The Evolution of the Screenplay (or, Why You Need to Keep Reading New Scripts)

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Screenplays in their current form have come a long way from the “scenarios” that writers pieced together back in the early 1900s. Ever since the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, the modern screenplay has evolved dramatically both in terms of formatting and content.

Michelle Donnelly of The Script Lab has put together a fascinating history of the screenplay, which every writer should take a look at. The history is not only fascinating information, its a powerful reminder that we work in a medium that is still evolving. Reading classic scripts from the 70s, 80s, and 90s isn’t enough to understand this art. We need to also be reading scripts from the last year, even unproduced scripts currently circulating in Hollywood to know what the style of the day is, how we can work within it, and how we can push screenwriting style to the next level.

Michelle writes:

Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, was the first to theorize that ‘the only thing constant is change.’ Never more has this adage been true than for the writing known as the screenplay. The concept of the screenplay, its use and its function has constantly evolved since the beginning of film. The dictionary defines the screenplay as “the written form of a movie that also includes instructions on how it is to be acted and filmed: the script for a movie.” The term “screenplay” or for that matter “screenwriter,” though, has not always been so. In its earliest years, the writing for a film was called a scenario. In time and after much transformation, came continuity scripts. Eventually what emerged is what we now know today as the screenplay.

One of the earliest books on the topic of screenwriting came from Anita Loos and John Emerson in, “How to Write Photoplays.” The 1920 book guided the so-called “aspiring photo playwright.” Loos and Emerson encouraged writers not to be swayed by pessimists who lamented the “many tons of manuscripts…rejected yearly” and instead enticed them to consider writing as a “practical” and “lucrative” profession. Within its pages, the book laid out what a writer should expect. It encouraged the would-be writer to write synopses with worrying about learning how to put it in continuity form, which could come later. As far as tools, Loos and Emerson claimed the trade “requires little in the way” of them. A typewriter, dictionary, thesaurus and access to literary aids seem to be the only prerequisites the two offer. They encourage those interested to read the trades and most importantly, to see films.

With the emergence of sound, the alteration of the screenplay continued. The first feature length talking picture was 1927’s The Jazz Singer. With it’s commercial and critical success and synchronized dialogue, the decline of silent films was sure to follow. The dialogue now vital to a screenplay would ensure its place in filmmaking production.

Read more at The Script Lab.

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