The job of the screenwriter is to tell a vivid, emotionally resonant story that will later be presented in a visual medium. But, of course, we don’t have the gift of visuals. We only have our words. To use a slightly Lynchian metaphor, screenwriting is like leading a blindfolded person down a winding path only you can navigate, while describing everything to them. The challenge, obviously, is that the reader can’t see the story in the way that you can. They can hear the dialogue, but everything else relies on your description. To continue this strange metaphorical journey into my mind, Directors are more like tour guides. They walk audiences along the same winding path, and show them everything you described.
The biggest challenge, then, is getting your vision of the story across to a reader without ‘directing’. Screenwriters are told endlessly that ‘directing’ in a script is a major no-no. Specifying camera angles and music is frowned upon from one non-corner of our spherical world to the other non-corner. And so it should be — that’s not the writer’s job. But the people that stress these rules fail to recognize one key thing: writing is directing. You’re just directing with words, not visuals.
So many writers become obsessed with where the camera is placed and how or when it moves, that they blissfully remain unaware that they’re both wasting page space and boring any invested reader. A two-minute steadicam shot might be impressive on screen; but on the page, it will take all of three seconds to read. And it’s not so interesting. Unless you’re going to direct your own work (and I don’t even write them into the script then), camera angles are one of the top ‘never do this’ areas. And for good reason.
LOW ANGLE: A pair of feet move down the stairs. We TILT UP until we’re staring at SHARON, a wealthy woman that thinks she’s a goddess.
If Steven Spielberg wanted to make this script, first thing he’d do is to scrap those camera directions right away. But even looking beyond that, this is a bad character introduction. Remove the angles, and we’re just being told stuff about Sharon. Film and Television are visual mediums.
The old advice is right: you need to show, not tell.
I think this is the best tip I’m going to write in this whole article, and I’m okay with peaking early (I have yet to peak in life, what do I have to lose?): If you want to influence a reader’s perception of a scene, don’t use angles. Don’t tell us. Show us. Guide the mind’s eye. How? Easy. Just describe what we would see on screen, as if it’s unfolding.
A pair of expensive heels descend the stairs. A tall body in an elegant black dress and extravagant jewelry. She’s poised, a smile on her lips. This is SHARON.
Much better. This defines ‘Sharon’ as a character through visuals, while also guiding the mind’s eye without a single camera direction. This uses a technique I learned in a screenwriting book that I won’t name: write your screenplay as if you’re describing the movie to someone that’s never seen a movie in their life. They don’t know what a medium shot or a crane or dolly is; they don’t know any technical elements whatsoever. They only know the story you’re telling them, as you tell it. How often do you and fellow moviegoers discuss wide shots or the use of 70mm lenses on the ride home? Rarely, if ever! You discuss the story, the characters, the set pieces. That principle applies to writing.
Readers want story, not camera specs. Guide the mind.
‘UNFILMABLES’ AND EMOTIONS
One of the biggest problems I encountered in my career as a script reader was writers over specifying detail, particularly during intimate moments. I’m talking ‘internal’ details; the unfilmable processes of the inner mind. As writers, we become attached to the characters we write; we know what and how they’re thinking. The only problem is that the camera doesn’t pick that up. Audiences can’t read minds. They can only interpret context.
Annie stares ahead. She’s thinking about all the times they had together, all the missed opportunities. She’s devastated, she could have done something more.
This is perfect for a novel. But terrible for a screenplay, for a couple of reasons. First, the audience won’t understand any of this. How can you show what Annie is thinking without cutting away to something else? It’s unfilmable. Secondly, you’re stepping on the actor’s toes. Whoever is playing Annie has to come in and bring an emotional performance to that role. Unfortunately, this draft has already established how that performance should be — devastated.
There was a fantastic New Yorker feature on Julianne Moore, in which her husband (a director) described an incident in which he got on her bad side during the shooting of a scene. He had given her the internal motivation for what she was doing. Her response? ‘I’ll move over there, but don’t tell me why.’ I apply this to writing. In a screenplay, you tell the actors and readers what the characters are doing. Their job is to figure out how they’re doing it. And the key to that is the context you provide.
Annie stares ahead.
Depending on the scene’s context, this one line of action can tell us far more than unseeable detail of her intricate thought processes. Maybe it’s a scene where she discovers her husband has died; or her boyfriend has cheated on her; her business partner has sold their company without asking her; maybe she’s discovered her ketchup has expired. Context changes everything. By providing that simplified context, you’re directing the reader’s interpretation of a scene without even trying. You tell them what, they work out how.
I once read a screenwriting book that encouraged writers to introduce characters with an actor, e.g. ‘This is TAMMY (think Scarlett Johansson)’. The most frustrating thing was that the writer who suggested it didn’t even do it in his own scripts. Talk about confidence, right? The truth is, this is a terrible idea. Especially for specs.
I can’t help but write for certain actors. If I don’t, every character just sounds like me. But I would never write an actor’s name into the script, for the same reason I wouldn’t specify the internal how of a character or the camera angles: it’s not my job. I’m the writer, not the casting director. Also, it’s just compassion! If Scarlett Johansson isn't available, how happy will another actress be to find out she’s a replacement?
The door swings open. JACK storms in, gun drawn. Think Tom Cruise. He scans the room, sizing up his targets.
I get why people do this. It’s script economy. We know movie star personas, and we know Tom Cruise tends to play likeable, capable bad-asses that always save the day. Unfortunately, this kind of script economy is lazy, uncreative and generally bad writing. To go back to the tip from the last point, screenwriting is like describing a movie as if the person reading has never seen a movie before. You have to imagine that the reader, or that blindfolded trail walker, is clueless to anything outside of the narrative. Maybe they don’t know who Tom Cruise is! All they know is Jack. However, the elements of Tom Cruise’s persona might work for that character:
The door swings open. JACK storms in, gun drawn. He’s ripped, ever-capable, permanently ready for action. He scans the room, sizing up his targets.
By taking the action-hero elements of Tom Cruise’s screen persona, we’ve created a character. A fairly two-dimensional blockbuster character, it has to be said, but a character. And we did it entirely without referring to the ‘real world’! Regardless of how many people will or will not think of Tom specifically, they’ll be thinking of a similar guy. And if that’s the kind of character you’re writing, isn’t that good enough?
DIRECTING, WITH WORDS
Movies are a visual medium. That makes screenwriting especially difficult, since we only have letters to work with. And letters aren’t really exciting, unless you live on Sesame Street. It’s also worth noting that these techniques probably won’t ensure your story reaches the screen as you envision it. The only way to ensure every frame of your story makes it to the screen as you see it is to make it yourself.
I advise all screenwriters to think of themselves as directors. Not in the sense of providing a shot list, but in describing the movie as if to someone that has never seen a movie. That’s the essence of screenwriting.