Successful Screenwriters Write for the Screen, Not the Page
Don’t talk of stars
If you’re in love,
Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire.
If you’re on fire,
So sings the sexually frustrated Eliza Doolittle to her would-be paramour Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Lerner and Lowe’s 1956 musical-comedy classic My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion by celebrated British playwright George Bernard Shaw. Exhausted by her mentor Henry Higgins’ near-maniacal obsession with language, Eliza wants to be wooed by actions, not words.
Twenty-first-century screenplay readers have a lot in common with Shaw’s Edwardian-era Cockney flower-seller. They are moved by images, deeds, and events. As for words, the fewer the better.
Especially when it comes to descriptions.
Unfortunately, impelled by their need to impress, many novice screenwriters weigh their scripts down with lengthy prose and character descriptions. They use extensive verbiage to paint vivid mental pictures of people, places, and environments. They introduce characters by providing in-depth biographical data as well as precise details about their hair, eye color, and even their clothing. Or they will overload their characters with clunky dialogue intended to reveal everything from their characters’ professional training to their sexuality. But while possibly effective in a novel or short story, such expository specificity tends to be counterproductive when it comes to fulfilling a spec script’s primary purpose: to find a buyer. To be a successful screenwriter, you must learn to write for the screen, not the page. And that often means breaking many of the habits you learned in your American literature and creative writing classes in school.
“Writing for the screen” means thinking cinematically. It means thinking in pictures. It means always adhering to that oft-heard adage: “Show, don’t tell.”
So how do you put this into practice?
Let’s start simply. Suppose the hero of your story is an NFL quarterback whose career is sidelined by an injured knee. What is the best way to introduce this character? One way would be to open with the former quarterback sitting in a coffee shop discussing his recent injury and career options with his agent. Another might be to open with a sports channel-type broadcast in which the commentators show footage of the quarterback being injured and then pontificate on his professional future. Or you could open in the midst of a team huddle, have the quarterback call the play, and then actually show him receiving the bone-cracking injury, which leaves him writhing on the field in agony.
Which approach seems the most cinematic? The last one, obviously. No one tells us the hero is an NFL quarterback. We see he’s an NFL quarterback. No one tells us he’s been injured. We see him being injured. You could run the entire scene without sound and still understand what’s happening.
Now let’s look at some specific examples from recent screenplays.
Here’s how Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion introduces her antihero, rancher Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), in last year’s The Power of the Dog:
“A Montana ranch scape with a curious hill feature, a sculptural outcrop that rises up into a plateau. A man is looking at it. PHIL BURBANK (40-50), tall, lean with a wry expression that softens into something speculative as he stares at the landform, seeing something that causes him to smile, some kind of private amusement.”
Campion’s description is evocative yet sparse. All we know about Phil Burbank at this point is what we need to know: He’s male, a cowboy, middle-aged, tall, lean, and seemingly thoughtful.
On the same opening page, we get this piece of action in a corral:
“TWO MORE COWHANDS run forward; together they tie off the front and hind legs, stretching the calf out between the two horses’ saddle horns. Phil, still walking with an easy grace, unsheathes his knife and straddles the bull calf, facing his tail. The cowboys holding the calf look serious, their eyes on the dirt. Phil takes hold of the scrotum and slices off the cup, tossing it aside. The calf struggles, next Phil forces down first one and then the other testicle, slits the rainbow membrane that encloses them and tears the testicles out; he unstraddles the calf and takes the dangling testicles to a small branding fire, tosses them over the coals where they explode in the heat like huge popcorn.”
Well … damn. Phil is one tough, heartless S.O.B. Emasculation is clearly his thing.
And all without a word of dialogue.
Here’s another wordless character intro from Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for the sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up:
“INT. SUBARU TELESCOPE MAUNA KEA — NIGHT
Ph.D. candidate KATE DIBIASKY, 26, dyed red hair, rides the fine line between geeky and alternative, walks up the stairs to a desk overlooking a giant telescope.
A CARL SAGAN action figure is positioned next to the computer.
Kate types coordinates. The TELESCOPE REPOSITIONS. AND THE ROOF OPENS, revealing a starry night.
And for the final preparatory touch, Kate puts her earbuds in and HITS PLAY ON HER PHONE.
MUSIC: “WU-TANG CLAN AINT NUTHING TA F’ WIT” by Wu-Tang Clan.
Kate raps along under her breath. She also SELF-BEEPS any questionable words without falling off the beat.”
Through images, McKay shows us that Kate is a young astronomer who is both disciplined and rebellious. Perhaps even a bit prudish. As an acolyte of Carl Sagan, she likely shares the late astronomer’s romanticism as well as his dedication to The Truth.
Again, all without words.
Finally, here is how writer/director Kenneth Branagh introduces his lead characters in his Oscar-winning original screenplay for Belfast:
“EXT. BUDDY’S STREET DAY
Public housing, crammed terraces. FRANKIE WEST cycles down the busy street. MA walks
through the opened door onto the pavement.
How are you, Frankie?
I’m all right. How you doin’?
She looks up and down the road, then starts to call.
As she continues with the calling, we see that it is heard, and then taken up by another mother, and then another …”
Wow. Branagh’s descriptions are virtually Shakespearean — in other words, nonexistent. Yes, the fact he’s writing for himself gives him this liberty. Still, like a Shakespeare play, once you start reading the script, the characters come to reveal themselves through their actions and dialogue. It’s a script-reader’s dream.
The takeaways from this short exercise are simple:
• When writing a screenplay, always think in terms of pictures.
• Keep descriptions lean and mean. Only tell readers what they need to know for the story to be understandable.
• As much as possible, reveal character through action and behavior.
• Show, don’t tell.
So, being the good screenwriters we are, let us conclude this discussion by simply saying:
– Allen B. Ury