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The Evolution of Screenwriting: From Classic to Contemporary

From their earliest days, scripts have stood as a cornerstone of filmmaking. Even when the conventional script format wasn't prevalent, alternative methods were employed. It makes sense why since it allows artists to craft a story and a structure to follow along.


With the start of the digital age, the entertainment landscape witnessed a surge in script creation and screenwriters. This evolution is crucial to acknowledge within screenwriting, considering the significant transformation the art form has undergone since its early stages. So, let’s discuss the evolution of screenwriting from classic to contemporary!


Still from 'A Trip to the Moon'. Photo credit: BFI


Early Scripts


While there's no absolute certainty about the identity of the first cinematic "script", George Melies' 1902 film, "A Trip to the Moon", is widely recognized as a contender. Despite being a silent film, its structure resembled modern scripts, featuring scene directions, characters, and other elements.


Before "A Trip to the Moon", early script-like documents were called scenarios. These provided concise plot summaries and emphasized key points for marketing purposes. However, films created using scenarios were often only a few minutes long.


As films began to extend in length in the early 1900s, scripts gained popularity. This shift was driven by the need to manage longer narratives and complexities inherent in evolving cinematic storytelling.


Traditional Formatting


As screenplays became more widespread in the 1900s, they adopted certain standardized elements. Many conventions we observe in contemporary scripts, including action descriptions, dialogue, and scene directions, have roots in early scripts.


Gradually, script formatting became a fundamental part of the process. Uniform standards—such as equating a minute to a page and specifying fonts and spacing—became integral to script creation.


Beyond mere formatting, the dominance of storytelling methodologies like the three-act structure and the hero’s journey emerged. These approaches started dictating how screenplays should unfold, underlining the adaptability of these structures to nearly any mainstream film.


The Golden Age


Traditional formatting often draws us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when discussing the craft of screenwriting. From the 1920s to the 1960s, this era was defined by a distinct style characterized by a narrative structure and visual aesthetics now recognized as Classical Hollywood Cinema.


Within the framework of Classical Hollywood Cinema, the screenwriting structure was shaped by linear, goal-oriented narratives. Screenwriters carefully constructed stories with a discernible beginning, middle, and end, facilitating a seamless journey for audiences through the protagonist's narrative arc.


Each scene was pivotal in advancing the plot, often interconnected through cause-and-effect sequences, while characters were meticulously developed with clear motivations propelling their actions.


Nevertheless, with the decline of the Hollywood Studio System in the late 1950s, a transformation in screenwriting conventions emerged. The influence of foreign films, independent cinema, and the ascent of television started to disrupt the established norms, advocating for a broader range of narratives and exploring experimental storytelling techniques.


Contemporary Techniques


The digital era revolutionized the landscape of screenwriting, simplifying the process for writers to conceive, complete, and execute their scripts. In the pre-digital age, typewriters were the tool for script creation, posing challenges for writers.


Modern technology has facilitated the emergence of more writers and democratized the art form, making it more affordable and accessible, particularly for those with limited financial resources. The internet has become a rich resource for aspiring screenwriters, offering many workshops, lessons, and script examples. This abundance of material enhances writers' knowledge, fostering greater confidence and skill throughout the field.


Currently, Final Draft stands as the industry standard for screenwriting software. However, due to its cost, novice screenwriters often turn to free alternatives like CeltX or Scrivener as another option.


Knowing How to Write


The essence of any captivating narrative lies in its structure, serving as the essential structure for plot development and character evolution. It relates to the fundamentals of screenplay structure, rooted in the Golden Age. It explores the classical Hollywood writing techniques that left an indelible mark on cinema and offers screenwriting insights from this era.


The three-act structure (the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution) defines classical Hollywood cinema and is a fundamental pillar of the Western storytelling tradition. It imparts a sense of familiarity, a rhythm that audiences instinctively grasp and appreciate.


Nowadays, screenwriting is characterized by diversity and experimentation. We must explore the transition from classic to modern scripts as we navigate this ever-changing landscape. The past is there for a reason, and plenty can learn from it.


The evolution from classic to modern scripts occurred gradually, fueled by factors like the rise of independent cinema, the impact of international films, and the emergence of new storytelling platforms. Liberated from the constraints of the Hollywood Studio System, modern screenwriters embraced experimentation with both form and content. Regardless of changing times, one must navigate a delicate balance, respecting classic techniques while embracing modern methods' creative potential. Either way, consider experimenting with structure, crafting complex characters, embracing unconventional stories, and developing unique perspectives.

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