Everything in a well-constructed cinema script carries out two, three or even more tasks. There’s no room for slackers on a movie screenplay page. A single line of dialogue may tell a joke, reveal character, move the story on, hint at a possible danger and develop the theme, all in a few words.
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.
Do you find it difficult to structure a treatment so that it grips the reader as strongly as the full script? Join the club.
I don’t think any writer enjoys distilling their exquisitely crafted scripts down to just a few paragraphs, but there are some techniques that can help you get the essential shape, flow, style, emotional intensity and personal voice that you need.
Today’s tip comes courtesy of the great Randy Ingermanson who uses it in his Snowflake Method for writing novels.
Three Disasters and an Ending
Disaster One – At the end of the first paragraph, a disaster hits the protagonist and forces her to make a crucial decision – to fight for her goal.
Disaster Two – End of para 2, another disaster forces her to rethink, regroup and learn.
Disaster Three – Three paragraphs in, things are getting seriously grim, the third disaster forces her to face the final denouement or else.
Ending – Kind of speaks for itself. She wins, she loses, she wins a bit and loses a bit… your choice.
There are variations.
For example one disaster could take place shortly after the start (or even flash back to before the start!) leaving room for more thoughtful middle.
Each paragraph could be two paragraphs, or three, or a page.
And of course, you need to make adjustments if you’re writing in 2 Acts, 7 Acts, or No Acts, TV drama series or sitcom!
But the basic shape will build you a strong structure, whether you are writing straight to DVD or arthouse drama, cinema or TV – Enter The Dragon or Amour, Django Unchained or Hamlet, Lincoln or All About My Mother, Juno, Shameless, Borgen or The New Normal..
You can read more in Randy’s excellent book Writing Fiction For Dummies.
Which leaves flow, style, intensity, unusual structures and personal voice – but those are for another day.
We go into all this and more in my own Exciting Treatment workshops – there’s one coming up very soon in London on February 16th. If you’re interested, I’d love to see you, but you’ll need to be quick. Places are filling up fast.
But the point of a treatment is to get someone to read the script. That’s all.
So take this maxim to heart:
It’s not a matter of how much you need to write in order to get them to read the script but how little!
Focus your efforts on the minimum essential to hook your reader.
That means the high points, the main dramatic question, the emotional journey, a few stand-out moments.. and finish.
Like a good trailer, a successful treatment gives the essence of the film (or TV drama or series) in broad but evocative brush strokes.
Leave them wanting more.