Interview with screenwriter Ruhi Sayyed

SHORT BIO OF THE WRITER: I have been a professional counselor and an award winning script writer. My journey in screenwriting has started recently after I realized that I would like to tell stories my way. I have been a big fan of horror-psychological thrillers and enjoyed watching them. Complex characters have always fascinated me and I feel that they are a reflection of our own inconsistencies twisted in a manner to make them compatible with the story. I believe in the power of fiction, it gives an opportunity to deliver a message in the most unconventional way. I am impressed with fiction as in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures”.

WRITER’S FILMOGRAPHY: I have completed two short film screenplays, “Use Me” and “Famed”. Both have received recognition across various internationally recognized film festivals. I have also co-authored one of the movies, titled “Amunet”, produced and directed by my husband, which was received well across film festivals and is now available on digital platform.

  • What is the first story you ever wrote?

I am proud to say that ‘Use Me’, based on a conservationist’s journey, is my first story.   The protagonist of this story is passionate about her feelings and nothing can stop her from doing so. One weekend while we were on a long drive, this thought struck my mind as we were passing through areas of lush greenery amidst the dry desert. From that point started the journey of writing my first story and from start to end; it took me approximately 3 months to complete the story.

  • Growing up, what movies or stories inspired your creative passion?

Honestly speaking, as we were growing up, there was not as much exposure to movies or TV as we have today. During my school/college days, there weren’t many TV channels. Movies came into my life relatively late and horror movies were the last ones, as we were not permitted to watch them earlier. However, I continue to be inclined towards mystery, psychological thriller and horror genres. Movies like Psycho, Vertigo, Dial M for Murder, Signs, Sixth Sense, The Silence of the Lambs and Ring have been few of my favorites. Today there is so much content out there that inspires me to create a compelling story.

  • For an unknown writer, what is the best way to get their screenplay seen?

I believe film festivals are the best way to get an entry to the fascinating world of film making. Who does not wish to be known, and better, known for their stories?Initially, I submitted my first screenplay at few film festivals and after receiving recognition and positive feedbacks, I got the necessary confidence to participate in more festivals and that is how LISP happened.

The best thing about participating in such competitions is that you neither need any specific qualification nor any prior experience. Secondly, I find that the reviews provided in these festivals are critical, genuine and honest. I feel they provide you an insight as to how the audience, in the form of a non-prejudiced third person, looks at the story. If you have a story, don’t wait to become a master craftsman, write it and just go all out and participate in as many film festivals as possible. You might get a platform to showcase yourself, like I got one here. You never know, who is reading your story and your stars might shine!

  • What experiences from your life influence your characters?

My background in mental health helps me as I have come across different personalities with varying experiences. The characters in my story are as common and ordinary as you and me. But what makes them unique is applying in a personal or a known experience that relates to their lives.

I draw them from my childhood days or from a previous workplace or from visiting a new place. When I begin writing, I don’t specifically plan to bring them in, but they somehow find their way to my story.  As I finish writing, I realize that somewhere in the midst of this fictional tale lays one of my own relatable story or something that intrigued me. I believe that as you write, you unconsciously give a glimpse of inner-self which has remained confined, obscured and never got an opportunity to openly come out.

In the screenplay “Use Me”, I drew influence from a friend’s life who had lost his mother at a young age and was blessed with something supernatural, for a brief period.

  • Can you explain your character development process?

I firmly believe that the audience is always looking for an aspirational hero, who is capable of bringing about a long awaited /sought for ‘change’.

In my stories, I always have dynamic characters, someone who undergoes a transformation. My characters, so to say, are likeable, real and relatable and when they come across a situation that tests them, they undergo a transformation and give a peek into their real-self. I believe in giving them a point of view, a perspective, which dictates their actions and takes the story forward. I think this way I create a compelling character. I am of the opinion that complicated lives and heroic qualities breathe uniqueness into any character.

  • Do you write bios before you start writing?

When I started writing “Use Me”, I wasn’t aware of this. But as I got involved with my story, I had many questions regarding my characters. It was the same time, when I started reading books on screenplay writing and learned the importance of creating a brief bio based on the characters role in my story. For example, in case of “Use Me”, I had listed few personality traits for my protagonist. Then I learnt the need to add a surprising contradiction to them. An approach like this gives the story a stereotypical character and then flips the audience expectations by giving a surprising contradiction. Once you have built your character, as strong as possible, they begin talking to you and you know how they will react in any given situation, it all begins to make sense.

  • How emotionally involved are you with the characters you create? 

When you give your idea an emotional charge, it becomes a story to remember forever. I draw my characters thought from a portion of me or from people I have closely come across with interesting personalities. This means that that these characters have a trait which fascinates me in some or the other way. I always think of my characters as ‘Living Ones’ making them vulnerable to emotions associated with relations. When I write about them, I begin to see them, think about them and develop a connection with them. After all the time invested, it is hard not to get attached, but I ensure that I never allow my characters to take over me. However, the fact remains that I take pleasure in creating compelling characters that make a memorable story for my audience.

  • What are your thoughts on structure?

Structure refers to arranging the elements of your story in a specific chronological manner/order. In a simple sense, this is a broad base that outlines in what sequence I wish to narrate my story. The audience subconsciously expects certain events to follow while watching a movie. A well-structured plot seamlessly integrates this information without the audience realization. Structure keeps the audience engaged and advances the story forward. I follow the three-act structure, a beginning, middle and an end. Though there are four-act, five-act and even seven-act structures, but they are all just additions to the basic three act structure. Each scene in a three-act structure progresses to the next one and takes the story forward in a natural progression.

I have always been fascinated by the non-linear structure of storytelling as they are challenging. Audiences have to remember where certain scenes were left and they should be able to pick the story back to enjoy it. I recently incorporated it in one of my screenplays titled “Famed” and surprisingly its non-linear structure was highly appreciated.

  • Do you outline before you start writing?

Prepare yourself for surprising accidents as you embark on this journey.

Once I have an idea in my mind, I try to put it down in few paragraphs or possibly a 1-2 page synopsis. I then make a beat sheet with events expected within the three act framework. This outline is a record of what I know about my story at any given time. But believe me, I keep it flexible enough, and open to tempering changes, changes that I do not foresee when I begin writing. This helps me in writing a screenplay rather than an elaborate description of my own idea.

An outline should help you begin your writing journey. But be open to challenges and deviations while on this journey. Do not always go back to it because then you will be restricting your thoughts in one particular direction. Just remember that you are the one who made it and you are the one who can change it, let it not come in the way of a beautiful and an engaging story. It is a list of events that need to happen but may deviate to give depth and meaning to your imagination.

  • What is the most important aspect of building a great character?

Any event that creates opposition, eventually leads to some kind of action, though the characters are free to make their own decision. But through adversity, true character reveals itself and when there is a change or character transformation, we call it a growth arc.

What is important is the nature, personality, inner thoughts, and hidden desire of a character. Since character is not something that is visible outwardly, an opposition helps reveal it.

Let’s take an example – If a boy with disability and a mother holding her newborn in arm walking across the street comes face to face with a car accident in which a young girl is trapped inside a flaming car. A challenging situation like this gives a real glimpse of our characters in times of adversity. Will the mother leave her newborn on the street to save this young girl and risk revealing her hidden identity as a refugee with no proper documents? Or will this young boy overcome his disability for the young girl and risk his life in an attempt to save hers? The choices they make give an arc to these characters’ growth.

Testing your characters in unconventional ways, making them come across and overcome opposition makes them stronger and memorable.