SHOW – DON’T TELL ! You don’t write a movie - you see it!!! The experience of reading a script should be less like reading prose and more like actually watching the film – The writing should “leap off the page”. DEVELOP AN AWARENESS OF THE IMAGES YOUR WORDS PUT IN PEOPLE’S MINDS.
The Word is ACTION ! Don’t think of it as DESCRIPTION – think of it as ACTION!! People and things MOVING!!! You are writing MOTION pictures!!! Don’t describe THINGS; describe THINGS HAPPENING!
The Devil is in the DetailsINT. JOES LOUNGE ROOM DAYPizza boxes and empty beer cans litter the floor.INT. JOES LOUNGE ROOM DAYA vase of fresh cut flowers on a doily atop the piano.
Hidden DescriptionsThe best place to hide a description is within an action.INT. JOE‘S LOUNGE ROOM DAYJoe brushes away old pizza boxes, plops downon the sofa.
OR….INT. JOE’S LOUNGE ROOM DAYJoe pads lazily into the candle-lit room, martini inhand.He eases himself luxuriously onto the large,overstuffed white sofa, and takes a sip.
The SMS of Description Screenwriting is distilled writing. It works best when it evokes, when it multiplies the meaning. The trick is to chose words that IMPLY other words!
WORD CHOICEFind the EXACT word to match the situation.This will help to create quick, easy to read sentences... & willefficiently convey character-specific details.e.g.: Joe saunters in, strides in, struts in, strolls in, marches in,paces in, bounces in - not only does this give us a specific type ofwalk, it adds to the action and character while removing boringoverused words from your script.
Writing with ATTITUDE Don’tdescribe how something LOOKS, but how it FEELS. Put ATTITUDE into your descriptions…
for example…EXT. URBAN JUNGLE, 2019 AD -- EVENINGMidst the wreckage of civilization, a emaciated figure (ALAN)stumbles along a shadowy street of crumbled buildings, brokenglass and the detritus of war. Downed power lines arc and spark over burnt out cars, casting shadowy fingers that might reach out and grab anyone foolish enough to be caught in this part of town. The place makes Hell look like Beverly Hills... except the battered twisted metal sign reads "Beverly Hills".
Avoid too much Black Stuff Observe the Four Line Rule. No single passage of action should take up more than four lines!!! Every four lines, put in a blank line (gap). This instantly adds more "white stuff" to your script!
STYLE Develop your own personal style of writing action passages. Style breaks up the page and makes your writing distinctive. Using sounds like "BLAM!" or "CLANG!"
Don’t be afraid to EXPERIMENT For example… One Word Sentences Which Draw The Reader Down The Page
CHARACTER Write ONLY THINGS THAT CAN BE SEEN AND/OR HEARD!! Avoid describing back-story!!! e.g.: SALLY is in her 40s. Now a stout, jovial woman, she used to be a track star in college. She has a good sense of humour, but don’t push her too far or she’ll bite back.
Character, continued…REMEMBER!!!ONLY WHAT CAN BE SEEN AND HEARD!!!Tommy sighs, remembering the conversationfrom earlier. The only thing we see and hear is Tommysighing.Good screenwriting means finding theOUTWARD SIGNS of the INNEREXPERIENCE.
Character, continued… Describe your character in four words. Lawrence Kasdan managed that amazing feat in his script for Body Heat : "Teddy Laurson, rock and roll arsonist."
Kill the Widows!When the last word of a sentence carries overonto a new line of print its called a WIDOW.Rewrite so as to kill all the widows.Also - if one or two words from the end of a sentence end uptaking up on the next page, rework the sentence until you canget it to fit entirely on the page where the sentence starts. Thiswill force you to eliminate useless or fatty words, and moresuccinctly.
No Buts! Or Ands! The easiest two words to trim out of a sentence are AND and BUT. Usually these words are completely unnecessary. Cut them.
Confidence Know what every sentence and every word means, and write clear enough so that anyone who reads your script understands what you have written. Write strong sentences and strong images.
Page Turners Little cliff hangers at the end of your page force the reader to turn to the next page. Add extra spaces or trim entire lines so that you can end every page on a moment of suspense. e.g.: If there is a moment where the hero is about to be killed but saves himself, make sure the “about to be killed” is at the end of one page so that the reader has to turn the page and keep reading to get to the saves himself part.
Samples of BIG PRINT WHAT ABOUT: While Tommy works frantically to adjust the steam valve, Nancy keeps lookout. How effective a description is this?
Remember: Show! Don’t Tell! While Tommy works frantically to adjust the steam valve, Nancy keeps lookout. “Keeps lookout” does not give much of a visual image. “Keeps lookout” is telling us what she’s doing, not showing us. Show, don’t tell.
Hence…Tommy works frantically to wrench the rustysteam valve shut.Nancy stares nervously out the dirty window.
SAMPLE TWOINT O’BRIEN HOUSE KITCHEN DAYThe O’Brien family has just moved intotheir new house in Oak Street – smallbungalow outside Santa Cruz. But it hasn’thelped. They’ve been on each other’s nervesfor days, and Tommy has been wishing theywere back in Sacramento.
SAMPLE TWO - RewriteEXT O’BRIEN HOUSE DAYA small brick bungalow flanked by two sad palm trees,sags into the dead grass dotted with complainingseagulls.INT O’BRIEN HOUSE – KITCHEN DAYSome boxes have been shoved to one side of the counter,power cords hanging out of them, to make room for threedays’ worth of dirty dishes.The faucet is dripping.AMANDA storms in, nearly tripping over a stack ofsaucepans and lids.
Rewrite continued… CATHERINE (O.S.) Amanda! AMANDA I’m doing them! CATHERINE (O.S.) Aman-da!Amanda clatters the last dish into the sink, runs tothe dining room side.
Rewrite conclusion… AMANDA I hate this house! I hate it! I hate it! Why’d we have to leave?CATHERINE slumps in. Tosses her cigarette in thesink. CATHERINE (to herself) I hate it too, honey. But it’s just til your father finds a job.
SAMPLE THREEThe battle is cruel. The men fightfiercely, outnumbered, digging inwith the little artillery andarmour they still have.A dozen men hold off a half adozen tanks. Finally, carryingsatchel charges and claymoremines, they hurl themselves at thetanks.
SAMPLE THREE - RewriteYURI grabs a claymore mine. IVAN You’ll never make it! Don’t! YURI I have to try! IVAN It’s madness, comrade.YURI ignores him, pulls the fuse, and darts down thethirty yards of rubble to the lead tank.
Rewrite continued… BOOM! A shell explodes, hurling him back. Yuri staggers. A GERMAN aims. BAM! YURI spins, staggers. Another bullet rips through him.He falls to one knee. Then forces himself back up. YURI staggers, dying, for the lead tank. He gets close, starts to hurl the claymore at the tank’s treads –
Rewrite continued… BOOM! Another shell explodes – YURI’s gone! IVAN stares, stunned. IVAN Goddamn it. The lead tank rolls forward, onto… YURI’s claymore mine. A HUGE explosion erupts.
Rewrite conclusion… When the smoke clears, the lead tank’s right tread is destroyed, torn clean off the wheels. The tank turns in a ragged circle, wheels spinning aimlessly. This is one piece of the Wehrmacht that isn’t going home to Berlin.
DON’T Big Print the Dialogue Avoid writing big print that says things like: Jim and Bob are discussing sports when Tom comes in. If the camera’s on Jim and Bob, we ought to be hearing their dialogue. BUT…
If the characters are talking at the back of acrowded bar, and the scene has Tom’spoint of view (POV), then…
INT BAR NIGHTTom pushes the doors open. Looks around.In the back, Jim and Bob are speaking toone another. Bob looks up, sees Tom,and waves him over.
You can also get away with writing action that doesn’t literallycommunicate something you can see or hear, provided it isshorthand for something that you can.Dylan looks the painting over, smiling. Nice.We don’t know literally that Dylan’s been thinking “nice” butit’s shorthand for saying, “with a relaxed and approvingsmile”.
Directing the actorsThe BIG PRINT can also be used very effectively tosignal actors as to the sort of behaviour, gesturesand/or facial expressions that communicate non-verbalmeanings within the action of the story.For example:Jack keeps pounding at the door, crying, butwe’re beginning to get the sense that hisheart isn’t in it.
ORNathan smiles in spite of himself.Joe starts to say something. Frowns.Something’s bothering him, but hecan’t quite put his finger on it. What about DIRECTING the camera?
Directing the Camera? BAD IDEA!!! BUT… What if you want to give a specific visual effect? For example, what if you want to open a scene by showing someone’s feet walking across the floor?
The solution is to show us only what you want us to see. FEET walk across the floor and disappear behind a door.This is a virtual close-up.The reader sees what you want him to see.
Directors will ignore explicit camera directions,but you can still express the image in a way thatallows you to convey the image to the reader theway YOU see it.
Consider the following:JOE hits the ground rolling, firing the.45 as he rolls. STEVE takes a slug inthe gut, smashes backward through theshowroom window, glass shattering. Hefalls until he slams into a car roof,arms sprawled awkwardly.Is this the best way to express this action?
What about?JOE hits the ground rolling, firing the .45 BAM!BAM! BAM! As he rolls –STEVE takes a slug in the gut, smashes backwardthrough through the window, glass shattering –… falling …… falling … - THUMP! Steve slams into a car roof, armssprawled awkwardly.
USE LOTS OF WHITE SPACE Remember, you’re trying to write a page a minute. A quarter page of action should take fifteen seconds of screen time. As a general rule, if you want two events to be in different virtual shots, they should be in different paragraphs. If you want them to be in the same virtual shot, they might be two sentences but in the same paragraph.
SEX AND VIOLENCE Gratuitous sex and violence don’t belong in your script because they don’t belong to DRAMA!!! Gratuitous means “for free”, and there shouldn’t be anything in a well-told dramatic story that isn’t paid for… EMOTIONALLY.
More SEX and Violence SEX isn’t gratuitous if it’s important to the story (the emotions). Likewise, VIOLENCE isn’t gratuitous if it’s part of the story, i.e.: connected to the emotional logic of the characters. The question is: how graphic do you want to get? Less is more. You should show as little as we need to see for you to tell the story. Let the readers’ imaginations fill in the details.
Ho hum….The more outlandish the violence the easier it is to take…LESS IS MORE… thereforeIf you have a physically abusive husband who’s going to get hisjust desserts later on, you don’t need to show him beating hiswife on-screen. Instead, you might use the point of view of theirdaughter, who’s in bed in the next room. It will still conveyviolence and at the same time provide character informationabout the daughter.REMEMBER!!! What we can imagine is usually more powerfulthan what we can show.
MONTAGE MONTAGE - From the French word for “editing”. Describes a series of images, usually without dialogue, edited together to show a bunch of things happening in one place, or the passage of time, or two lovers having a good time in the beginning of their relationship, or the progress of a relationship from good to bad, etc etc (e.g.: Citizen Kane). Do not use MONTAGE in the scene heading! When you write the word you push your reader out of the experience of seeing the movie.
Example of writing ‘Montage’EXT GARDEN DAYTwo girls are skipping rope.A man in a top hat is riding a unicycle.The Devil is walking down the steps, whistling a jaunty tune.A fat man is ringing a bell and laughing.
EDITING YOUR SCENES Where do you start and end your scenes? The simple answer is: get into your scene as late as you can, make your point, and get out as soon as you can. On the simplest level, don’t show the guy coming in the door.
For example…INT MAX’S OFFICE DAYCarl opens the door, strides over to Max’sdesk. MAX Carl?Carl slams the piece of paper on the desk. CARL What the hell does this mean?
A better alternativeINT MAX’S OFFICE DAYCarl slams the piece of paper on Max’s desk. CARL What the hell does this mean?
Don’t RESOLVE scenesAfter a page or two of brilliant dialogue, ending with Maxagreeing, “What could possible go wrong?”, cut straightto what goes wrong.Don’t let the scene trail off with the guys shaking handsand Carl going out the door.Suggestion: Write each scene long and see how much ofthe beginning and end you can drop without losing the point of the scene…
Always ASK YOURSELFWhere does the CONFLICT begin and where does itend?In the previous example, the argument can’tbeginuntil Carl reveals the paper, so that’s whereyoustart the scene/sequence.
CROSSING THE EMOTIONAL LINE POINT OF VIEWPoint of view includes :1. things that the character sees – his/her literal point of view2. things the character doesn’t see, but will eventually know happened and/or3. things that directly affect the character
EXAMPLEIn a thriller where the main character is adetective investigating a series of murders, youmay often want to show the killer at work.So long as the things we see the killer do arethings that the detective will eventually learnabout, the picture stays in the detective’semotional point of view.
EXAMPLE of things that directly affect the characterIn a movie where the hero is a woman being stalked, we might see the stalker making his preparations – say, finding where she’s escaped to, heading over to see her (e.g.: Sleeping with the Enemy).What he is doing directly affects her, so we continue toidentify with her even though the camera is seeing thingsthat she doesn’t know about, and that she may never knowabout.The literal POV of the film is with the stalker but theemotional POV of the film is with her.
REMEMBERPOV is maintained by:1. things that the character sees and hears – his/her literal point of view2. things the character doesn’t see, but will eventually know happened (emotional POV)3. things that directly affect the character (emotional POV)
Breaking the emotional POV You break the emotional POV of the detective in 1 if you show something that the detective will never uncover, or in 3, if the stalker does something that doesn’t affect the woman – if, for example, he takes a break to have some ice cream with some kids.
Writing Point of ViewCARRIE frowns This merely shows us Carrie’s facial expression. The emotional POV is either neutral or it belongs to some other character who’s seeing it. BUT!
CARRIE frowns, troubled. Gets us into Carrie’s heart just enough for us to feel her emotion, without going so deep into her mind that it can’t be filmed. This is EMOTIONAL POV!
Two ways of writing Point of ViewINT OLD MAN’S HOUSE – CARRIE’S ROOM DAYCarrie wakes up, alert. SARA (O/S) I just read this Wired piece you wrote. NICK (O/S) Oh yeah? Damn, I must’ve left it lying around. Carrie sits up, eager. continued…
Continued…INT OLD MAN’S LIVING ROOM DAYCarrie pokes her head in.Sara is unfolding a piece of paper out of her back pocket.Nick is doing the crossword puzzle onthe coffee table.
Alternative Point of ViewINT OLD MAN’S LIVING ROOM LATE AFTERNOONNick is doing the crossword puzzle on the coffeetable. Sara pulls a folded-up piece of paper outof her back pocket. SARA I just read this Wired piece you wrote. NICK Oh yeah? I must’ve left it lying around.He looks up. Carrie’s watching them from the doorway.
PRINCIPLES TO LIVE BY Never eat at a place called “Mom’s”. Never Play cards with a guy named “Dad”. Never go to bed with anyone who has more problems than you do.
Dramatic Principles Less is More Simple is Difficult Writing IS re-writing There are no principles.