Screenwriting: The Visual and the Word

My screenwriting course is wrapping up soon.  For the past six months, I’ve been learning a new language, the language of the visual.  It’s not as easy as it looks.  I’ve to un-learn a lot of ingrained principles of prose writing to re-learn a whole new genre.  And it has been an ego-shattering process.

Take this for example.  A comment on one of my assignments:

“… I’d also like to see you snip away at excess verbiage in both dialogue and action paragraphs.”

Ouch!  That hurts!  Honestly, it took me a few weeks to get over that one.

‘Verbiage’.  When the word is not used by yourself as a self-deprecating joke, now that’s tough to hear.   The reason for such a judgment?  Simply because I used complete sentences in my descriptions.  The language of the screenplay, I’ve learned, is condensed language, not unlike poetry.  It should be spot on, visually driven, and clear.

Readability is the key.  I’ve been learning to write a ‘good read’.   Reality is, my script will first be sent to the ‘gatekeepers’ of the film industry, and many of them may not be readers (that, I was told).  So, nobody wants to see a bunch of words crowding the page.  White spaces are what keep them interested.   So, make it swift, succinct, use minimum number of words to convey maximum information.  Yup, just like that, easy.

Right… so, here are some notes to myself, gleaning from the books I’ve read on the subject of screenwriting, to personalized feedbacks:

  • Sentence fragments, though frowned upon by English teachers, are welcome in scripts.
  • Action speaks louder than words: Whatever that can be conveyed by actions, no need for dialogues.
  • Enter a scene as late as you can and get out before it finishes.
  • Think minimalist and evocative.
  • Layers, layers, layers
  • Avoid clichés like the plague, both visuals and words.
  • Avoid ‘On The Nose’ dialogues: stating directly what the writer needs to convey, instead of the more realistic everyday mundane, allusive, cut-off, inarticulate, real life conversations.
  • As with all literature, learn to write subtexts, the undercurrents of emotions and contexts that are meant to be hidden, but only revealed by actions and dialogues.
  • Do the above with razor-sharp clarity.
  • The central dramatic question should be clear and simple, but not simplistic.
  • Have the proper proportion of words and pictures to create a synchronicity of content and poetry.
  • Don’t insult your actors by writing down specific reactions, or telling them their tone of voice…etc.
  • Write organically: If a writer knows what is going to happen before writing, then the scene will often feel contrived because it will fail to surprise the writer, therefore the audience.

Now, come to think of these points, aren’t they useful for writing in other genres as well?  Except the sentence fragments recommendation, that is, if you’re writing prose.  And, the last point exactly echoes what I’ve heard Michael Ondaatje say:

“I don’t know what would happen, I don’t want to know”

Let the scene breath on its own, take its shape and grow.

Or the advice given by Anne Lamott reinforcing succinct writing:

“You listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything.”

And… the wonders of paradox:  ‘Expressing the visual in words’,  ‘Be clear in conveying subtext’,   ‘The minimalist creating layers of complexity’, ‘Write organically within the structure’…

Oh… the bittersweet experience of screenwriting.

****

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

8 thoughts on “Screenwriting: The Visual and the Word”

  1. There’s some good advice and a couple of amusing ironies in your list. (Not that I won’t be attempting to follow some of that advice. I will.) I could never attempt a screenplay; I am not visual enough (don’t you also have to consider camera angles & that stuff or just ” fade in” “fade to black”?), so I commend you for your bravery. Do you find yourself watching movies with different eyes since beginning this class?

    “Enter a scene as late as you can and get out before it finishes.” Like that.

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    1. ds,

      At first I thought so too, and worried about not being ‘technical’ enough. But I soon found out that a scriptwriter nowadays isn’t supposed to say anything about camera angles, cause that’s the job of the director and cinematographer. One of the advice above is that a writer’s not supposed to even put in tone of voice, or reactions, cause they’re insults to the actors. The major role of a screenwriter now is simply to tell a story as quickly and evocatively as possible with the least number of words… simple(?)

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  2. After reading your post 3 days ago, and now coming back to it, I felt something leap inside me. I am soooo visual, I think I would love screenwriting!

    We have two programs in my English department, one in creative writing and one in film studies. Our most popular course in those programs is Screenwriting. I should sit in on it one day.

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    1. Ruth,

      From regularly reading your blog I know you’ll make one great cinematographer! I’m sure you’ll enjoy this visual genre of writing, since you’re already well-versed in films and appreciate the art form. I remember you mentioned Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs being some of your faves, and your insightful movie posts. I’ve been told getting a degree in Film Studies nowadays is as useful as getting an MBA back in the 80’s. Hope not too much of an exaggeration!

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  3. Oh, my goodness. I didn’t think I could connect to much of this at all when I first read it, but in fact my latest HAS some sentence fragments, a minimalist conclusion and the use of words and phrases to evoke a point rather than stating it directly.

    I didn’t set out to do that – it just happened! Which brings us back around again to Michael Ondaatje and his unwillingness to know what is going to happen.

    This is really wonderful. Instead of reading your post and thinking, “I’m going to try that”, I wrote something and then came back to discover, “This is what I did”. Sometimes we reflect and then act, and sometimes we act first and reflect later.
    It’s the writer’s chicken-and-egg connundrum, and isn’t it fun?!

    Linda,

    Your fragments are simply poetic. Allow me to quote here:

    “The minutiae of life. Fragments of experience. Well-trimmed poetry and snippets of prose tasting of sunlight and oranges, unraveled, wrapped up and asked… honest scrap.”

    You might relate to film more than you think. Your language is visual and evocative. We choose what appeals to us most naturally… let the story unfold, in writing, in life.

    Arti

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  4. Arti – this rocks! great stuff. All good and oh, we need to hear it and review it. Clarity – the key to everything.
    But another of your points that resonates:
    “Enter a scene as late as you can and get out before it finishes.” You are SO right. This is so critical. We always think we have to write our way in and out of things, but no – this is it.

    An excellent course, indeed.

    oh,

    Yes, let’s celebrate simplicity… it works for many things in life. It doesn’t take a whole course to confirm it, but it’s good to be reminded.

    Arti

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  5. Good luck with your screenwriting, Arti! I think using too many words is not something you should worry about — those words can always be slashed through revisions.
    We all use too many words in our writing…..
    Jennifer

    Jennifer,

    Thanks for your encouragement!

    Arti

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