“Stories are Trances.” Steven Barnes on Screenwriting

By Brianne Hogan • April 30, 2021

According to Steven Barnes, screenplays and stories are “like conversations with friends you have yet to meet,” which is a comforting thought to the lonely writer holed up in their apartment, banging out words.

A screenwriter and sci-fi novelist himself, Barnes always wanted to be a writer.

“I always told stories,” he says. At first they were just elaborate lies, and I got spanked for them. When I started forming them into narratives, I got smiles instead, so I went in that direction, probably starting at about eight years old.”

Raised by his mother and sister, he cites Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and The Saint as early sources of inspiration (“Without my father in the home, I developed a yearning to know what ‘masculinity’ was.”)

He wrote his first script in high school – “Ripping off some movie or that I loved” – and he’s never looked back. Barnes boasts credits The Outer Limits and Baywatch, amongst others, plus a slew of novels and consulting gigs. (“My very favorite of my novels is Lion’s Blood.“).

We caught up with Barnes to discuss adaptation, what makes a solid sci-fi screenplay and telling the truth in your work.

You write both literature and screenwriting. How do they relate to each other? How do they differ in your writing process?

They are both storytelling. But one is like building a house, and the other is like drawing the blueprints for a house. With screenplays you have to leave room for other artists to do their dance. You have to trust. Script writing is also understanding that the business people funding the project have the right to an opinion. Far, far more collaborative than book writing.

You’ve adapted a short story into a film before with Danger Word. What’s that process like as opposed to writing an original screenplay?

I wrote and crowdfunded that with my wife, American Book Award-winning novelist Tananarive Due. We started with a short story, Danger Word which then became a novel, Devil’s Wake. In the process the protagonist switched from male to female, and got a little older.

When we decided to do a film, we created a third version of the same basic idea, one that could come to a conclusion in seventeen minutes. There were serious questions of budget and effects and so forth–a story of a grandfather trying to raise and protect his granddaughter after the Zombie Apocalypse has to, you know, have zombies.

So you keep an eye on theme, imagery, budget, time restraints…any number of things, juggling them to try to make the best film you can with the resources you have. You end up making last-minute change decisions on set. That can be tough, but if you keep your eyes on the theme, on the emotional journey you want the audience to take, and remain flexible…things can turn out just fine.

You teach how to write horror screenwriting. What are just a few key aspects that are unique to horror writing that an aspiring horror writer must be aware of?

My definition of “horror” is a story where the dominant emotion is fear. That’s what you want the audience to experience, whether it is supernatural, psychological, science fictional, or whatever. So you really have to develop your characters so that the audience empathizes with them. If they don’t, they’ll munch popcorn and laugh at the effects. “Wow! Nice lung-sack!” Not the reaction you want. Probably.

You’re also a prolific sci-fi writer. What is it about the genre that you like?

The ability to play with ideas. Science fiction has three main questions: “What if?”, “If only… and “If this goes on…” Those questions seem to match the way my mind works.

What makes a solid sci-fi screenplay?

There has to be a strong basic premise, an extrapolated universe…the things that make Sci-fi. But with a film, you need room for strong actors as well, so that you believe in the world.

Look at Alien: you have a premise of blue-collar truckers encountering a Lovecraftian horror in space. You had to make the world believable, the biology of the creature palpably alien, the entire set-up feel “lived in”. And what sold it were those wonderful performances from fine character actors. Otherwise it turns into “It, The Terror From Beyond Space, the movie Alien might be loosely based on. Fun, but nothing remotely like the classic, terrifying journey Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett designed.

What makes a solid screenplay, period?

The story through-line has to be visual. Can you turn the sound off and understand what is going on? So the art of screenwriting is not just telling the story, but selecting visual images that operate like a “rebus.” The dialogue then provides a new level, sometimes at counterpoint to the flow of the visuals.

What is your character development process like? Do you write bios?

Characters start out as stick figures, moving through the plot. But then when they speak, and act, they start to reveal more about themselves, and sometimes force a reinterpretation of the story. By the time the script, or novel, is done, the characters have pretty much taken over, told me their back-stories, which then affects their actions and changes the plot. You have to have enough discipline not to let those willful little suckers take over everything.

What are your thoughts on structure?

I love Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, but you have to remember that it isn’t a cookie-cutter or magic formula, it is an observation of the way the human mind tends to organize scattered events to create meaning and significance.

You don’t just follow the beats. You have to understand what every step means, how it feels to the audience, know that the audience has seen millions of stories, and has a deep, almost cellular sense of story and pace and characterization. They’ll get ahead of you if you aren’t careful, and sometimes even if you are.

So the steps of the Hero’s Journey are like the 88 keys of a piano — you don’t just play them in order. You use the audience expectations against them. Repeat beats, slow things down, speed them up, manipulating the response the audience has, playing with their expectations.

But then there’s another way of looking at it: you can simply write the story, and not think about “structure” until the re-write process. Or you can plan your story, then go free-form when you write, and then go back to structure. Back and forth, left brain-right brain, having fun, then doing the work, again and again, rinse and repeat.

An aspiring screenwriter is writing her first screenplay. What’s your advice?

Watch a movie a week, reading the screenplay at the same time. Plan her screenplay on a stack of 3×5 cards, and work on them until she has a five-minute pitch that is riveting. Then write a ten or twenty page treatment, that again, is riveting. Then she writes the script, without dialogue. Then finally, add the dialogue.

For an unknown writer, what is the best way for his work to get seen?

It’s a new world. It used to be move to Hollywood, get a job somewhere in the industry, and make connections with people who have the right Rolodex. Today, I think it’s a smart idea to actually make a small film and post it on YouTube these days.

You’re a certified hypnotherapist and an avid enthusiast of martial and physical arts. How does that inform your writing?

Stories are trances. Suspension of disbelief and immersion into a story world is a waking dream. When you understand the structure of trance-consciousness, if is easier to see how stories reel an audience in and rule them for 400 pages or 2 hours.

The martial arts are about focusing energy, moving efficiently and effectively, and controlling your emotions. Developing skill by daily exertions over years or decades, sculpting your spirit. The precise same ideas apply to developing any skill in life. In fact, once you’ve mastered anything, if you move back a level of abstraction you understand how to master anything else.

Musashi Miyamoto, arguably the greatest swordsman in Japanese history, wrote nine principles for combat that could easily have been applied to writing. The first rule is: “Do not think dishonestly”. So important.

Forget about being clever: tell the truth. What would you do, feel, say, in this situation you’ve created, if you were this character. Just start there. If you’re clever, it will come out in the process. If you aren’t, but you are honest enough, you may have a story anyway.

What are your favorite movie and TV show of the year, and why?

I love Fargo right now. Wow. Amazing writing and acting.

Movies? I loved Creed, I really did. It was the Skyfall of Rocky movies, and just delightful.

Brianne Hogan