The best way to educate yourself about screenplays is to read lots of them. If possible, read at least one script a week. For some time now I’ve been trying to read as many scripts as I can, and this eventually led me to The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Screenplays Volume 2.
Paddy Chayefsky is a writer whose name gets mentioned a lot. As well as being a playwright he also worked in television for many years before turning to screenwriting. The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Screenplays Volume 2 includes The Hospital (1971), Network (1976) and Altered States (1980). His 1976 script Network is ranked number eight on the Writer’s Guild of America, West’s 101 Greatest Screenplays, making this collection required reading for any screenwriter.
I more or less enjoyed reading these scripts, taking many positive things from each of them, even if my review leans towards the negative. Reading through these scripts I couldn’t help but feel that the writing belongs to another time. In terms of style, technique and convention, there isn’t much to help today’s screenwriter. My biggest complaint is the amount of directing done on the page. Perhaps if you are a brilliant satirist like Paddy you can get away with it, but there are countless descriptions of set-ups, camera moves, and POV shots that it becomes distracting to read. It’s nearly impossible to remain in the world of the story when you’re constantly being reminded that this is a blueprint for a movie. An example from Network:
- CAMERA PANS, DOLLIES out of their bedroom and into…
Sometimes so many details are given that the director won’t be left with much choice when it comes to blocking or camera position. He’ll simply have to move the actors around like objects on stage, leaving very little room to interpret the action. Not everything is going to work as written, and there are times when a director has to improvise to bring a scene to life. These scripts are written in a way that makes this kind of collaboration unlikely.
Another technique appearing in each script, the use of narration, seems somewhat ineffective. In Network, the narration is great. It works because it recurs throughout the story, and comments ironically on what is happening on screen, rather than explaining the action. The Hospital and Altered States both have narration that falls flat. It doesn’t work in these scripts because it is only used once during the opening sequence. The narration may help set things up but when it doesn’t return later in the script, it seems like an annoying convenience. Another irritating bit is a flashback sequence in The Hospital. Again, this technique is only used once and in a way that doesn’t strengthen the script by adding anything new to the story.
At times, the frequent use of expository language gets a little too literary for a script. Here’s an example from Altered States:
- The creature is no bigger than Ortega’s own nine-year-old son, but it is fierce…
Ortega is a very minor character and the extraneous information about his family disrupts the flow of things. Not only is it something we can’t see or hear, but it’s a rather irrelevant description. It might help an actor or director visualize a scene, but it does nothing for the audience. This novelistic style of writing breaks the reader right out of the flow of the story.
On the good side, what I have taken from these scripts is an appreciation for writers who have a great ear for conversation. Paddy is one of those writers that recreates the way people really talk, even if the scene is one of improbable events where characters are required to say ludicrous sounding things. Things always seem to come out sounding like a natural conversation. An example from Altered States:
- If I come out of that tank anthropoid, I’ll be in a very primitive consciousness and impossible to relate to, so sedate me while I’m still in the tank. Otherwise, you’ll have to chase me around and subdue me.
It’s absurd dialog that could be hard for actors to deliver and sound credible, but Paddy has written something that is deliverable, and believable.
I read a lot of classic scripts from the 30s and 40s. The older conventions and formatting are considerably different from what is expected of today’s writer, but they still reveal a lot about good storytelling. Paddy is an unconventional writer telling unconventional stories. These scripts should be required reading for anyone writing for film today. While admiring his unique brilliance, we can look for ways to find our own voices without straying too far from today’s strict formatting requirements.