The traditional style of writing is for the reader to enjoy the story by following the words from left to right. In screenwriting, however, this doesn’t apply. The reader is meant to read DOWN the page as the writer expresses the key audio and visual details. It’s vertical writing.
There are a few reasons why screenwriting employs this style. The main one is that script description is meant to convey the visual immediacy of what’s happening on screen. To achieve this, the adage of ‘less is more’ is encouraged. Fewer words equals shorter sentences which results in clearer images.
Another reason why vertical writing is the best kind of screenwriting is that it gives the reader a sense of pace as well as imagery. It’s a screenplay, so it’s meant to give a heightened sense of drama or interest, and reading DOWN the page helps to maintain the hungry need to know what happens next. If the vertical writing is successful in establishing its tone, characters and story, then the script becomes an effortless page turner that will only take an hour to read.
You may have heard of vertical writing before. It’s called different things. “Sparse writing.” “Lots of white space.” “Lean.”
This is the ideal but it’s an extremely skilled discipline to achieve. It takes a considerable amount of confidence and assurance from the writer to present a script in this way, and an advanced understanding of the craft of screenwriting. Most of us, myself included, can’t resist to over-write here and there so that a key bit of exposition or detail doesn’t go unnoticed. We’re anxious that the reader hasn’t engaged with our characters or grasped an important part of the story, so we pepper up the description to make up for the presumably weak visual representation of what we want to get across.
However, while vertical writing, fewer words and lean description is preferred by script readers and execs, some writers can take it too far and give the reader hardly any narrative description at all. This kind of script doesn’t employ vertical writing, this is where it becomes a dialogue-driven screenplay.
I read a script recently where the writer didn’t indulge in the usual trappings of scene description. She simply presented the characters (no age, no description) and told the story through their dialogue. Luckily, the dialogue was sharp and enjoyable, and the script was good, but a little bit of detail would have been nice to help the reader join the visual dots.
So, sometimes it’s a fine balance. I’m told I have a lean style. I’ve been working hard on this but I think I could be even leaner in my description. A reader recently said my script “slipped down like an oyster”, which I’m taking as a compliment! But how do you achieve vertical writing? How do you know that the essentials of the action and character are effectively coming across?
Vertical writing breaks down into four main components:
We all know that scriptwriting only describes what can be seen on the screen yet our scripts are filled with description that is only for the reader’s benefit. Some of these are generally allowed or accepted (flowery character description, an explanatory aside etc) but really, scripts don’t need any of this at all as the reader will get everything they need to know from the simple action/image, sound, character and dialogue.
But boy, it’s a tough call. It’s a skilled discipline that takes years to hone and develop, and it relies just as much on your talents as a storyteller as it does on a neat style of description. Less is more but too little is ineffective. Action/image, sound, character, dialogue. That's it, but more than enough (hopefully!).
As an example, check out the opening page of Alien, by Walter Hill and David Giler, based on screenplay by Dan O'Bannon. This focuses on image and sound, thus establishing tone and intrigue. It’s from the final draft version; earlier scripts didn’t employ such a sparse style but they got there in the end…
INT. ENGINE ROOM
INT. ENGINE CUBICLE
Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
INT. OILY CORRIDOR - "C" LEVEL
No other movement.
INT. CORRIDOR - "A" LEVEL
INT. INFIRMARY - "A" LEVEL
Distressed ivory walls.
All instrumentation at rest.
INT. CORRIDOR TO BRIDGE - "A" LEVEL
Two space helmets resting on chairs.
Lights on the helmets begin to signal one another.
Moments of silence.
A yellow light goes on.
Data mind bank in b.g.
A green light goes on in front of one helmet.
Electronic pulsing sounds.
A red light goes on in front of other helmet.
An electronic conversation ensues.
Reaches a crescendo.
The lights go off, save the yellow.