Wednesday, 22 October 2008


A screenplay is a blueprint. I'm sure most of us have, at one time or another, tried to follow some kind of diagrammatic instructions. Perhaps we've had to assemble some flat-pack furniture.

You'd be a bit miffed if the people responsible for designing those instructions left out crucial information, wouldn't you?

The eventual product - the movie, the TV show - is put together following the instructions given in the script. The screenwriter provides the detailed plan, the architect's design.

Evidently, then, we don't want to leave out anything from the script that we believe is important to the end product. And we certainly want to leave as little as possible to chance.

But there are certain things we're not allowed to do, or are strongly advised to avoid doing. One of these is telling actors how to speak the lines. Another is telling the director where to put the camera.

I wrote a sequence, once, of various people arriving at different doors. Maybe five or six short scenes, each with a small snatch of dialogue. The director decided to shoot them all together in one continuous, fluid shot. He was showing off. It took hours to set up and cost a lot of money.

I didn't mind because it was fun watching them set that one up. I also felt that the director was fully justified in making that creative decision.

Tell you one thing: if I'd tried to write those five or six short scenes as one continuous sequence, dictating in my script that the camera starts up high on a cherry-picker and then steadicams in to a first floor apartment, the chances are it wouldn't have happened that way. The director would have decided that it was unfilmable.

Besides, who was I - a mere writer - to tell him where to put his camera?

Now. Here's the screenwriting secret. It is our job as screenwriters to tell directors where to put their cameras but WE MUSTN'T LET THEM KNOW WE'RE DOING IT.

Let's take the tricky matter of writing action sequences.

Some scripts are easy to read. Others aren't. One of the principal differences between the two is layout. The pages of an easy-to-read script tend to be very white. Too much ink on the page makes a script difficult to read.

We need our screenplays to be neat, clear, clean and easy on the eye. There is also a rule that a page of properly formatted screenplay should equal roughly one minute of screen time.

Let's say that you have to write an action sequence. If you expect that sequence to last, say, three minutes, then the action sequence in your script should be three pages long.

Nothing will make your script harder to read than three pages of solid ink describing what happens during the action sequence.

I have a rule of my own. It goes: when writing action or describing a scene, use short paragraphs of four lines maximum. Less than four lines - fine. More than four lines - no.

Break up the paragraphs. Don't write in solid blocks. Short paragraphs, with a single line gap between them, are easy to read. Massive chunks of text are not.

This turns a daunting, three-minute action sequence into short and snappy bite-size units of action.

It also allows you - up to a point - to direct the scene. Each short, pithy paragraph of one, two, three or four lines (max) is like a single shot. You'd be a fool to put 'LS' (long shot) or 'CU' (close-up) in your script, because that's for the director to decide. Besides, why bother? The way you write that short paragraph, that discreet unit of action, will indicate how it is meant to be filmed.

Our job as screenwriters is to visualise the entire story, moment by moment, and to describe it, moment by moment.

A lot of writers make the mistake of introducing a character without describing them. How is the reader to imagine what that character is like if you don't provide the basic information? How is the casting department expected to find the right actor if you don't tell them what to look for?

How that character is introduced is up to you. You're the one who first sees that character in your head. So write what you see.

Writing in short paragraphs means that you don't describe the scene. You describe the shot. And then, in the next short paragraph, the next shot. And so on.

Actors need things to do. It's a terrible mistake to write page after page of uninterrupted dialogue (boring, boring, boring). It's also wrong to put (sarcastically) or (angrily) in there in an attempt to tell the actor how to speak the lines.

Don't write it. Show it. If the character is getting angry, show him getting angry. Give the actor the appropriate actions - clenching fists, punching walls - but don't write (angrily) there in the dialogue. If you give the actor clear instructions to behave angrily, the line should come out the way you want it to.

It's the golden rule. Don't tell it: show it. Write each scene the way you see it in your head. Short paragraphs make the script easy to read. They also allow you to adjust your focus. Each paragraph tells us what we see. So, one paragraph might briefly describe a crowd. The next might describe one person in that crowd. The next, what that person is looking at. Implicitly, you're providing camera angles. You're writing the scene exactly as you see it unfolding.

Don't tell us that a character is depressed. Show us. I read scripts all the time which state things like 'So-and-so looks thoughtful'.

Try telling an actor to look thoughtful. Do thoughtful, darling. Give me thoughtful.

Rubbish. If you want them to look thoughtful, give them thoughtful things to do.

It's by being CLEAR and PRECISE like this that you get to direct your script. It's by being vague and imprecise that you allow directors and actors to do their own thing.

An architect wouldn't produce half a plan and leave the builder to make up the rest. That could be a recipe for disaster.

You're the architect. You decide what the building should look like, what it's made of. It's your job to make sure that the building will be aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound.

Write the script the way you see it. No camera angles, no actor's notes. Just what we see, moment by moment. Don't tell actors and directors how to realise your vision. Tell them what we see, and then let them give us that vision.

Don't tell. Show.

And be CLEAR and PRECISE about it.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I'm kind of concerned. I put down "POV" in action sequences for characters when they look at someone else (let's say, from the window in a car or at a store) at least three times in my complete screenplay, which I am currently polishing.

Is this ok or a big NO-NO? Cos I don't wanna blow my chances over something so little.

script doc said...

No, that's absolutely fine. Putting in POVs is entirely legitimate as a short-hand way of saying 'we see what the character sees'. Nothing wrong with that at all.