This week's podcast guest, Mary Trahan, stuck around after the interview to walk our community through an exercise to demystify the screenwriting process for people just starting out. Mary is television writer with credits on series like FOX's Bones and Gone, coming to WGN in 2019.
Hi my name is Mary Trahan. I’m a television writer and I’m going to introduce a simple exercise that can help you become more familiar with screenwriting. Those of you who may have never read a screenplay, or you may be asking yourself where you should start.
The first thing you need is either a computer or your television and a show that you’re interested in - it could be a movie or it could be a TV show. I recommend picking your favorite because I think you’ll feel the passion there when you’re working on this exercise. I’m going to do a TV show because I write one hour TV dramas, so I will walk you through something that I’ve done before. I’m going to use Breaking Bad because I think it was very popular and a lot of people know it. I’m going to use the first episode, which is known as the pilot in television.
What I’m going to suggest you do is load it up and sit down with a notebook. Give yourself an entire notebook that’s empty that you’re dedicating just to become familiar with screenwriting. Start the show and number your paper, guess how many scenes you think are in one episode. You don’t have to be right or wrong - just guess and number your paper with that amount of numbers. It’s just like a spelling test in school. Now you’re going to start watching the episode and you are going to summarize each scene in only one sentence, taking up only one line of your notebook. You’re going to pause it after every scene to make sure you give yourself a second to think about what you just saw. I recommend using an active verb like, "Walter White cooks meth." At the end of each scene, you’re going to have one sentence and you sit there for the whole hour of the episode and write those out.
After the episode is over, preferable it’s something that you’ve watched before so that you’re not totally new to it, you’re going to look back at your notebook. Read what you just wrote to yourself and what you’re going to realize is that you have a story. You’re not going to think of it as a screenplay. It’s not going to seem daunting; it’s just a story. It’s a story that your friend might have told you or that you might have overheard somewhere, or that could be told around a campfire.
The purpose of the exercise is to get you to realize that none of this is daunting. It’s really just storytelling. Screenwriting is really just one form of storytelling. I think from this you can end up graduating to bigger things. For example, you can then go through and sort of write a more detailed version of each scene or you can move it on to notecards, which is what many TV and film writers do. They write each scene on one index card, or you can go to a movie. A movie has a lot more scenes in it, so it becomes more complex. What you’re going to do is think about these and think about your own story in the same way. Think about who is your main character, just like Walter White was the main character. What is it they want? I think Walt wanted to save his family and leave them with money because he knew that he had a terminal illness. And, what is standing in their way? These are the three main components to any story or movie that you can break down. You can break down Star Wars that way, or The Goonies, or a Pixar film like Coco. They all can be broken down in the same way. What you will do is come to realize that your story can be broken down in the same way, too.
Now that you’ve taken the fears and uncertainties surrounding screenwriting out of the process, you can start to read screenplays if you can find them. Many of them are online. If you just Google the screenplay you’re looking for as a PDF, I guarantee you at least 50% of the time you will be able to find it. And now you can start reading them, you can read them on your laptop or as a luxury you can print one out if it’s your favorite one. Read it a bunch of times. You will start to see that it could be your story too. You’ll start to learn about plot and the way plot points move and change, and where commercial breaks happen in television.
That’s when you can graduate onto maybe a screenwriting book or taking a course. I never read a screenwriting book and never took a course, but I've deconstructed an episode a million times. It’s something that I still do, especially if it’s a writer I respect or a show I respect. I think many writers still do it. It’s cool when a beginning writer is doing it because you can see for yourself, even somebody who is very successful making a living doing this somewhere around America, that this writer is doing the same thing I’m doing. It normalizes the whole thing and it takes all the glitz and glamour out of the equation. It’s just a story. It’s a story you would tell your friend. That’s it!
*This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.