• Telling a story visually

    One of the many keys in the craft of screen writing is to remember that you are writing for the screen, that you are writing visually.

    Some tips for keeping this fact in your head:
    Note: Some of these tips are concerned with formatting your script, but aid in the writing visually while keeping within the guidelines of formatting. Formatting and structure will get a mention in almost all the tips I will be writing. Mainly because no matter how good your story is or how good a writer you are, if you want someone to read your work, you will need to get the formatting and structure 100% right.

    1) Show don’t tell.
    What does this mean? Remember you aren’t writing a book or a play. Conversations are all well and good, and words can be powerful. But you can make a scene/event all the more powerful by showing it.

    An example of this:
    Your two main characters meet and talk about how their third friend has just been badly beaten by a common enemy.
    Adds tension and can be a plot change but what if you showed it, rather than talked about it?
    Show the friend being followed and cornered. Show him trying to escape. Put us (the audience) there with him as he is being attacked. Make it real. Make us feel. Make an impact.
    Then later when the two friends talk about it. We feel their pain. We know what has happened is bad.

    Telling can become a common fault in low budget films. When you get writing you will be asked to write a short film in one location, two actors and limited budget etc. This is fine. It is what indie film making is all about. But what you want to avoid is writing a stage play that has been shot on camera. Try to keep it a film and work within your constraints. Look at the movie “Glengarry Glenross” for example. Quite a few locations, but one could argue it was essentially an adapted stage play. But when you have actors Like Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and Al Pacino acting scenes like this with, you get sucked into the film, because it is acted and written so well. So don’t limit yourself but keep the show don’t tell rule in your mind at all times.

    2) If you can’t show it on screen... Don’t put it into the script.
    What does this mean? Don’t write what your character is thinking or what they are planning on doing. The audience isn’t reading the script. Their watching your film/movie. If you can’t show it visually or reveal it in dialogue (and not expositional dialogue, more about that in a dialogue session later) leave it out.

    3) Avoid camera angles and shots.
    Unless you are writing a shooting script avoid the use of any camera angles or shots in your scripts. It screams amateur hour and even if you become professional, it still gives the impression you are doing the Director or photography’s job. Remember film is collaboration. Leave shots and angles to the other members of the team. Write your script as a “spec” script, a blue print for the movie. You’re telling a story, that’s your job. Forget the fancy dolly tracking shot – unless of course you are directing it yourself then it’s fair game, as you’re not telling someone else how to shoot your their film. One tip for using shots without using shots and also makes your script easier to read. When the shot changes put it on a new paragraph/line.

    The wrong way:

    Jim runs into the room and draws his gun. The door smashes inwards and creature runs towards him. Jim aims the weapon and fires two rounds at the creature. The camera slowly turns to reveal the damage to the creature.

    Write this as:

    Jim runs into the room and draws his gun.

    The door smashes inwards and creature runs towards him.

    Jim aims the weapon and fires two rounds at the creature.

    Camera angle is gone, but each action line is on a new line for each shot change. Makes the script easier to read and also easier to visualise. As you read you see Jim running into the room and drawing the gun, then shot change as the door smashes in and in finally another shot change as Jim fires. If the camera stayed on Jim, or the shot didn’t change, you could leave the lines together. Often writers make the mistake of sticking action lines together in one paragraph to save space. But it makes it harder to read and is too easy a trick to spot (+ it will distract the reader – you want them to keep reading, not find and look for faults in your work).

    4) Write in the active tense.
    Screenwriting is the opposite of book writing (in many ways). One way it is different is you must write in the active tense. Keep your writing active and avoid the passive.


    How it shouldn’t read:

    The hero walked into the room and started banging on the door.

    It should read like:

    The hero walks across the room and bangs on the door.

    Screenwriting is happening in front of your eyes, in the present tense. Keep that in mind.

    5) Less is more.
    Gone are the days where a screenplay was filled with long paragraphs of wonderfully descriptive writing. These days less is more. Practice on saying more with less.

    This is done for many reasons.
    a) The screenplay is a limited canvas. Try adapting a book and you will quickly learn to admire those screen adaptations of full length novels (not short stories). For a feature film you really have 120 pages max (unless you are on a writing assignment or an established writer). When you factor in how screenplays are formatted with character/dialogue etc, this is not a lot of space to work in.

    b) Readers like to skim screenplays. It’s not the same as sitting down with a book. Readers what to be able to read it quickly. Sometimes too quickly, as they may give up after reading the first few pages (more on that later). The term for this style of writing is “vertical writing”. Where the reader/executive likes to see plenty of empty space on your page, as they are reading “down the page”.

    How do you do this? Learn to tell more, with less words. If a scene can be shorter, shorten it. Watch out for long paragraphs of description and dialogue (remember 1 page is approx 1 minute ). I know you might be thinking “if I follow step 3 and break shots into separate paragraphs/lines, I’ll be wasting some of my limited space. This is true, but remember everything can be written better and not everything in your script should stay (no matter how well you like it or it works), if you have anything and I mean anything in the script that doesn’t serve the story, cut it (this can be easier said than done).

    The internet is a wealth of screenwriting tips and tricks and I wanted to include at one link of further reading for each section.

    More reading:

    Written by Sean Ryan.
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Liam Farrell's Avatar
      Liam Farrell -
      very helpful, thanks
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