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The description of the location of a scene and the way in which the movement of the camera is described on paper is one of the most vital parts of a screenplay. Yet for all it’s importance, it seems to be one the poor relations of the practical screenwriting world. Why this should be I don’t know. Description is the first part of a script a reader sees, and if a script, especially a spec script, is a selling document, then the way that you invite your reader into the world of your drama through describing the scenes is a vital part of that marketing process. If you get the description and the scene setting wrong, you risk writing a boring script that won’t get past the reject pile on the first readers desk.
A script which doesn’t get produced is a dead document. It’s not like a poem or a short story or even a novel. It’s a partly finished plan of a film which never got made; a telephone message never listened to; a technical drawing for a fabulous palace no maharajah ever built. It’s the saddest loneliest piece of work in the creative world. I should know. I have lots of them lurking in boxes and shelves all round my study.
But, wait. It gets worse than this, because if you never manage to get a script actually made, you will never become a better screenwriter. Trust me on this. Only by seeing your mistakes up on screen , by watching them through clenched fingers , do you ever really ever learn not to make them again. To become a better screenwriter, getting the script produced isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
So if you want to at least get past that fearsome threshold guardian, the first reader, then you have to engage them immediately , and the way to do that is through your description. Make them want to turn the pages right to the end by writing taut spare muscular description which draws them in to your story. I can’t write it for you, but here are a few thoughts which might lead you in the right direction.
But before we start, what exactly IS description?
For me, I think of description quite simply as “what the camera sees”. No more , no less. I constantly see scripts written by inexperienced writers which spend line after line describing incidents, details and action which will never actually feature in the finished film. I don’t like laws and rules of writing normally. Any good writer breaks rules, that is what they are for. But there is one rule which I think you should always adhere to. I call it……
No see? No write!
If the camera won’t see it, then the writer shouldn’t write it. End of.
Pause for effect as your forehead furrows.
“Me no Leika !“ , I hear you cry. “ I am not a camera, I am a writer. I want to drink in and communicate the richness and depth of the humanity I see unfolding in front of me in all these wonderful locations I have researched populated with unforgettable characters I have created acting out original pulsating stories. I cannot be constrained by the arbitary needs of a mere optical instrument!”
Oh yes you can.
You are writing a plan for a film, and films are a technical exercise in creativity, so your task as a screenwriter is to describe and create only what the camera, and hence your audience, will see. Think of your script like an architect’s plan. If you need to design the cellar because under the house because that’s where we meet the bogey man , then put it in the screenplay.But if you are not going there, don’t . From the first scene to the last, you are describing what the director will shoot within the camera’s frame, because that is what the viewer is going to see, and that is what you will describe in your screenplay. That is why the frame is first dimension of screen description, so lets talk about it.
We are organic creatures . We tend to think in tones, themes, loose images, deep metaphors. How do you write about a thing as prosaic as a right angled, rectangular frame? Quite simply this, if you have decided to write a script,( and believe me, it’s not the most obvious thing to do in the world), then you have to think of telling the story within the frame. Here’s how you do it…..
Don’t be embarrassed at this bit. Go to your location,(or one like it ) and stand where you would like the initial point of view to be from , then take your thumb and forefinger of one hand at right angles and with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, make a rectangle at arms length, and select the frame. You now have a wonderful steadycam at your fingertips. Your job as the screenwriter is to describe what the camera will see, as it moves and follows the action of your screenplay within that frame. But it’s not as simple as that, because not everything in the frame is of equal importance. This brings us to the second dimension of description, the rank.
It’s not vital that you literally know how to compose a shot. Don’t get too hung up on zooms and pans and close ups .That’s the director and DOP’s job . What IS important is that you rank what the camera will see in order of importance. In other words if the crucial content of a scene is that fact that there is a dead body lying in the middle of it, then don’t spend too much time describing the curtains. You are the writer, and you have to decide what’s important in the scene, and then describe it. The director will shoot it the way she wants to , but at least you made the initial decision about what is important in the scene.
But as well as the frame, and the rank, there is a third dimension in description. Yes, you guessed it. Time.
You may not hear it, but from the moment your screenplay opens, a clock is ticking. A timeline starts as you remorselessly tell your story in the present tense as it happens. (and yes, flashbacks are told in the present tense too!). A painting can hang in a gallery for a hundred years, frozen until the watcher looks at it, a poem sits snugly in its book waiting to be opened and read, as fresh as a daisy, but a screenplay is not frozen like that. It is a dynamic document, where each line is a second or two of very expensive screentime, and you have to be constantly aware of the constraints of this.
With that screen clock ticking remorselessly, eating up your reader’s(and hopefully your audience’s) patience, you must master the third dimension of Screenwriting description as efficiently and quickly as you can.
So to sum up Screenwriting Description. Describe what the camera will see, in the order that it is important, and at the time that the narrative demands.
- Dialogue is the last resort. Use anything else to tell your story before you resort to dialogue. You might often hear of actors on the set who look at a whole paragraph of carefully crafted dialogue then turn to the director and say “ I can do that with a look.” They are usually right
- Listen. Many new writers often say “ I can’t write dialogue”. What they really mean is that they have not developed an ear for naturalism. They have not honed the art of listening to what people really say. So. listen, listen, and listen some more. Every human being in the world is a master of writing the dialogue of their own narrative. It is the screenwriters job to learn how to create those characters in their head , who can literally tell them how to “write” their own lines. So listen to what the real folks say.
- Differentiate. Every character in your screenplay should have a distinctive “voice”. You would never cast clones in a screenplay, so why do inexperienced writers make all their characters sound the same? It’s because they haven’t really grasped the fact that no two people ever look or talk the same way…unless it’s a Kraftwerk biopic you’re writing, or the opening speeches at a North Korean Communist Party rally.
- What do they want? People talk for a whole variety of reasons, but a very good way of fleshing out your first draft is to ask yourself what each character’s wants are in the scene, and what are they going to say to get what they want.
- Hide the truth. Human beings rarely say exactly what they mean. Indeed, the classic moment in many screenplays comes at the second act turning point where for the first time in the entire script, they finally DO say what they mean. “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” So…don’t write on the line…write round it, write under it…write over it…and choose very carefully the point in your screenplay where your characters finally tell it how it is. It will be a powerful moment if they’ve been hiding it for the past 4 reels.
- Information is not enough. If all your lines are about is providing information, then you might as well use graphics or a dancing dog in the background with a sign round it’s neck. Dialogue should be part of the action, part of the character, part of the forward movement of the narrative. Write dumb reportage as dialogue and the director will cast dumb reportage actors. You want your lines to be spoken by the best actors available, so give them something more than “ Excuse me sir there’s a phone call for you “.If it’s only information, think of another way of providing it rather than dialogue.
- Don’t tell us what we already know. Dialogue is not there for the good of the characters, it’s there for the audience. If you just saw the heroine pistol whipping the bad guy and tying him to a passing vehicle with a barbed wire lasoo, don’t start the next scene with her telling her boyfriend “Hey, I just kicked the Mekon’s butt and sent him down the highway on the back of a Garbage Truck”. We’ve seen it , we don’t need told it again. I was once informed by a very bad writing coach that I should “Tell them, tell them what you’ve told them, and then remind them what you told them.” Nonsense. Make the audience work. Make them listen. Tell them once in dialogue, and then use images, tone and action to underscore it, not more dialogue.
- Keep it lean. Think of words like money in a skinflint’s bank.Don’t spend a single penny more than you have to . Unless your character is a verbose chatterbox, use as few words as possible to tell the tale. No successful screenplay ever used too FEW words. But lot’s of mediocre ones have far too many.
- Sharpen your sword. Good dialogue is like a fencing match. Attack, parry, riposte, with the final stab right at the heart of the opponent. Even if they are getting along, characters should be constantly vying for supremacy in the cut and thrust of crackling dialogue. Think of Bogey and Bacall , Curtis and Lemmon, McKenzie and Patterson. Who are the last two guys? I heard them ripping the proverbial out of each other at the game the other night. Those guys could WRITE!
- Surprise yourself. Never trust the first idea. Sure, write it down in your first draft, but when you go back and read it over you will often realise that it’s pure corn fed cliché. The girl’s in love?…have her say “I hate you.” And then kiss the guy. Result.