Since the beginning of time, our species has been compelled to tell stories...
Whether it be hunters recounting confrontations with fantastic beasts, cuneiform epics of Sumerian kings, theater productions about love, lust, and death, or modern literature and movies about war in space or superheroes. The ability to construct a story, give our own account of something, explain a scenario going from point A to point B, is a birthright. Within all of us is a storyteller, regardless of the medium we choose to express it.
The medium of film, however, is not so ancient. In fact, film has only been around for the past one hundred years or so. After the development of the first camera in France, 1816, it was another seventy-two years before Louis Le Prince premiered the first short film ever created, Roundhay Garden Scene. And the Lumiere Brother’s La Sortie de I’Usine Lumiere a Lyon came out another six years after that. These moments in time marked the beginning of motion pictures. And, the beginning of screenwriting, in its most basic form, was not far behind.
In the invention of screenwriting, as this was prior to the addition of sound in film, there was no dialogue, thus the only script that existed was a summary of action. As the first set of motion pictures created were incredibly short, Roundhay Garden Scene, for example, was only about three seconds long, there was no need for written text in any capacity. The priority for these earliest filmmakers was merely capturing motion with a lens.
Once the technology was a little more refined, the capacity for story length reaching closer to a minute, scenarios, the very earliest iteration of a script, became the written component to the filmmaking process. These scenarios were composed of approximately two to five sentences and would describe what the filmmakers wanted the actors to do.
For example, in 1897, in the U.S., William Heise and Thomas Edison shot a short film called Pillow Fight. It depicts four young women hitting each other with pillows until the pillows explode showering the girls with feathers. The scenario written for this film is: “Four young ladies in their nightgowns are having a romp. One of the pillows gets torn and feathers fly all over the room.” And for a while that is about as complicated as film writing gets.
This was until George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902. In a way, this film was revolutionary. For starters, it was much longer than what people had already been making. Prior to this, in order to keep it simple, a motion picture would be one static shot of someone, or several people, doing one thing. It was one situation, in one location, with a limited amount of characters. In contrast, depending on the frame rate at which it is played, A Trip to the Moon broke the mold at a whopping nine minutes long (at twenty-four frames/second).
Beyond the incredible technical advancements that this film demonstrates, such as the masterful set pieces and the hand colored frames, A Trip to the Moon also improved upon screenwriting as it included upwards of thirty lines of scenarios guiding the motion picture. This was a step in the direction towards more intricate script writing, and subsequently more sophisticated films.
Following Melies’ groundbreaking film, Edwin S. Porter came along in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery. This film built off of the increased detail in the scenarios used by Melies’ in A Trip to the Moon, and altered the format to be even more informative. These screenplays included scene headings and more detailed action descriptions. This became a format known as master scene format, which would eventually become the standard for modern screenwriting. However, at the time, this format did not last long.
By 1911, Thomas Ince had proposed a new standard for screenplays called the continuity script. This screenplay was much more like what we see today. It contained internal and external settings, props, set pieces, characters, casting, budget, and an even more detailed explanation and action than the master scene. Shooting scripts also began around this time, which included the shots and cuts. Both of these screenplay innovations helped to make the filmmaking process so much easier, keeping things organized, and helping everyone involved to understand the film better.
While these small alterations to screenplays seemed so huge at the time, the biggest change to cinema was in 1927, when The Jazz Singer premiered, the first film with sound.
Now with the ability to capture voices in a movie, the script needed to account for this with the addition of dialogue. Similar to the slow progression of storytelling in silent films, as filmmakers learned how to use the new technology of a film camera, sound films also took a while to become what they are today. When sound was first added to films, all people cared about was the fact that people could be heard talking in a movie. But, once the initial excitement settled, screenwriters began honing in on the writing of dialogue as its own craft. Writing witty, emotional, comedic, and intelligent dialogue became a way to enhance the storytelling and create more meaningful and evocative pictures.
After the innovation of talking pictures, the developments in the filmmaking industry became more subtle. From the Golden Age of Hollywood through to modern day cinema, storytellers experimented with the craft of screenplay writing. Mistakes were made. Improvements were made. Just like anything, with time and practice, screenplays became a finely tuned machine.
They became a multifaceted tool to specially aid filmmakers however suited them best. In every way except for the standardized format, filmmakers now have the freedom to write whatever kind of screenplay they want. Some writers prefer tightly scripted scenes that include cuts and camera angles. Some prefer the script to serve merely as a blueprint with loose lines and “dummy dialogue." Others exist somewhere in between, and, the beauty of screenwriting is that you CAN exist anywhere on that spectrum and it’s all just a part of the craft. It is all a part of the artistic endeavor to create an ultimately visual masterpiece.
If you personify screenplays, they have been on a long journey. They started off as one to three sentence descriptions and became standardized and stylized pieces of writing. The creative epic that the medium has ventured through is at the very least worthy of respect. That being said, have respect for the craft and have respect for yourself as someone partaking in a century long artform. Stop letting the fear of failure keep you from sharing your voice with the world. Over the last one-hundred and twenty-four years people have used screenplays to tell stories...
Now it’s your turn.
You might not know it yet, but every single one of you has a screenplay somewhere deep inside, just waiting to be written. I can’t wait to see what it is. So get out there and start writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.