Writing Formats: The Keys To Your Potential

Note: This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Opal: The Canadian Magazine For Authors and Writers. http://www.opalpublishing.ca.

The potential of the creative mind is infinite.

As the setting sun dips below the horizon producing a red glow, one writer imagines two lovers walking along a beach holding hands. Another writer imagines the red glow of plasma engines on a starship, delivering the alien horde about the annihilate the human race. Both stories can have a happy ending.
With time and practice, anyone who applies themselves and is dedicated to their craft can develop a unique voice and become an excellent writer. Although your mind constantly overflows with creative ideas, there is one factor which can limit the opportunities available to you; the number of formats you are familiar with.
It isn’t an issue of lack of talent, it’s about how quickly you can respond to opportunities. If you see an announcement for a playwriting competition, and you have a great story idea, you can write the play while you’re learning the format, but it will take longer. It will be a much less stressful experience if you already understand the format for writing a play for live theatre.
Another good reason to experiment with various formats is that it may help you find which format you’re most comfortable working with. Several years ago I was writing a crime novel and now matter how many times I started, I always found myself stifled by writer’s block. I had recently read a couple of screenplays just out of curiosity, so I decided to write the story as a screenplay, to see how it would work out. A couple of months later I had a completed feature length screenplay and I discovered my favourite writing format. Since that time I’ve written several screenplays, submitting them to producers and directors. Screenwriter, poet, playwright; you can wear all those hats!
An excellent way to develop an understanding of different formats, discover how they relate to each other, and how they are adapted for movies, is to use the following process: Read the source material (if it’s an adaptation), read the screenplay, and then watch the movie. You can begin by searching your local library’s catalogue and find out which screenplays are available. Use “Motion Picture Plays” as the subject and “Screenplay,” as a keyword. Some books about making movies also contain complete screenplays or excerpts. If you search using a movie title, keep in mind that the source material’s title may not be the same as the movie title. The 1982 movie Blade Runner was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
You can buy screenplays, but it’s better from a cost perspective to see if the library has the screenplays you want to read first. There are websites that allow you to read screenplays, but I can’t vouch for how safe they are. Your library will also have books on how to use the different formats. If you’re not sure if a movie is based on an original screenplay, visit http://www.imdb.com. On each movie’s webpage you’ll find the Writer(s) listed below the Director, including who wrote the screenplay, as well as the title and author of the source material, if it’s an adaptation.
The reason this process is such a useful learning tool is because of the wide variety of formats you’ll be exposed to. Arrival (2016) us based on the short story, ”Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang. A Few Good Men (1992) is based on a play by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. All The President’s Men (1976) is based on the non-fiction book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodword. Adaptations can also be based on magazine articles, an individual’s personal journal entries and poems.
Whether it’s based on an original screenplay or an adaptation, it’s fascinating to learn how the writers and directors, all storytellers, approach the same story.
Are you wondering why I said a story about aliens annihilating the human race could have a happy ending? An alien writer published her memoire of the invasion, The Day Humans Died. The memoire became an inter-galactic bestseller and she became filthy rich. In real the real world, the lawyers get all the money.

J. Paul Cooper