How do you earn that rarest of compliments: that your script is a ‘good read’? Not just by having a good story, or good characters – many scripts have both, and are as dead as a dodo – but by ensuring your script is truly cinematic.
Screenwriting is a unique medium. Like an architect’s blueprint, it is not the thing itself. Certain information has to be provided in the script for producers and others to make the film, but above and beyond all that, its most important function is to project the movie inside your head.
Badly or overwritten, the reel unravels and all we are left with is words, words, words. If underwritten, we are left to puzzle out the meaning of characters who speak like enigmatic runes.
But a good script sizzles. It evokes powerful, surprising images. Only the sense of smell eludes the filmmaker. In a great script, each image catapults us towards the next with a rhythm we cannot control, but are content to be swept along by.
In screenplays, we write in what I call the ‘eternal present’. We don’t have time to project forward, or look back. All we have is what the camera sees, frame by frame, moment by moment. In that moment, everything matters. Nothing is accidental.
In screenwriting, every detail is significant. As I often say, don’t show us the wallpaper – unless you plan to strip it.
When Ernest Hemingway was a young foreign correspondent, he used to send articles back home by telegram. This was expensive, so a correspondent soon learned to wire only the essential details. He later applied this principle to all his writing – freeing it of adornment, providing only the detail that is truly telling: that evokes the time and place viscerally.
Screenwriting is similar. It uses active, kinetic words, that carry a sensual charge. Simple declarative sentences give a greater sense of being in the moment, catapulting our attention to the next image, the next beat.
You might feel that the pared down style of screenwriting makes it a simplistic, even functional craft. Not so. Confining yourself to the vital image makes screenwriting the most lyrical of art forms – and the most demanding.
Steve Zaillian’s script for Schindler’s List opens with the apparently innocent, but highly evocative lines:
“TRAIN WHEELS grinding against track, slowing. FOLDING TABLE LEGS scissoring open. The LEVER of a train door being pulled. NAMES on lists on clipboards…”
The banality of everyday bureacracy continues:
“HANDS straightening pens and pencils and ink pads and stamps.”
Finally taking on a sinister tone:
“TYPEWRITER KEYS rapping a name onto a list. A FACE. KEYS typing another name. Another FACE.”
And gradually we realise this list is the beginning of the process that will turn Jewish refugees into faceless numbers, to be worked to death – or worse. The details tell the story of a peculiarly organised genocide, but also foreshadow the salvation that is to come: Schindler’s own list, which will save hundreds of Jews.
Consider these lines:
“In the distance is seen an elevated train flashing across the background like a comet across the sky.”
Written in 1927, these words from the screenplay of The Jazz Singer tell us everything we need to know about the working class neighborhood it describes, a world in which prosperity and progress, though visible, remain tantalisingly out of reach.
Ted Tally’s script of Silence of the Lambs offers us this description of the heroine:
“She is tense, sweaty, wide-eyed with concentraton. This is Clarice Starling, mid-20s, trim, very pretty. She wears Kevlar body armor over a navy windbreaker, khaki pants. Her thick hair is piled under a navy baseball cap. A revolver, clutched in her right hand, hovers by her ear. She raises a speedloader in her left hand, locks it into her cylinder, twists and reloads.”
Not only are we drawn into the action, we understand instinctively that this capable woman has to hide her feminity beneath a tough exterior to survive in the male-dominated culture of the FBI.
William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Misery) is a master of both the evocative image, and what I call the breathless sentence:
“THE SKY. Gun-metal grey. The clouds seem pregnant with snow.”
Then, moments later:
“THE MUSTANG, coming into view, hitting the curve – no problem – no problem at all – and then suddenly, there is a very serious problem and as the car skids out of control –”
Occasionally, Goldman gets so swept away with this flow of images, he avoids scene headings and breaks other rules that screenwriters are told cannot be broken. You can do the same – when you’ve won a couple of Oscars.
Another maxim you’ll hear is that a script shouldn’t include camera directions. In the early years of the movies, all scripts had camera directions – directors were regarded chiefly as technicians who came in and directed the actors. In the Sixties, the revolution of the Nouvelle Vague meant that directors had suddenly become ‘Auteurs’. Any attempt to direct the film from the page was scorned as trespassing. So how else could the screenwriter make his script cinematic?
The best writers, while avoiding camera directions, simply resorted to subterfuge. From now on, the point of view and distance of the action would be read from the rhythm of the sentences, the breaks in the paragraphs, and on how much and with what detail we see what is in the frame. Through the evolution of this new ‘spec’ style, professional screenwriters ensured that they would still be in the driving seat, showing their readers exactly what their movie would look and feel like.
Breaking up paragraphs to mimic the shifting focus of the action gives momentum to the narrative. It also provides the varied visual dimension which helps make a script ‘a good read’.
The Writer’s Guild of America has yet to achieve its goal of eliminating the possessory credit: “A Film by”, which has been claimed by directors. But a script which is truly cinematic is the best guarantee that the writer’s vision will be delivered intact – or even enhanced – when it reaches the screen.