Good visual writing puts pictures in the head of the reader without them realising you’re doing it. You guide your readers through a visual experience, so that they cannot help but “see” the movie as they go. This means being very focused on every moment to ensure that it pulls its weight.
You know you can’t write specific camera directions (that’s amateurish)but the best writers don’t need to. They know how to be visual without a single mention of the camera.
1. Visual flashes
Look at TV and print adverts – see how expertly they can condense a thought into a moment of time. Learn from them. How many ideas do you have in your script that could be expressed in a single visual, instead of pages of talk?
Amy is sacked unexpectedly. You could write reams of dialogue to show this – or she could open the door to her office and find all her belongings have been swept into a box.
2. Do a full visual rewrite
Before she finishes a script, writer-director Lena Wertmuller cuts out every single line of speech and tells the whole story with visuals. She only puts back those lines she absolutely has to have.
Try it. Rewrite your current script as a silent movie. Every beat must be expressed in a visual way. Then add back only the speech that’s essential.
Does that conversation have to be static? Simply putting your characters in motion will automatically make the scene more visual. Have them talk as they walk (West Wing style). Or swim. Or drive. Or hang-glide…
In a key scene in Schindler’s List, Schindler and Stern have to discuss the advantages of employing Jews in Schindler’s new factory. To bring it to life, screenwriter Stephen Zailian has them shift boxes and papers around their office. The movement is meaningless, but it puts the scene “on its feet”.
4. Location, location
Orson Welles’ famous cuckoo clock speech in The Third Man didn’t have to take place in a Ferris wheel. Hitchcock didn’t have to set the climax of Saboteur at the top of the Statue of Liberty. But if not would they have become so iconic?
Stretch your imagination. Does the argument you’ve written have to take place in a dining room? Why not a lumber yard? A cemetery? Backstage in a theatre? On a Thames barge? At a cage fighting venue?
5. Create an obstacle race
Inexperienced writers misunderstand the word “visual”, thinking it means that every shot must be cleverly lit or designed. The best way to be visual is to be active -and the best way for characters to be active is to overcome obstacles.
So – create more obstacles. Greg walking across a room isn’t visual, unless you put something in his way.
Which is more visual?
Greg walks across the room to Anna.
Greg throws the chair out of the way and runs to Anna.
How many useful obstacles can you create?
6. Use visual verbs
Some words are more visual than others. Verbs in particular.
Too many scripts are filled with verbs like “walk”, “sit”, “look”, “give” “take” – which tell me next to nothing about what I should be seeing.
Cut these out rigorously and find stronger, more visually stimulating verbs. Verbs and phrases like “stride” “tiptoe” “subside” “drop” “stare” “peer” “toss” “thrust” “grab” “slide”… Get that thesaurus working for you.