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Striking a Balance Between Visual and Narrative Scripts

Visual Storytelling

Visual storytelling refers to the images screenwriters use to convey a tone, emotion and style of a film. They show – rather than tell – the reader what’s happening in that scene and describe the character’s actions in such a way we know exactly what’s going through their minds. So, although it’s the cinematographer’s job to visually support an idea in practice, the basis comes from the screenwriters themselves.

Visual moments are the hallmarks of the film industry – they depend on a writer’s ability to write visual moments that are aesthetically appealing. As a scriptwriter, you should define what it is you want the director and actor to express – visually. Give them the general idea and a good director and cinematographer will know how to follow your train of thought, or even better, provide a new direction that feeds off from your original one.

Narrative Writing

Essentially, all screenwriters set the scene (pun intended) in their scripts. The point of any film is to provide a visual medium, and while this sounds like common sense, it’s easy for scriptwriters to muddy the waters between visual and narrative storytelling.

Of course, you’re going to need narrative writing, as this is what you’ll use to create the action, but be aware that an overuse of it can lead to an awkward amount of description. This doesn’t make sense when we think that we can’t see into the character’s head, the way we can in books. And too much description denies the pace of a film, it needs constant action to keep it moving forwards. This means that longer stretches of narrative belong more in the world of literary writing, rather than film.

Take a look at these five rules on how to successfully balance visual and narrative scriptwriting in your script:

Five golden rules to achieve that healthy balance

1.Notice the world around you

The space you use as a writer or the location you’ve imagined for your scene says a lot about the style you’re trying to convey. For example, a desert scene might portray loneliness, or a specific coloured set design might convey a character’s personality. Subconsciously, when we read this in a script or watch it on a screen, we usually understand this, be it on a conscious level or not. It works. That’s why scriptwriters like Wes Anderson or the Cohen brothers are so powerful when conveying tones. They take advantage of specific spaces.

Locations also work to convey polar opposites. Take Toy Story for example, in it we have Andy’s bedroom, the walls are painted in baby blues with clouds stencilled over them. It’s safe and conveys a sense of Andy’s personality. He’s a dreamer. Sid’s bedroom on the other hand, is far more sinister. The lighting is dim and morbid, with angry black posters and a junkyard of broken toys scattered across the floor. It’s violent, scary.

‘Shame’

2. Externalize internal tumult in your characters

Novels – or narrative writing – can take us into the mind of our characters, but the most important thing to remember is that scripts can’t do that. We can’t see into their heads, so scriptwriters need to work to condense thoughts and inner struggles in a few seconds of impactful visuals. This is organic and natural, because of course in real life we don’t go about our day communicating our inner most thoughts to those around us: instead we portray gestures and facial expressions that communicate – accidentally or not– these for us.

Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan’s Shame uses shallow depth of field – the main character looks like he’s ashamed, and the backdrop of buildings and life going on behind him only serves to highlight his tumult.

3. Be visual without a single camera movement.

View the screenwriter as a visual guide, if you will, and a professional one doesn’t necessarily let the director fill in the blanks from nothing because a lack of information was provided. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should put ZOOM or LOW ANGLE into every other scene. This is the director’s job and looks amateurish. Screenwriters provide just the stage directions for other professionals like set designers, directors, actors, dressers…

4. Use visually stimulating vocab and verbs

This is such an effective technique. If you use active, demanding verbs like peer, toss, snorts and so on, this creates an instant visual that people can follow, and says more in just one word than noun+verb+adjective. It also helps to put your characters into motion and have them walk and move as they speak, as this is visually stimulating for the viewer.

‘Her’

5. Be concise but specific in the pictures you paint.

Pinpoint the most important features of a scene in your mind, what sticks out? Is it a club in the corner? The vast stretch of stormy sky? A car in the background? Put these in your writing. Scripts are celebrated for being succinct and to the point, so just choose the most important objects or actions in your scene – you won’t be able to say it all, so the ability to summarise is a must for any scriptwriter.

In one of Her’s scenes, a film by Spike Jonze, the main focus is quite obviously the screen portraying an owl about to attack – it’s set just behind Theodore, and looks as if he’s about to be captured – it’s a wonderful visual moment.

 

So there you have it, five golden rules to achieve a healthy balance of visual and narrative writing. Just remember: proper illustration on the page leads to proper illustration on the screen.

The Elevator Pitch, Loglines & Taglines

What is an Elevator Pitch?

An elevator pitch is your script’s concept, boiled down to a bite-sized portion of words. Also known as loglines, they’re a bit like short sales pitches; they’re a two or three sentence long summary of your script’s plot–and they’ll dress to impress.

What does this mean? It means you’ve got to sell your script in an innovative and appealing way–be it for your intended audience, your agent, a producer, an actor… In the film business, a day won’t go by in which you won’t need to be pitching to someone about something related to your script, so it’s always good to have your elevator pitch handy. It’s got to be something that catches their attention, gets them thinking, and most importantly, gets them begging to know more.

Elevator pitches are called that because it should take you no longer than the time it takes for an elevator to reach whatever floor your ‘pitchee’ is going to (supposedly). The term came from the Hollywood myth that script writers used to catch execs and producers in their building elevators on purpose to pitch their scripts, and not only did the phrase stick–but you won’t get far in the world of scriptwriting without hearing this jargon being casually thrown about.

The good thing about an elevator pitch–painful as it is for a socially awkward scriptwriter to voice–is that it can help you shape the success of your script. If you manage to generate some interest over your pitch, you know you’re on the right track (or at the very least you’ve got a way with words, always a useful trait for a screenwriter). If however, you’re rejected flat on your face, then at least you can go home, cry a little, then start over. Cut scenes. Shape new ones. Polish old ones. Kill your darlings–there’s a reason that’s a time-old piece of advice. And then you can try again. And again and again until your script is ready, and you’ve a new, improved pitch to try out on someone else. Pitching scripts is like testing the waters, and the more people you meet and talk to, the more your networking circle grows.

Loglines

They’re practically the same as elevator pitches, but they won’t be written by the scriptwriter (at least not usually). They’re extremely difficult to write, and highly underrated. To create a logline, you’ve got to compress 120 pages of script into two sentences and each word has to equal its weight in gold: Loglines have got to summarise, intrigue and sell themselves.

These are the short blurbs you’ll see as film synopses in cinemas and TV guides, in Netflix descriptions and on the back of DVD covers. Loglines will give very specific information about the film without being too explicit–but divulging enough so that your audience knows what the basic plot will be about. We didn’t all go to watch Stephen King’s IT thinking it would be about happy clowns, we knew he’d be a sewer-lurking weirdo.

As a scriptwriter, you can follow a logline’s guidelines to form the staple of your elevator pitch. Loglines are usually made up of the following:

  1. Your main character.
  2. The obstacle standing in the way of their goal (antagonist).
  3. A twist that makes your story unique.

If you hadn’t tried it already, coming up with a 90 second elevator pitch is tricky enough even when you know your story inside out. So the first thing to do in order to get your pitch tight and concise, is to layout the building blocks of your plot, and then play around with the wording. Write a simple summary of your script first, even if it’s bland and boring. Then start playing with the words to make it sound a little more exotic.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of successful loglines.

Titanic: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.

Pulp Fiction: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

Liar, Liar: A fast-track lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish after disappointing his son for the last time.

Groundhog Day: A weatherman finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again.

Chicken Run: A dashing rooster and the hen he loves lead a daring escape from a poultry farm in 1950s England.

Note that it doesn’t have to be super wordy, in fact it’s better if it’s not; be clear and concise, and remember to portray the main setup and conflict.

Taglines

Taglines are short (sometimes only two or three words long) phrases used to reveal the film’s nature from an advertising perspective, expressing the film’s theme by using humour, irony, double entendres and wordplay. They create buzz and sum up the tone or premise of a film. A tagline sets up a strategic and effective direction for a film and is meant to be catchy. Sometimes taglines show a film’s twist in just a few words and are an important part of the film’s marketing in the way that they’re the “face” of a film.

Let’s take a look at a few:

Chicken Run: “Escape or die frying.”

Pulp Fiction: “You won’t know that facts until you’ve seen the fiction.”

The Addams Family: “Weird is relative.”

Liar Liar: “Trust me.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: “Prepare to be blown out of the water.”

I am Legend: “The Last man on Earth is not alone.”

 So what have we learnt?

Elevator Pitches describe your script and are used as a selling tool to engage the (financial) interest of an executive or a producer or for casting. Loglines are marketing tools devised to sell the film to an audience, and taglines are small hooks placed on film posters and film descriptions to appeal to the individual, often in the form of a word play or witticism.

As hard as it is to write an elevator pitch, it’s important that your script matches your pitch. So if you have changed your elevator pitch a lot, and digressed from your actual script story to make it sound more interesting, you might just want to reconsider tweaking your script. Writing elevator pitches is an important writing exercise for anybody, as it helps single out blatant problems in your script you hadn’t noticed before. So no matter what, it’s all good practice!

 

Formatting Fun: Scriptwriting Essentials

Script Formatting

So now that you’ve got the basics of your screenplay worked out and ready, it’s time to cast your ever-eager gaze onto the art of formatting.

This is possibly one of the trickiest aspects of scriptwriting to master, but only because there are plenty of differing views and techniques at large. If you grab a copy of the Hollywood Standard, by Christopher Riley, you’ll find it’s jampacked with formatting gems that will really make your life (and everyone else’s in your near perimeter) a lot easier. He covers every formatting element in existence, from transition shots to camera work–always handy if you’re a script supervisor.

Today I’ll provide you with the tools to equip you in writing one scene according to professional formatting guidelines. It won’t be enough to write a whole feature or even a decent short, but keep your eyes peeled and eventually you’ll get there. Script formatting is a bit like learning to drive a car, rocky and uncertain at first, then gradually easier until one day you wake up and it’s second nature. Another practical way to go about it–hands down–is by installing Celtx (a scriptwriting software) onto your computer. It’s free, it’s easy to navigate and it segments your excessive babbling into formatted elements, practically on automatic.

There are, after all, certain stylistic conventions every script must adhere to, independently of your writing style.

For now though, let’s focus on the basics. Say hello to Courier 12, he’s your new best friend. Every script is written in Courier-or a variation of the font, thanks to its clarity. But more importantly, setting is the first thing you’ll need to whack us over the head with. Bringing us to the time-old questions of who, where, when and why–not necessarily in that order.

1. Scene Heading

Every new scene you write–even if it’s set in the same room but at a different time–requires a heading. You’ll answer three questions (maybe more if you want to be very specific). Is the scene outside or inside (exterior or interior)? What is the specific location, a hotel lobby or a beach? Does the scene take place during the day or at night?

You’ll need to insert a new scene heading every time one of these elements change.

Interior and exterior are always abbreviated to INT. or EXT. (capitalized). But where you abbreviate the Interior with a dot, you’ll separate the location from the time of the day with a hyphen. So your scene headings will look something like this:

INT. COFFEE SHOP - MORNING

Or:

EXT. BROOKLYN BRIDGE - NIGHT

This is what Riley calls a Master Shot Heading, and anything longer than that is usually unnecessary. The code is short and sweet. Beyond that, you might be wasting paper space.

2. Action

The first thing to remember is that professional script-writers don’t tend to worry so much about their character’s inner thoughts for a reason. On the page, it doesn’t matter if Tom is agonizing over whether or not to jump from a balcony in a gun chase, if in the script it takes him a split-second to do so. The screenwriter must lay out the characters’ actions in a way that cinematographers and directors can easily visualize them–and quickly too.  Never be ambiguous, you can’t afford to be vague for literary effect, describe exactly what is happening as if it’s happening NOW. Action is always set in real time.

Writers usually break the rhythm of each action down into one or two sentences each, so that the time it takes to read the action, is how long it actually takes to carry out in real time. This is so that the reader generally has the same imaginative experience as the viewer will have.

 

In Pulp Fiction, the writer establishes via the ACTION, that the coffee shop is in Los Angeles, it’s 9:00 a.m and the place is bustling with breakfast-goers. That’s one sentence.

Next, he establishes the two protagonists of that scene:

"Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN."

Whenever we introduce our main character, you should capitalize their names once, to establish their protagonism.

 3. Character–Dialogue–Parenthetical

On Celtx, when selecting the Character from the drop box, the name of your character will automatically be centred in the document, and the Dialogue option will present itself just beneath that. Character names will always be capitalized.

You can also choose to portray the attitude or accompanying action with which your character speaks with the PARENTHETICAL option. The rule of thumb “Show, don’t tell” applies to the Parenthetical option, however. Parentheticals in every sentence is overkill.

For example:

 

JEREMY

(Slurring)

Leave me alone, I'm not drunk!

 

Or if the Dialogue spoken by your character takes place Off-Screen, you’ll write:

 

JEREMY (O.S)

Leave me alone, I’m not drunk!

 

If your character is narrating but you can’t see them, it’s defined as a Voice-Over, and looks like this:

 

HENRY (V.O)

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

4.Transitions

Transitions are mostly used in scripts to define the abruptness with which each scene leads into the next. There is a lot of controversy nowadays as to whether these should only be inserted later in a shooting script, but as a writer, you might find them useful anyway.

The most common transitions are:

 

  • CUT TO:
  • DISSOLVE TO:
  • QUICK CUT:
  • FADE TO:
  • FADE OUT:
  • SMASH CUT:

 

Transitions are always capitalized and placed in the right-hand margin of a page, preceding a Scene Heading, as follows:

Jules finishes his burger, crumples the wrapper, and tosses it into the bin.

                                           Jules

                                         Let’s go.
Cut to:
 INT. HOTEL LOBBY - NIGHT

 

These are the ABCs of formatting, but there’s a lot left to cover so next time, we’ll delve into the different transition shots. Meanwhile, get Celtx and start experimenting. Also, look for scripts online, you’d be surprised by how many famous scripts are just sitting there, waiting to be read. See how they separate action into sentences. Learn dialogue pace. And focus on the scriptwriter’s style. You’ll start to notice a pattern unique to each writer. The best scripts stand out not just due to spotless formatting–but also because of individualistic traits.

If you read a lot of scripts, you’ll notice an improvement in your own writing within a matter of weeks. Remember, practice makes perfect.

 

The Script Board: A Guide to Screenwriting

Developing your idea

Every creative journey starts with an idea. That little spark that strikes when you least expect it. A flash of the unknown. A scenario that makes you stop and think, did I really imagine that? Is it a leaking box in the boot of a car? Five beautiful virgins with suicidal tendencies?

Perhaps it’s a character who walked, fully-fledged and wonderfully flawed one day into the confines of your head. Whether he’s a whip-wielding archaeology lecturer with a flair for enraging Nazis, or she’s more of a wall-flower with a deep-rooted depression, you’ve got the start of something, and now you need to get it down on paper.

You’re probably raring to write, fingers quivering over the keyboard, ready to dive head-first into scene number one. It’s understandable. But before you start filling your head with plot points, conflicts and the real brain teasers–the aptly named: ‘Save-the-Cat’ moments, you’ll want to have at least a rough idea–the vaguest of notions– of what your script will be about, and how it will end.

If you start writing before you’ve figured at least this out, things will get messy. You’ll get frustrated. Writing without a plan is like an architect building without a blueprint, you can try to build on vision alone, but all those extra hours of planning you skipped in the beginning are guaranteed to come back and haunt you later.

To increase your chances of success, you’re going to need a step-by-step outline of your story. There’s no way round this, no shortcut, I’m afraid. Besides, this is the one process where you’re allowed to be as mad and as inventive as you like. If you want to add that roof sauna with the jet propulsion you’ve always wanted, go ahead. It can’t be budget-cut at this stage.

The Key Elements

The best way to know whether you’re on the right track, is to make sure that your story includes the three most important elements of storytelling. If you look at any film, Hollywood or otherwise, they all share these pivotal aspects in common:

  • Your protagonist (well, duh!). Every story needs a protagonist, someone the audience can root for, a central character your story revolves around.
  • Your protagonist’s objective. What does your character want? Frodo Baggins wants to destroy Sauron’s evil ring, Jerry Lundegaard (Fargo) wants quick cash in hand, and Clarice Starling, from Silence of the Lambs, wants to catch serial killer Buffalo Bill. Your protagonist’s objective is the driving force of the entire production. There is no story without it.
  • Conflict. Conflict includes all the obstacles your protagonist must overcome in order to reach their objective, usually put in place by your antagonist, whose own objectives will clash with your protagonist’s. Example: Sauron doesn’t want his ring liquefied in lava, so he’ll move hordes of orcs across Middle Earth to stop Frodo. Marge Gunderson, on the other hand, isn’t about to let Jerry get away with his crime scot-free, and Lecter sure as hell isn’t going to give up Bill’s identity without making Clarice fight for it. Conflict exists to threaten your character’s objective. It’s necessary to raise the stakes. Harry Potter wouldn’t be half so fun without Voldemort forever one-upping him, and Little Miss Sunshine would lack poignancy if Edwin hadn’t keeled over during the last leg of their journey.

The Roadmap

So where does structure come into the mix?

Simply put, structure dictates the order of events that guide the hero toward his or her objective. If you look at any storyline, you’ll see that the protagonist goes from A to B to C. In layman’s terms, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Most scripts nowadays follow the three-act structure, a formula which Syd Field, author of the Foundations of Screenwriting, claims is the glue that holds most screenplays together. This is the roadmap, and whether it’s a sketched diagram of plot points or a dozen index cards blu-tacked to your wall, it will save you a whole lot of re-writing (and tearing your hair out) later.

Although there is no formula which will magically turn your idea into an earth-shattering, Oscar-winning script (that comes from within, from the dusty cobwebby depths of your mind), having a solid structure in place can (and will) guide you in the right direction. If we break Field’s paradigm down, it looks something like this:

 

Act IAct IIAct III
Beginning pp. 1 – 30 Set UpMiddle pp. 30 – 90 ConfrontationEnd pp. 90 – 120 Resolution

 

The first act, as you can see, is the set up. You’ve got thirty pages to introduce your character, expose setting and lay the groundwork for the film’s plotline. In this act you’ll also include the inciting incident, the push to adventure, the point of no return.

The second act is the confrontation. This is where most of the action goes down, where your character will get a taste of the dangers to come, where everything will go wrong, and where your character loses all hope of achieving his/her objective.

The third act is the resolution. It’s the last leg of your character’s journey where the odds will turn and your protagonist will come out triumphant (or not, if you’re Scorsese). It’s where your plot reaches its maximum tension and there is an emotional or physical confrontation.

Be warned!

Many writers just starting out confuse story with structure. We’ve all done it. We’ve all changed our protagonist’s ultimate choice, because it didn’t fit in with the structure. Beware.

Plot and structure are not the same thing. Structure is applied to your story later on, once you’ve figured out the basics. What you need to know right now is your premise, your pitch. Before Harry ever got his Hogwarts letter (the inciting incident, otherwise known as the ‘Call to Adventure’), J. K. Rowling knew Harry was a wizard, and that he’d attend a wizarding school and defeat the dark lord who killed his parents. That was her story. All those red herrings dotted around Snape and Quirrell came later, structural additions which added layers of complexity to the story.

This is the layout every script should have. You probably know most of this intuitively, but now go over your story and double-check. Do you know your character’s main objective? What about the obstacles? Are they clear in your mind’s eye?

Story is the backbone of every successful script. Once you’ve got your premise sorted, you’re free to move onto the technical side, formatting.