It’s important for screenwriters to keep in mind that the screenplay is not actually the final product. The general public does not read screenplays, they see movies. What we are doing when we write a screenplay is crafting a guide for the making of a movie. This is self-evident, but easy to forget when you’re in the throes of writing. After all, the screenplay is your final product. But, though we often do our work alone, the screenwriter is part of a team with a goal beyond the words on the page.
This has important implications for what you write. You have to constantly think about how your work will appear on screen. Screenplays have their own unique style that you have to absorb if you want to write them well. And the best way to absorb that style is to read a lot of screenplays. Today, I want to discuss some of the stylistic concerns of writing for a filmic medium.
Most basic, you must remember that film communicates to only two senses: vision and hearing. Therefore you should only include in a screenplay what can be seen or heard in the theater. You can’t describe how a room smells or how food tastes. You can’t reveal what’s going on in a character’s mind in the action/description lines. If you do, scenes and story points may work in the screenplay that won’t work on screen.
But there’s more to it than simply avoiding unfilmable elements. You want to take advantage of the visual nature of film. One of the things I learned seeing my screenplay for Sweet Home Alabama turned into a movie was how concerned the director (Andy Tennant) was with creating interesting visual arenas for scenes. Many of my scenes involved people talking in rooms. Andy moved several of them to new, more interesting, more visual locations, with “business” for the characters that provided action on screen.
Similarly, I’m about to embark on a rewrite assignment on a script that has a director attached (I’m not at liberty to reveal the details just yet). The mandate from the director is no talking heads. He always wants the characters on the move. The screenplay may contain mostly dialogue, but your choice of where to set scenes, and what characters are physically doing during those scenes, has a big impact on how visually rich the final film is.
However, it’s very easy to overdo the amount of action and description in a screenplay. You must be ruthlessly efficient, picking just the right details and actions to include. Otherwise, you may be guilty of overwriting. One page of screenplay is supposed to equate to roughly one minute of film. If you take a full page to describe a room that the audience will grasp on screen in a couple seconds, your length will be way off. (See this post on tightening for some tips.)
And remember, it is considered bad form to include much camera direction (pan, tilt, move across, etc.) or actor direction (parentheticals with words like "slyly," "sadly," etc.) in a screenplay. Your job is to tell the story, not tell the cinematographer, director or actor how to do their job.
There are also several things that can technically be done on screen, but do not work as well as they might on the page:
Long speeches: There is definitely a place in filmmaking for characters to make big speeches (anything more than, say, five lines of dialogue), but you should pick these moments judiciously. It’s very difficult to make a character’s speechifying visually interesting. One or two big speeches can give your stories rousing moments and be catnip for stars, but much more and your script simply becomes talky and your character a gasbag.
Voiceover: Voiceover is an even bigger challenge. With a speech, at least you have the actor’s performance to engage the audience visually. But with voice over, you have to think long and hard about what is happening on screen while we listen to that voiceover dialogue. If we’re watching characters in a scene, they will have to have some plausible activity – and no dialogue of their own – while the voiceover is running. This can be harder than it seems. Even a couple sentences of voiceover can create a challenge in a scene if the writer hasn’t thought about this.
Time Transitions: It’s easy to skip over some time in a script. You simply create a new slug line ending with LATER or MOMENTS LATER. But if you have the same characters in the same location, an audience watching the film may have difficulty understanding that time has passed.
Text on Screen: Describing text in a screenplay – say the contents of a note, letter, email or text messages – reads not much different than dialogue. But if the text is more than a few words, this can be problematic on screen. We don’t have to worry about illiteracy much anymore, but people read at very different speeds, meaning some people will finish reading well before the editor cuts away while others might not finish reading before the cut. Also, text on screen is visually boring. And now that people are watching things on smart phones and tablets, you have to worry about the size of the text. Best to minimize any use of text on screen.
There is an audience for a screenplay as a written document, however. In the period before a movie is given a green light, that audience is development execs, producers, directors and movie stars. After the green light, that audience is the entire production crew. This leads to two subtly distinct types of screenplays – the version written to get a project going – often known as a selling script – and the version written to produce – known as a shooting script.
I’ll go into the distinction next week, as well as where, how, and why to read screenplays.