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Creative Writing 102: The Screenplay - Blending Screenwriting with Literary Theory


Creative Writing 102 articles are a continuation of the previous Creative Writing 101 series and serve as one of the academic courses in the field of Creative Writing Studies and Literary Theory. The course, which is a fundamental guide within the scope of general knowledge compared to the technical knowledge of Creative Writing Studies and Literary Theory, also addresses students and the general readership alike. With this goal in mind, the author has opted to write the article in very plain and basic English to convey just the necessary understanding of Creative Writing by making the article merely an introduction.

Creative Writing 102 is mainly divided into five chapters including:

  1. The Screenplay - Blending Screenwriting with Literary Theory

  2. In the Realm of Travel Writing - Immortalizing Stories in Nonfiction

  3. The Digitalization of Creative Writing Through Video Games

  4. Critical Theory - The (Im)possibility of Application

  5. Unraveling Creativity and Humor in Comedians' Personalities

[A selection of books about screenwriting]

Working on a script is far from being a simple task as it involves a lot of rewriting to help the screenwriter “work within somebody else’s vision and expand it”, confesses screenwriter Robert Towne in an interview with Jack Epps, Jr. This article investigates the screenplay in terms of Roland Barthes’ interpretation of ‘text’ and ‘work’ and depicts the types of screenplay readers and "narrating voices" within a script from a literary perspective.

Roland Barthes and the Screenplay: a ‘text’ or a ‘work’?

In an attempt to grasp the screenplay as a "screenwork", Macdonald (2013) refers to the British film composer Steven Price's understanding of the screenplay as a complex work straddling "literature" and "the moving image". Price's perception of the screenplay is based on an interaction between elements, such as "dramatic structure, image, sound, performance, action, dialogue and on-screen language", all working at the same time. Hence, the screenplay can be analyzed from a literary perspective, adopting Barthes' idea regarding the difference between a ‘work’ and a ‘text’. In the Barthesian philosophy, the ‘work’ and the ‘text’ are two distinct notions. The former is characterized as “fixed”, “discoverable”, in the process of “being created by an author”, and “consumed by the reader”, leaving the screenplay as a finished ‘work‘. Alternatively, the latter is rather more flexible, “fixable”, and not “classifiable”, endowed with a plurality of suggestions and “possibilities”, rather than “firm conclusions”. In this way, according to Steven Price, the Barthesian notion of ‘text‘ illustrates the screenplay, celebrating its flexibility through other writers’ ideas and thus, making the screenplay a heterogenous text. For Macdonald (2013), however, the screenplay ought not to be categorized as simply a ‘text‘, for it can have a neutral position and, thus, be qualified as a ‘text’ and also as a ‘work’ depending on what he refers to as “the imaginary of the Screen Idea”.

[Book cover of Image-Music-Text by Roland Barthes (Translated by Stephen Heath)]

In her book Written for the Screen (1997), Sternberg approves the Barthesian interpretation of the screenplay text as an unfixed and plural document welcoming the ideas of various writers to shape a finalized version of the screenplay. In other words, Sternberg (1997) explains that the screenplay is on a long journey, in constant movement, “changing through pre-production, production and post-production stages”. The anatomy of a screenplay is divided into two major parts: the “dialogue text” and “the scene text”. Sternberg (1997) relates the “dialogue text” to the “spectator” while the “scene text” is rather invisible, unseen to the public because it operates in the hands of directors during pre-production and production. In this sense, there is an interaction between a targeted readership and the screenplay text. Who are the screenplay readers and how are they defined in relation to the screenplay?

Types of screenplay readers

The process of writing a screenplay goes hand in hand with a targeted readership that the screenwriter has to take into consideration, argues Ingelstrom (2014). Sternberg (1997) enumerates three major categories of “screenplay readers” in relation to the screenplay text. The first category is known as “the property reader”. This type of reader is given the possibility to launch the project, which makes him or her “a producer”, “a director”, “an actor” or “an external investor”. The second category is the “blueprint reader” whose responsibility is to work on the details of the screenplay text and follow its progression until it is produced as a film. In this category, “the directors”, “the producer”, “the actors”, “the cinematographer”, and “the make-up artists” are all part of the ongoing project. The third and last category deals with “the reading stage reader”. The concerned readership, including “critics”, “scholars”, and “the general public”, interacts with the screenplay text after completion of the film. Thanks to these categories of “screenplay readers” identified by Sternberg (1997), the development of the screenplay text is studied in terms of pre-production and production of the film. Nevertheless, other attributes of screenplay text have to be examined to highlight its literary aspect, and above all its narrative means of communication.

The narrating voices in the screenplay text

When discussing the role of the screenplay text in the film production, Ingelstrom (2014) refers to the idea of Russian literary critic Osip Brik about the work that needs to be done during pre-production. Everything is done to enhance the screenplay during the process of the "film's development stage", which is considered to be far more valuable than to restrict one's attention to the "screenplay format and its literary language". In these terms, the screenwriter’s task is to find the appropriate way to convey the message he or she would like to share with the audience through the story to be told in the film. In order to do that, explains Ingelstrom (2014), the screenwriter has to bear in mind the details of the story to be included while filming what she calls the “potential film”. The reference to the film as a project that is unfinished or not yet in production, and in this way referred to as “potential film”, is composed of “narrating voices”. The challenge is how the screenwriter should “use these voices to direct the reader’s visualisation of the potential film.” (Ingelstrom, 2014, pp.31).

[Book cover of Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision by Jack Epps Jr.]

In reference to the narrative techniques examined by literary scholars in their studies of intertextuality and narratology, Ingelstrom (2014) concludes that, other than the existence of a relationship between author and reader through a text, another type of relationship between “a fictional narrator” and “a fictional narratee” exists. In other words, there are many other voices co-existing within one single story. Accordingly, the story or the “narrative text” does not contain, presumably, one single “intratextual narrating voice (‘intra’ referring to existing inside the text)”. On the contrary, numerous “narrating voices” can be part of one text or a story, claims Ingelstrom (2014). Based on the French literary theorist Gérard Genette’s contribution to narratology, scholars such as Susan Lanser and Edward Branigan are referred to by Ingelstrom to consolidate her opinion on the multiplicity of “narrating voices” in a story or a “narrative text”. According to Ingelstrom (2014), Susan Lanser divides the multiplicity of “narrating voices” into two separate yet interconnected categories—“extratextual and intratextual narrating voices”—in relation to “the text, fiction, story, scene and action”. Correspondingly, the film scholar Edward Branigan approves Lanser's philosophy and adopts it to the film as a whole and not just the text itself. Therefore, the multiplicity of "narrating voices" is to be found not only in "the fiction, the story, the scene and the action", but also in the "levels of speech, perception and thought". (Ingelstrom, 2014, p. 34).

The ‘personal’ vs. the ‘impersonal’ fictional voices

[Movie poster of Little Children by Todd Field]

The fictional voice of the dialogue is characterized as “personal”, making it possible for the reader to be aware of what is happening in the story as it is situated in the dialogue itself. On the other hand, the narrating voice in the screen text is “impersonal”, describes Ingelstrom (2014), and serves the screenwriter as a guide to the reader in order to visualize the scene, as it is shown in the instance of the film Little Children by Todd Field.




Smiling politely to mask a

familiar feeling of

desperation, Sarah reminded

herself to think like an

anthropologist. She was a

researcher studying the

behavior of typical suburban

women. She was not a typical

suburban woman herself.

(Field and Perrotta, 2006: 2)

The extrafictional voice

“In film and literary theory, the extrafictional voice (referred to as implied author, extrafictional narrator or extrafictional voice) is seen to be responsible for forewords or acknowledgements, and the fictional story.” (Ingelstrom, 2014)

[An illustrated scene from (500) Days of Summer by Marc Webb]

The “extrafictional voice” is located in the text or the screenplay text, but is not part of “the fiction” or the “fictional world of the story”, clarifies Ingelstrom (2014). It reflects what is inside the screenwriter’s mind, and delineates the closeness of the writer to the text or the screenwriter to the screenplay text. Thanks to the “extrafictional narrating voice”, the reader is given more insights on “camera directions” as it is exemplified in the film (500) Days of Summer by Marc Webb.

A single number in parenthesis, exactly like so:



And we’re looking at a MAN (20s) and a WOMAN (20s)

on a bench, high above the city of Los Angeles.

Their names are TOM and SUMMER and right now neither

one says a word.

CLOSE ON their HANDS, intertwined. Notice the

wedding ring on her finger. CLOSE ON Tom, looking at

Summer the way every woman wants to be looked at.

And then a DISTINGUISHED VOICE begins to speak to us.

This is a story of boy meets girl. (Neustadter and Weber, 2009)

(Ingelstrom, 2014, pp. 34-35).

In the example above, explains Ingelstrom (2014), the reader is provided with information about the importance of the number 488 and how it should be seen on the screen. Also, a focus on what the story is about—that is “a story of boy meets girl”; Not forgetting how the characters should be filmed and presented to the reader: announcing the age of both man and woman, where they are located, their names, what they are wearing on their hands, and how the man is staring at the woman.

[Book cover of Screenplay: Writing the Picture, 2nd Edition]

It is true that one of the functions of the “extrafictional voice” is to provide the reader with information about how the scene from a “potential film” needs to be filmed. However, this does not restrict it to providing “notes” to the “production team” to emphasize certain important elements to be added to the screenplay text during production. For instance, Ingelstrom (2014) asserts the following notes are added in the filming of three movies: (500) Days of Summer by Marc Webb, Fantastic Mr. Fox by Wes Anderson, and Hugo by Martin Scorsese; to point out that “it is not a case of the fictional narrator’s communication, but a communication external to the fiction”.

(PRODUCTION NOTE: Put Autumn somewhere subtle in the

background) (Neustadter and Weber, 2009: 46)

(NOTE: an alternate version of Mrs Fox will be used for

this shot which can be literally lit from within) (Anderson and Baumbach, 2009: 10)

[Or similar moment of comic frustration] (Logan, 2011: 9)

(Ingelstrom, 2014, p. 36).

All things considered, the writing of a screenplay text involves rewriting, for it is a complex process based on a multiplicity of authorship, working together for the finalized version of a screenplay text. The debate on the screenplay as a ‘text’ or as a ‘work’ in Barthesian terms further consolidates the idea that working on a screenplay is a complex yet enriching task as it involves other elements, including extratextual and intratextual narrating voices, along with particular screenplay readers for the pre-production, production, and post-production stages.

Image Sources

Bloomsbury Academic. (2016, January 28). [Book cover of Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision by Jack Epps Jr.]. . .&qid=1642079299&s=books&sprefix=screenwriting+is+rewriting+the+art+and+craft+of+professional+. . .%2Cstripbooks-intl-ship%2C157&sr=1-1

Field, T. (2006, September 1). [Movie poster of Little Children by Todd Field].

Hill and Wang. (1978, July 1). [Book cover of Image-Music-Text by Roland Barthes (Translated by Stephen Heath)].

Russin, R. U., and Downs, W. M. (2012, July 1). [Book cover of Screenplay: Writing the Picture, 2nd Edition]. (n.d.). [A pile of books about Screenwriting].

Webb, M. (2009, July 17). [An illustrated scene from (500) Days of Summer by Marc Webb].


Epps, J, Jr. (2016). Screenwriters on Rewriting. In Screenwriting is Rewriting (pp. 321–328). Bloomsbury Academic.

Ingelstrom, A. (2014). Narrating Voices in the Screenplay Text: How the Writer Can Direct the Reader’s Visualisations of the Potential Film. In C. Batty (Ed.), Screenwriters and Screenwriting: Putting Practice into Context (pp. 30–45). Palgrave Macmillan.

Macdonald, I. W. (2013). Theoretical Approaches. In Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea (pp. 12–35). Palgrave Macmillan.

—————. (2013). God Is in the Details: The Text Object. In Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea (pp. 161–189). Palgrave Macmillan.

Sternberg, C. (1997) Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay

as Text, Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag.

Additional Readings

Intertextuality. (n.d.). Basicknowledge101.Com. Retrieved January 10, 2022, from

Andrew, D., Citton, Y., Debaene, V., & di Iorio, S. (2016). Roland Barthes’ Cinema (P. Watts, Ed.). Oxford University Press.