie is Mad Max Fury Road

Veteran Bangers will know Mad Max Fury Road is a case study in my Diverse Characters book. I think it’s a fantastically well-put-together film, from characterisation through to plotting to thematics. It’s a rare example of an action thriller with empathetic and relatable leads, especially in a genre that typically sidelines female characters.

I’ve also been lucky enough to talk to its producer Iain Smith several times about what is probably my favourite movie of all time. The film even partly inspired my own chase thriller, The Coven.

In short, whether they personally enjoyed it or not, most professional screenwriters agree Mad Max Fury Road is worthy of its reputation as probably the best action thriller of the last thirty years.

Yet it may surprise Bang2writers that Mad Max Fury Road had no script to speak of!

Instead, the movie was mapped out with thousands of storyboards. So whilst it WAS about the story, the success of this movie illustrates it doesn’t have to mean ‘story = screenplay’.

It doesn’t end there

Lots of new screenwriters mistakenly believe the script on the page is the be-all and end-all in filmmaking.

Look, it NEVER hurts to have a great script at the start of the process … Plus all spec screenplays MUST be awesome if we want to get noticed in a crowded marketplace. There’s no argument from me on this, because that would just be silly.

HOWEVER … waaaaaaay too many screenwriters think actors are just meat puppets and that directors blindly follow whatever’s on the page. NOPE!

These are the facts …

  • Giving the SAME script to 5 different directors will result in 5 different films (yes, really!)
  • Similarly, different actors will put in different performances … even when saying the same lines 
  • Both directors AND actors will put their own interpretations and stamps on the SAME material

This is BEFORE we even consider such things as investors and money moguls’ demands … Plus distribution (Cinema release?Straight to streamer? Which territories?), not to mention stuff like transmedia (Merchandise? Novel tie-ins? Video games? etc). There’s plenty more where all that came from, too.

But let’s rewind …

I mentioned that 5 different directors will create 5 different films, even when working from the same material. If you don’t believe this or think I am exaggerating, consider The Impact, a crowd-sourced movie.

As part of the Create50 initiative from London Screenwriters’ Festival, part of that process was filmmakers making a selection of winning screenplays. Some of those same winning screenplays were made multiple times by different filmmaking teams … yet NONE were identical.

Now do you get it?

So let’s consider George Miller, writer and director of Mad Max Fury Road.

It’s extremely rare for a writer-director to be credited on ALL of a franchise going back decades, but that’s what happened with Miller. Since exploding on the scene with Mad Max in 1979, Miller has helmed ALL subsequent films featuring this iconic character.

Miller knows it’s not just about the story, too

He knows that a ‘good’ film is the sum of all its parts. This means that EVERYTHING has to come together to make a truly exceptional movie.

Whilst this might seem obvious – because it totally is! – it’s too often forgotten, especially when analysing what ‘makes’ a successful story.

So what ‘parts’ get forgotten?

Most often I find it’s in the composition of shots and editing. It’s often said in the industry that …

  1. The first edit is on the page (aka the screenplay)
  2. The second edit is on set (with the director, Director of Photography and actors)
  3. The third edit is deciding what ends up on the cutting room floor

Whilst many screenwriters can see the effect the director and actors have on the material (usually after it is pointed out to them), many still do not see what contribution the editor (# 3) makes.

That’s why I was delighted to read the Twitter thread below about Mad Max Fury Road recently. The tweeter @SadHillWill creates a fantastic case study of the film and what contribution editing, spatial awareness and what he calls ‘eye tracing’ makes TO the story. Far from diminishing the story on the page it TAKES IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL.

He also references such things as characterisation, storyworld and context, as well as audience participation. There’s also stills and .gifs too, so do check the thread out.

So, do yourself a favour as a screenwriter. Get out of the ‘it should be ONLY about the story!’ BS mindset.

It will never JUST be about the story on the page … and knowing this can not only be empowering, it could also help make you an exceptional storyteller.

To read the thread in its entirety (and I really recommend you do!), CLICK HERE or on the tweet below

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2 thoughts on “It’s Never ONLY About The Story In Screenwriting – And That’s A GOOD Thing”

  1. I found this article really fascinating. The idea that the same script could end up in so many different versions is mindboggling, but makes total sense.

    1. It really is mind-boggling! Until I saw it with my own eyes, I didn’t believe it either so can understand why people believe the story is ‘fixed’.

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