Writer in Residence

Screenwriting Lessons

By Sennah Yee

Sometimes I forget that I majored in screenwriting during my undergrad, even though it ended up playing a key part in what and how I write now. I had chosen this major because I wasn’t sure what to do (and who does in high school careers class, really)! I loved writing and I loved movies, so I’d probably love writing movies, right?

But I was wrong. I wasn’t that great at it - I’d get my scripts back with question marks, and my flowery descriptions crossed out. I struggled to strip down my scripts to the bare “show, don’t tell!” while also keeping them fun. I mistakenly thought a good script was mostly just witty dialogue and banter.

I also hadn't realized how filmmaking takes lots of time, money, and people. If I wanted my scripts produced, I'd have to write scripts that could actually be doable with a little-to-no-budget, undergrad student team - so ideally, a story that wouldn’t need to be told with any settings we couldn't secure a permit for, specific costumes, cool cars, and so on. I started to feel weighed down and distracted by these logistics.

It also quickly became apparent to me that a screenplay isn’t the final product - the film itself is. The “goal” of the screenplay isn’t to be read as a document by its main audience - it’s a blueprint produced by a team, so that it is watched on-screen. While I love the collaboration of filmmaking, it was still hard for me to shake my worries that the story I was writing could be passed off to someone who could miscast, misinterpret, or scrap lines and entire scenes.

Even more than that, it was hard to write screenplays knowing that they may not ever be seen, or even read!

All these laments pushed me back to poetry, with a better appreciation of its possibilities and how it fits my own writing style. I feel more freedom and control over what I can write, how I can write, and how easily it can be shared.

That all said, I’ll always have a soft spot for screenwriting, and am grateful it ended up helping my other forms of writing. Some screenwriting lessons I try to carry over include:

  • What does a character want, and how does that conflict with what they need? At the end of the story, do they get what they want, or what they need? If they get both, you risk having the audience feel this perfect ending is unearned! What do they learn during this process?
  • If something can be shown rather than told, go for that. Think of how can a character’s action/reaction (a line of dialogue, an internal thought, etc.) can be conveyed visually, e.g. how they interact with an object in their hands, their body language, or focusing on a detail in their environment.
  • What is the function of each line? Does it reveal character, create conflict, and/or propel the story forwards?
  • The audience will easily pick up when they're being spoon-fed. Add layers of subtext to dialogue and visuals to put the audience to “work” - this can make their experience more engaging, since they’re actively trying to unpack what’s happening, not passively letting the story happen to them. What isn’t being said? How can you show that extra meaning that’s implied beneath the surface with visuals or motifs?
  • Think of a story and dialogue like a domino setup, a cause-effect chain of events. What needs to happen in order for the next line to happen? Good dialogue should be motivated, and should also motivate a response or reaction.
  • Be efficient. Start the scene late, end early.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Sennah Yee is from Toronto, Ontario, where she writes poetry, short stories, and film criticism. Her first book, the creative nonfiction collection How Do I Look?, was published by Metatron Press in 2017. Her debut picture book, My Day with Gong Gong, was published by Annick Press in 2020.