Going to The Beginning — The Art of Screenwriting: 1910s
In writing there is a certain rule: if anything bothers you with the end of your story, go to the beginning of it and see if you have missed something or if you have diverted from the chosen path on the way to the end. I find it extremely useful. It always works. I have applied the same formula to answer some questions about current screenwriting situation and where it is heading or, maybe not, by going to the very beginning of its story — the 1910s and 1920s.
As cinema was an art form that was new and unexplored, there were no text books on screenwriting or experiences of others to refer to. There were no veterans of the field, only the pioneers. Those pioneers were men and women from all walks of life. Women, alongside men, made a valuable contribution into the development of the movie making in general and of screenwriting in particular.
Between 1895 — the invention by The Lumière brothers of the cinematographe motion system — and 1905, when their business was purchased by Gaumont company, the films, or ‘photoplays’ as they were called back then, were mostly one-minute reel shots that required no script, as they were filmed on ad hoc basis out on ‘the streets’, picturing ordinary people minding their own business. So, film directors were literally ad hoc life storytellers. All they needed was a camera, literally.
Among those early storytellers was one who laid the foundation for visual narrating or narrative filmmaking as opposed to filming just anything or anyone. This storyteller was a film director, Alice Guy Blanche (1873–1968), working for Gaumont in Paris, France.
Alice Guy Blanche was the first female film director in the world. In her visual narratives, she experimented with sound synching, colour tinting, and special effects, all of which made her storytelling much more compelling and intriguing. By 1907, Alice Guy Blanche created over 1,000 films. The examples of her early narrative works are Disappearing Act (1898), At the Hypnotist (1898), as well as dance and travel short features such as Serpentine Dance (1902), Spain (1905).
The brief stories of this period of silent era can be compared to current TikTok videos — in just a minute an intriguing and captivating ‘story’ has to be told, or else, people will switch to something else. ‘Brevity is the sister of talent’ as the Russian classic, Anton Chekov, once said. It still stands true.
As visual narrating continued to develop, a need for various story ideas and story synopsis had emerged. During the period of 1905 and 1915, these ideas came from the following sources — existing theatrical plays, published novels, and company-sponsored contests advertised in popular fan magazines such as Photoplay. The readers of the fan magazines were mostly women who became winners of the early contests for the best story ideas that took the form of a few lines of text, a paragraph or a one-page plot summary.
Those early contests remind of the modern screenwriting competitions. The only difference is that back in 1910s all one needed to do is to reply to an advertisement with their story idea at a cost of a post stamp, whereas a contemporary aspiring screenwriter has to pay a certain fee for the privilege of supplying his or her synopsis or screenplay for a competition, often several competitions, which adds up to a significant sum of money. Win-win turned over 100 years into win-lose. The aspiring screenwriter being on a losing end.
At the period of 1905–1915 one could either be a free-lance writer working from home, or be a full-time employee of a film studio. Since the actual storytelling was happening on set with no scenario at hand, just a story idea or synopsis of it, writing was often combined with other roles — acting, assisting, or being a secretary to a film director. The on-set assistants and secretaries were called ‘script girls’. They ‘held the script’, recording scenes, actions, dialogues, and shooting directions. They also wrote subtitles — explanations between some scenes, — as well as collected story ideas from the contests, and edited existing synopsises for film directors. The variety of the tasks performed allowed these women to later apply their on-set and off-set skills to developing scenarios.
A comment of an early scenario writer, Gene Gauntier (1885–1966) perfectly sums the skeletal nature of screenwriting process of the period: ‘A poem, a picture, a short story, a scene from a current play, a headline in a newspaper. All was grist that came to my mill’.
Some female writers who supplied story ideas and synopsis were teenagers, like Anita Loos (1888–1981). She began her writing career by participating in magazine contests and caught the attention of a film director D.W. Griffith. Not aware of her age, D.W. Griffith fist mistook Anita’s mother with whom she came for the interview for the writer he had sought after. This trend of teen story writers can be spotted in the current decade. Wattpad — an online publishing platform — offers opportunities for digitally sharing and publishing stories. Some just a few episodes long and some are finished works with millions of reads and large fan base such as a recent ‘page to screen’ adaptation of a Wattpad romance ‘Kissing Booth’ written in 2010 by then a teenager — Beth Reekles.
By the mid 1910s, the scenario started to take shape as something more than a story idea or synopsis implemented on set by a film director. And the need of a professional dramatist or a scenario writer working together with film directors had emerged.
Detailed scenarios, containing a title, the number of reels, a one paragraph synopsis, a cast, a list of props, and a detailed summary of each scene including its setting, character action, and maybe some dialogue, started to be produced. Scenarios of the time were based on theatrical plays, books, or were original creations by scenario writers.
‘In making plays from novels the rule is “Cut, cut, cut.” In making photo dramas from novels the cry is “Put in more detail and action.” And when you go to make a photo drama from the original every-day legitimate play, you have got to add material enough to double or treble the original manuscript. You have got to show all the things that the characters tell about in addition to showing all the things done on the stage, and then you have got to invent new things which happened before the play began and more things which happened after it was over. Then you may have enough.’ — Jesse L. Lasky, (‘Photoplays of Tomorrow’, Photoplay magazine, June 1915)
It is interesting to note that nowadays, movie making industry experiences similar challenges with finding story ideas for new releases. And, as 100 years ago, producers and film directors turn to literature — classics, like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, or contemporaries, like Helen Fielding, Suzanne Collins, Sara Jo Moyes, and Beth Reekles.
As scenario writing continued to develop, a guiding advice on the craft was also being provided. Both men and women offered their insights. Being the pioneers of scenario writing women were able to provide guidance in terms of plot conception, development, and its visualisation, and men were sticking to structural form of the story. Female scenario writers produced manuals, articles, and books for aspiring writers where they emphasized the importance of picturing the material — the essential element of storytelling for the screen.
An early photoplay dramatist, Catherine Carr (1880–1941), in her book ‘The Art of Photoplay Writing’ (published by The Harris Jordan Co’, N.Y., 1914) highlighted the importance of visualizing an action and even an emotion that will result in producing a human-interest story. In her interview for the Photoplay Author magazine when asked to what her most reliable source of plots for photoplays are, she replied: ‘ that her best stories were found on little incidents of everyday life; incidents into which she injected motive and climax thereby turning them into actable and interesting stories.’
June Mathis (1887–1927), another female scenario writer, in The Photoplay Journal of 1917 stressed the importance of picturing: ‘In your mind’s eye you must visualize your plot, just as you would stand on a mountain top and gaze at beautiful scenery surrounding you. You must visualize your characters. You must see your characters.’ An invaluable piece of advice as visualising was something that many scenario writers of the time had a problem of mastering. The advice also stands true for some of the contemporary screenwriters. For, despite 100 years of movie making, they still forget it is for the screen they write and not for the reading.
Between 1908 and 1917 the increase in film length and the desire for well-made films with narrative fluidity prompted a shift from scenario script to continuity script. By continuity script was understood ‘placing of the many scenes that go to make up the photoplay in a logical sequence so that the photoplay may run perfectly smoothly, without breaks and jumps which, otherwise, would have to be covered by wordly and explanatory subtitles’ [Photoplay magazine 1917]
The developers of continuity scenarios who can be credited with the make-up of continuity as we know it today were a scenario writer and production editor, June Mathis (1887–1927), and a producer and film director, Thomas Ince (1880–1924) at Metro film studios.
In continuity scenarios ‘close-ups’ and ‘flash-backs’ were frequently used as they were believed to support the idea that people like to see movement, emotions, and other people’s faces as opposed to settings and landscapes on screen. The continuities also added the following to the scenario — film director, cast and actors, location, detailed mis-en-scene, intertitle placement, shooting schedule, budget and distribution plan.
Continuity scenarios emerged from the need to establish a structure for the production process before and during filming. For, with earlier scenarios-synopsises film directors often deviated from the plot and brought changes that were not always beneficial for the story logic and as such could influence financial gains of film studios. One of the mistakes that film makers of silent era wanted to avoid was having too many subtitles — text explaining what happens — for they believed that people went to movies to see pictures and not to read text on the screen.
The art of screenwriting was still new and even though there were many people wishing to write for photoplays they usually lacked experience writing for screen. One of the solutions was to employ dramatists — professional writers who knew about dramatic writing — and put them to work in a team with film directors for better result. ‘The best directors realize now that to ensure a successful production there must be team work.’ (The Scenario Writer and The Director, Photoplay magazine, May 1917)
Another solution was to nurture already existing talent that grew with the art itself — such as script girls, actors and actresses. They knew the technicalities and also had a pretty good idea of what was required and desired in scenarios.
As good continuity writers were hard to find, those who fitted the bill were highly valued. Among early continuity writers were Clara Beranger (1886–1956), Sada Cowan (1882–1943), Beulah Marie Dix (1876–1970), and Bess Meredyth (1890–1969).
‘Now, there is nothing that so greatly delights a producing director’s heart as to come across a strong original plot, told in a short synopsis, backed-up by a working scenario evolved in perfect and logical continuity — so that he can take the ‘script in hand’ and start to produce it, with safe knowledge that by following the script implicitly he will be making a production which will do him credit.’ — Jesse L. Lansky, (Photoplay magazine, April, 1917)
Sounds familiar? Well, movie making industry does not seem to have moved that far from this particular point in time.
As in 1910s, contemporary film makers seem to face and grapple with the same dilemmas of where to source story ideas and synopsis, how to relay stories on to screen in an enticing way, where to find screen writers who would understand filming process as well as drama writing, and how to make film directors and screen writers work together as a team.
By the end of 1910s, filmmakers managed to solve in one way or the other challenges that faced them but when they thought they had finally nailed it, a new technological advancement had arrived — the sound — and turned everything upside down.