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Sooni Taraporevala: 10 Tips For Screenwriters

DearCinema organized IndieTalk with renowned screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala on July 19 in Mumbai. This is what the writer of films like Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake and Mississippi Masala had to say:

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  • Some people say: only write what you know. Some people say: write what you don’t know. I say: write what you don’t know but be responsible to the subject and find out everything there is about it before you start writing. Research is an invaluable tool for me as a writer. It’s like free material and I can’t imagine why more people don’t go out and help themselves to it. Our imaginations are limited while the real world is much more exciting – if you research, the world is your oyster.
  • The more particular you are about a story, the more universal it becomes. It’s not the other way around. Being generic and homogeneous doesn’t make a story universal.
  • In adaptations, the hard creative work has already been done by the writer of the source material and I as the screenwriter get to cherry pick and use the best bits. But the challenge I always face is – how do you adapt a book which is so dense with characters and emotions into a 120-page screenplay? That’s the biggest challenge.
  • There are moments and scenes that I pick out in a book which are cinematic. I underline dialogue which is great, mark the funny parts with smileys. After thoroughly immersing myself in the book (reading it twice or thrice), I start the process of finding a structure for the screenplay.
  • There are two sides to the script development process. It’s my fantasy that one day I will write one draft and it will be ready to shoot. It’s not happened yet. My average is more than seven drafts for screenplays that have made it to screen. Writing is re-writing; that’s a cliché but it’s true. The more you re-write, the better it becomes.
  • The flipside to extensive script development is — sometimes you develop a screenplay so much that it never gets made. The thing to watch out for is too many stages and too much time before tackling the screenplay. If I had to go through concept, logline, outline, synopsis, treatment and then finally the script I would be so bored and fed up that I would never write the script. There’s something to be said about channelling your energies and passion into writing the actual screenplay instead of planning the whole thing out for a year before you start to write. (I use the terms ‘script’ and ‘screenplay’ interchangeably as denoting the same thing – i.e. the film on paper before it is made – complete scenes with all action and dialogue).
  • I didn’t know what a 3 act structure was when I wrote my first screenplay Salaam Bombay! I didn’t study screenplay writing – I came to it via literature, photography and film studies (watching, analysing and writing about films).  If I had started writing screenplays after reading Syd Field, I would have got so confused that it would have taken away whatever joy I get from writing. However, I may be an exception as I do know it helps many people. If it helps you, read it. But if it doesn’t help you, then don’t feel obliged to go down that route because you think that’s what you must do and that’s what everybody else is doing. After all what is a three act structure but a beginning, middle and an end? Whichever route you take as long as you reach your destination that’s fine.
  • An outline is like a rough blueprint. I make provisions for it to change in the course of writing the screenplay. If I don’t allow myself to be surprised during the writing, I am not going to surprise anyone else. I enjoy the moments when something that my character says or does surprises me. I don’t enjoy following a preconceived map that I have made. Stories change and evolve as you write.
  • A friend once gave me this advice and I find it very true – When I’m writing, on any given day, I don’t stop at full stop – i.e. at a place where I don’t know where I will be going the next day. I stop at a comma. It’s easier to kick start the writing the next day when you know where you’re going.
  • For me personally, I find no value in writing a bio of my character: what they like, what they dislike, what they eat, what they wear etc. I write the script and as the script develops, the character will speak to me as opposed to my having a preconceived notion before starting to write. I like to go with my characters.However, you have to be careful not to go off on a tangent that takes you nowhere. So it’s a delicate balance. But I usually go with the flow and am not averse to changing my grand plan. You can always backtrack if you don’t like it. There is nothing irrevocable about it. I like to explore, and I love surprises.