Is technology changing the way we write?

By Lee Hamilton.

There may be a few writers out there who look back to the good ol’ days with fond nostalgia, listening for the thunk of the typewriter key, or experiencing the thrill when starting a new line, the touch of having a crisp sheet of a neatly hand-typed script in their hands. The rest of us, who are old enough to remember, likely don’t miss having to start a new page after making an error halfway down, the enormous weight of the typewriter, or getting covered in ink when trying to change the ribbon.

Technology’s come a long way from the humble typewriter, but has the way we tell stories changed too, or is technology nothing but a simple tool to make writing faster and more efficient?

Technically, you can write a screenplay on anything, well, the idea anyways. Joe Eszterhas famously secured a $2m upfront fee to write Showgirls, which he pitched on the back of a cocktail napkin, but those days are perhaps long-gone too. In the digital age, we have computers, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones at our disposal, all of which have certainly changed the industry. Thanks to email, writers no longer have to print off multiple copies of a screenplay and rely on the laborious process of posting them all. Writers no longer have to live in Hollywood to have a successful career (at least for feature writers), because, with cell phones and video conferencing, a writer not only can be anywhere in the world but can literally be on call at the touch of a button. And the development of intuitive screenwriting software means that writers no longer have to go through the rigmarole of making sure every margin and gap on the page is correct as when using less than effective word processors.

Technological developments have also altered the way we consume media. Streaming services increased the demand for content, but changing modern lifestyles also changed what type of content people wanted too. 24hr societies demand content on the go and broadcast services have had to find a way to supply it. Shorter formats have become increasingly popular. Suddenly there’s an interest for 20-30-minute thrillers, dramas, or horrors, something that traditional television broadcasters would never previously have considered. The internet has also opened the gates, enabling anyone with the imagination to become a content creator.

Technology has definitely made a writer’s life a lot easier. Productivity has become simpler and more time-efficient, there’s a higher demand for content, and there are many more opportunities for emerging writers to showcase their talents, but while the business has almost certainly changed, has the writing?

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In terms of what’s down on the page, yes, there have been changes. Page counts are getting shorter, as are scene and shot lengths, with more plot being crammed onto the page than ever before. This could be down to audiences having shorter attention spans, being savvier, or wanting more original content, but consider this in conjunction with the fact that writers are continually being told ‘less is more.’

Take a look at some classic screenplays, such as Casablanca for example, and you’ll see noticeable differences.

In today’s screenplays, camera directions and transitions that were common in the 1940s, have now all but been cut. Physically directing the actor is now frowned upon, and dialogue is encouraged to be short, punchy, and to the point. There is a greater separation between the script as a story and the (shooting) script which is required on set. Screenwriting has become more evocative, with a huge emphasis on readability. This shift is in part due to the fragmentization of filmmaking, and the fact that today, more people than ever are involved in creating movies. Unlike the big studio production line, multiple independent professionals frequently come together to create critical creative mass energy for a project. Gaining interest in a script requires the wording of a screenplay to be engaging, entertaining, vivid, and visual as it transitions between and excites the interest of multiple players; managers, producers, cast, crew, financiers, and distributors.

And again, developments in different mediums, not just film, are changing the ways writers construct their stories. The explosion of the videogame industry has led to screenwriters working on huge, interactive projects where narrative threads split frequently. YouTubers and influencers have entered the screenwriting world, often planning and scripting content to record. And fiction podcasting has emerged as a fast-growing avenue for serial storytelling, where scripting audio and dialogue have replaced visuals when painting the picture in the audience’s mind.

Of course, while storytelling and screenwriting continue to develop, the fundamentals that were established centuries ago still remain; gripping characters, compelling premise, and emotionally connecting with the audience. These elements are key in constructing a story that lasts, no matter what the medium.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what technology you use. Grab the audience and don’t let them go!

Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.

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