During the summer of 2018, I decided to try my hand at doing something I’d never done before: write a screenplay.
I’ve always loved stories. I drew and wrote comics as a kid (and as an adult), dabbled in creating poetry and short stories throughout public school, and at some point, attempted to write a sitcom centering around myself and my kid brothers (it didn’t quite work out).
And yet, despite my love of TV and film, I had never written a screenplay — the very blueprint through which my favorite TV shows and films became realities. So, in June-July of last year, decided to give it a shot.
Roughly a year later, after countless weekend writing sessions, it’s finally done. I’ve compiled a summary of my thoughts on the creative experience, but if you’d rather skip the preamble and read the damn thing, click here.
Learning to Love (or Tolerate) Screenwriting
As I recall, there were always a few things that turned me off from screenwriting.
The most obvious was the screenplay format. As a visually-oriented person, the rigidity of the industry-standard 12-point Courier font and pre-set margins immediately felt restrictive to me. Contrast this with something like comics wherein your choice of page layouts is near-limitless, and it becomes easier to see why I banked countless childhood hours in comics rather than screenwriting.
But, having spent some time learning about screenplays and reading some of them, I like to think I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the medium’s intrinsic ruleset. The drab traditional formatting I once saw as constraining now seems like a minimalistic canvas through which the writer can frame any number of ideas in countless configurations. As it turns out, there’s a high degree of artistic freedom in screenwriting — I just had to learn the rules first.
I picked up most of the technical stuff by reading various screenwriting how-to guides online. For a little analog contrast (and to get out of the house), I also went to the library and hit the books. Of the screenwriting-related books I read, The Nutshell Technique by Jill Chamberlain was definitely a big help. I’ve come to realize that there are many lenses through which one can analyze the mechanics of good screenwriting (just look at how many other books are available on the subject), but I found Jill’s book especially insightful. Using her framework, I spent some time deconstructing and reverse-engineering a few films, which helped shed some light on why some of my favorite movies work so well (note that her book doesn’t focus on writing for TV, which seems like a slightly different ballgame).
What to Write?
I always seem to have at least several embryonic story ideas floating around in my head at any time, but for my first screenplay, I decided to work off the foundation of one of my favourite TV shows: The Sopranos.
Why? I knew that if I started writing a screenplay based around a wholly original idea, I would get so wrapped up in building the story world, characters, and ancillary details that it might take me forever to get past page ten. The point of writing this first screenplay was to learn the medium by working within it, rather than trying to cram my developing ideas into a medium I didn’t know much about.
The Sopranos Season 4, Episode 12.5
As a result, the screenplay I wrote definitely fits into the category of “fan fiction.” It uses The Sopranos world as established throughout Season 4 of the show — bookended by S4E12 and S4E13 — as a springboard to tell an original story, contextualized as S4E12.5 in the overall series chronology. The Sopranos concluded over a decade ago, so I didn’t attempt to add what I think the original writers missed or re-work their property in my own way. Instead, I tried to be as faithful to their creation as possible while telling a story using their characters (and one of my own).
Ultimately, attempting to strike a balance being faithful to the original series while simultaneously being inventive ended up being the greatest challenge of this screenplay. Aside from trying to keep Tony and crew “in character,” I found it difficult to walk the line between plausibility and implausibility. Push a character or scenario too far, and the writing would feel overzealous and incongruent with The Sopranos’ world. Push too little, and the story would be contrived and boring. Hopefully, my first draft falls somewhere in the middle.
That said, despite being firmly grounded in reality, The Sopranos was never shy about exploring new ground. Aside from delving into the everyday minutiae of being a mob boss, the series also explores dreamworld ambiguity, superstition and the supernatural, and even (what I and other fans presume to be) glimpses of the afterlife.
Where to Read It
I hope you enjoy reading it! If you have any questions, concerns, or feedback, please let me know — I’d love to hear what you think.
Additionally, here are some notes I’ve written regarding the story:
- Most Sopranos episodes have an A-plot, B-plot, and (in some cases) a C-plot. I opted to focus on one plotline, although it involves multiple characters
- I included more description and detail in comparison to the official Sopranos screenplays I’ve managed to dig up from the internet. Presumably, the Sopranos writing staff used a “drier” writing style because their team was more familiar with the material. In contrast, I chose to be a little more colorful and dense with my writing for the sake of clarity and dimension. Although most screenwriting revolves around the philosophy that less is more, I felt that more specificity would result in a more enjoyable read. Hopefully, that’s the case — I invite you to be the judge!
- Several words used in character dialogue are intentionally misused — a nod to the many malapropisms used by Sopranos characters
- Spoilers: I wrote this episode intending to highlight several themes explored in season 4, including Tony’s emotional/criminal guilt, tentative family life, and his uncertainty regarding the future in a post-9/11 world