To achieve the ultimate literacy in screenwriting, the writer must be fluent in the visual language of cinematic storytelling. This means dismissing all the convenient words and phrases that easily describe everything that’s going on, and instead, relaying exactly what’s occurring on an audio and visual level. That’s the intention. That’s the ideal. ‘Less is more’.
The reason why we’re continuously told that sparse screenwriting is more effective and fluid than regular prose is not because readers are lazy, or that execs want to quickly get through the script. It’s because the fewest amount of words conveys the immediacy of what’s happening on screen. We know this, we get it, we’ve ticked it in our box of screenplay fundamentals.
Yet, so many writers unnecessarily overwrite the narrative description in their screenplays. They spoon-feed information about character motivation, backstory and a whole range of stuff happening off-screen. Even the produced screenplays available on-line are full of this kind of language, which helps to perpetuate the generalised standard of screenwriting from Oslo to Ohio.
For the script reader, this kind of writing means that he’s ‘reading’ the script, instead of ‘watching’ it unfold. Someone could be a poor screenwriter but a good storyteller. They could employ the general standard of screenwriting but disregard the vitality and imagery of what really is engaging on screen. A writer who begins his story with: “It’s June, the height of summer” isn’t displaying imaginative screenwriting but his characters and story may have more emotional weight than his bland understanding of screen language.
One way to avoid ‘reading the script’ instead of ‘watching it unfold’ is to think of the key qualities in any given scene that you want the audience to understand, and then don’t allow, or remove, all of the convenient words that easily express these qualities. For instance, if your scene is in June, in the height of summer, and we get introduced to Johnny O’Shea, the hero, try not to use ‘June’, ‘Summer’, or ‘Hero’.
Instead, supply the reader with the visual information. Better still, keep it visual, but don’t get bogged down with expressing all of the details in that scene. It might be better to space it out from scene-to-scene. For example, we may see the heat shimmer on the New York streets as John O’Shea walks down the sidewalk, but in the next scene we may see him jump in front of a speeding car in order to save an old woman from a direct collision.
This is not new information for most of you. It’s going over old ground of ‘show, don’t tell’, but still, we fill our scripts with unnecessary tips and explanations of what’s going on. It’s almost impossible to fully separate ourselves from what’s on- screen and what we want the audience to understand. It takes great will power, and assurance, to just let the action do all the talking for you.
Let it all go. The audience knows more about the story than you do. Based on what they see on screen, they will automatically fill gaps of character detail, motivation and backstory, regardless of your original intention. The audience quickly gathers their thoughts and opinion on what they like and don’t like, and what key emotional elements are in play for the story ahead.
In Johnny O’Shea’s opening scene at the flicks, the audience haven’t read anything on-screen that says it’s June, or that Johnny’s a hero, or whatever. They’re coming to the those conclusions because of the basic imagery being offered, and the visual action of Johnny’s behaviour.
To give you an example from a real film, think of the Captain from Pan’s Labyrinth (who may be my new favourite villain of all time). I haven’t read the script but just watching the film, this is what I’m thinking: he’s precise, ordered, disciplined, ruthless, respected but an abominable human-being.
No-one ever told me this. Not one character said: “Oh, that Captain. He’s a precise, ordered, disciplined sod, isn’t he?” No, I got it all from his visual action and behaviour: the tight creak of his leather as he walks; the extreme polish of his boots; his immaculate grooming, the perfect uniform; his precision of detail and order with his men.
These are all terrific audio and visual description of what you could write in the script without saying: “The CAPTAIN enters the room. He’s grim and severe, but his immaculate uniform and confident swagger means that he is both feared and respected.”
This kind of screen language is commonly used, and while there are ways to use this effectively, it takes the reader away from ‘watching the script unfold’ as he is instead being asked to ‘read important information’.
Let it go. Really.
Space it out.
Of course, writers run the risk of not having the full emotional and dramatic value of their story being fully embraced and understood. The irony of having a ‘sparse script’ to read is that readers and execs will appreciate the ‘easy read’ but they may not ‘get’ the key elements because of ‘what the writer hasn’t written’. That’s where the actors and director come in; that’s their job.
So, it’s a vicious circle. Overwrite a script and be criticised for labouring the narrative with dull description. Underwrite a script and risk the chance of no-one really getting the story. The answer is probably a fine balance between the two.
Keep it sparse, keep it simple but don’t be plain; make it evocative. Sneak in the odd emotional or expositional phrase to maintain a solid attachment between reader and story. It’s not easy, nor should it be, but the pursuit of fine craft and story should be always top of our agenda instead of lapsing into a complacent sense of screenwriting just because “I’ve seen a hundred scripts on-line that do the exact same”.
Remember your original voice. Keep it fresh, keep it visual and always be engaging.