Thursday, April 05, 2007

Vertical Writing

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…


Empty, cavernous.


Circular, jammed with instruments.

All of them idle.

Console chairs for two.



Long, dark.


Turbos throbbing.

No other movement.


Long, empty.


Distressed ivory walls.

All instrumentation at rest.


Black, empty.



Two space helmets resting on chairs.

Electrical hum.

Lights on the helmets begin to signal one another.

Moments of silence.

A yellow light goes on.

Data mind bank in b.g.

Electronic hum.

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.

Then silence.

The lights go off, save the yellow.


Lucy V said...

Gotta love that ALIEN script. If only there were more out there like that!!! So often I'll write in notes something that I THINK is important at the beginning of a script...Only to find it doesn't pay off anywhere and actually, it was just extraneous detail. I always think it's ironic that the MORE you put on the page, the MORE LIKELY it is important stuff gets "lost".

But you can go too far in avoiding black on the page: my fave bit of feedback for one of my scripts so far has been - "Like the dialogue, everything else is up in the air." And the reader was right.

You ever get anything like that Danny?

Lucy V said...

P.S. People wanting to read more about vertical screenwriting may like this article:

(you'll have to copy and paste it since I can't get my HTML to be accepted as apparently my tag isn't "closed": anyone know what the hell this means? I'd appreciate the pointers!)

Danny Stack said...

Thanks for the link, Lucy, nice one. Don't know about the "closed" stuff, I just copy previous codes as I don't know what I'm doing either.

Re: my own stuff, I got this today, about my "slipped down like an oyster" script: "I did enjoy it and it clearly has potential as a commercial film but it just didn’t grab me quite enough to get involved with it."

So, there you go!

Danny Stack said...

PS, here's the direct link to the article.

Lucy V said...

Cheers. Commiserations on the oyster script - don't you just love it when they're so complimentary...And THEN say it "didn't grab them" or, my absolute fave, "I don't feel suitably enthusiastic enough..."

Phill Barron said...

"I don't feel suitably enthusiastic enough ..." is far better than: "It's shit, give up. In fact, kill yourself. It's for the good of humanity."

That was my favourite, so far.

With descriptions, I tend to include more or less depending on how I want to set the pace for that scene. If the film starts slowly, I'd use more flowery languag. If it starts with an action scene, then I use short, sharp words.

Anonymous said...



That's a great opening.

I'd be interested to see how they introduce the characters.

Can't imagine they could keep it up for long.

I'm having trouble even now...

James said...

Seriously. ALIEN is the example of vertical writing you want to use?

ALIEN is a very antiquated style of writing.

The script is a snooze-fest. Not to mention the script you are quoting from is the SHOOTING SCRIPT. It doesn't have to be read ... by anyone.

The thing that made ALIEN work was the direction ...


Here's a sample of the writing from a very early version of the script. This is the scene where they make first contact with the eggs. He's being lowered into the "egg room."


Broussard is standing on a dusty stone floor, with a feeble column of sunlight shining down around him from the tunnel above. Around is solid darkness.

He flashes his datastick around. The beam reveals that he is in a stone room. STRANGE HEIROGLYPHICS are carved into the walls. They have a primitive, religious appearance. Row after row of pictograms stretch from floor to ceiling, some epic history in an unknown language. Huge religious symbols dominate one wall.

Spaced at intervals are stylized stone statues, depicting grotesque monsters, half anthropoid, half octopus.
It's unbelievable! It's like some kind of tomb... some primitive religion! Hey, is anybody there? Do you read me? Standard!


Much different than the final vision, wouldn't you say?

Same story.

Gieger biological reproducing Alien, rather than religously reproducing, Alien.

Director's "vertical" writing.

Anonymous said...

Yep, grasping the vertical method is one I adhere to... although not on this comment. Great stuff

Mystery Man said...

Great post, Danny. I really enjoyed this one. Couldn't agree more.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks for the comments, guys, and have finally updated my links section, too, so welcome to the party.

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

Interesting script sample.

James pointed out that this is the shooting script which is a good point, but I've often wondered how that opening should be depicted in a spec script.

For example is is good enough to just point out that the ship is cavernous and empty and it is up to the director to 'shoot' that with a sequence of scenes as he/she sees fit (as in the sample), or does the spec monkey do it?

Anonymous said...

I've never before felt the need to comment on this usually excellent blog but feel I must add to what James noted earlier. The gestation (if you'll excuse the appalling pun) of the alien script through its many drafts is one of the more complicated and unsavoury of that era. Walter Hill and David Giler did everything in their power to get sole credit on the film including cosmetic dialogue rewrites, changing character names and stripping away any descriptive passages that could clearly be attributed to O'Bannon without changing the fundamentals of the script. The final shooting script you quote from went to DOUBLE arbitration with the W.G.A. with the sole screenwriting credit being awarded BOTH times to O'Bannon. It's misleading (although I'm certain not intentionally on your part) to put this forward as a successful example of a vertically written screenplay because of the stage of production its taken from and the mitigating circumstances of its troubled development. I might add that having read the Hill/Giler draft I find it impossible to believe that this draft would ever have been optioned in the first place. For although it may "slip down like an oyster" it leaves you feeling decidedly undernourished. Aside from this momentary blip great stuff, best of luck and keep up the good work.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks for that Sean. You and James make good and interesting points but I chose Alien as an example, regardless of what draft it was, or its development history, because it's a film that everyone knows rather than using a page out of one of my scripts, which would be a bit navel-gazing.

I don't think it's misleading to present this as a good example of vertical writing. It may have had a rocky road to production but it's still good writing. It certainly informs and inspires me, but like everything to do with reading and writing screenplays, this style and approach is entirely subjective. I have enjoyed the varied views and responses to this post in particular.