Screenplays come in all shapes, sizes and sensibilities. Some read like lean, mean machines, fueled with just enough tight, right detail to make for a vivid ride. Others are almost like novels in movie drag, cramming the pages with observation, philosophy and atmosphere. Most fall somewhere in between, and there are innumerable ways to personalize the form. Sometimes a seemingly overloaded narrative actually gets across a compelling voice; sometimes a "less is more" style ends up conveying merely less.
Among all the myriad approaches -- I once read a script where every single line of narrative was literally one line (meaning, no sentence "broke" at the margin, needing to continue in the line below) -- I've noticed that screenwriters break down into two subtle but distinct camps. One kind of screenwriter focuses on a more traditional method of storytelling, that's reminiscent of playwriting, teleplays and fiction. The other tells a story the way a movie would tell it -- the writer consciously uses filmic techniques, overtly or subliminally, to replicate the filmmaking experience in the read.
Obviously plenty of screenwriters do a bit of both. But generally speaking, one school of screenwriting thought seems to leave the realization of the writer's vision to the director... and the other actually attempts to manifest a personal vision in visual and aural ways, on the page -- in a sense "pre-directing" the story.
You can see the difference in the work of pros. Ron Bass (the king of ellipses and Oscar-winner for Rain Man) writes amazingly acute character details into his scripts, but rarely creates memorable, visually inventive cinematic conceits; the Coen Brothers, as you'd expect, write scenes that sometimes read like scripted storyboards. Tarantino is surprisingly spare and sparse on the page (though you can feel his jagged editing rhythms implied) since he's probably got the movie in his mind, while Anthony Minghella is lyric, poetic, wonderfully adept at painting pictures with a few deftly written phrases.
In screenwriting classes and textbooks, some confusion abounds in the "supposed to/not supposed to" of this issue. There are some who believe that messing with film technique in a screenplay is the worst conceivable way to go, since one could be stepping on the toes of a director or any other creative element interested in the project. But I think the only thing that's really a no-no in this regard it to use actual camera terms in your narrative. It's true that a director (or a reader) doesn't want to read "from close-up, we zoom out to wide angle and pan left to reveal..." in a script, because yes, you've just alienated a director who abhors zooms, and why are you telling him how to do his job, plus you've pissed off the professional reader who perceives such kibbitzing as the province of film-geek amateurs, and you've yanked any reader right out of the story.
But this isn't what I'm talking about, when I say that effective screenwriting really does enable a reader to "see the movie," as in Robert Towne's famous quote: When I write a screenplay I describe a movie that's already been shot. I'm talking about using the medium conceptually -- writing scenes that are conceived cinematically, that use the possibilities inherent in the medium, to tell a story.
Case in point. I just did notes on a studio project where the female protagonist had a series of blind dates in a number of foreign locales. As the current writer had it, there was a brief montage of date after date, speeding up into "a dizzying succession of images." Well, okay, for starters. But what am I really seeing on screen? And what do I get out such a generic montage, beyond a very general "all this dating made her dizzy?" I was surprised by what struck me as lazy screenwriting, given such a rich opportunity for visual fun.
Why not play with the possibilities, thinking "movie?" The point of the sequence is that these dates have no real effect on Jane, who's just going through the motions. So I suggested setting up a scene with Jane across a table from a Date at an outdoor cafe, locking down that frame, and by use of either cuts or dissolves and possible blue screen backgrounds, changing the locales behind them, while the man opposite Jane morphs each time into another nationality or type... and Jane stays the same in her little black dress.
By thus doing "6 countries in 12 seconds" you'd be letting the audience in on the joke, and you could cover a lot of ground (and reduce production costs) while still fulfilling the "exotic locale" eye candy expectations, especially if you have Jane sit down at the table in Zurich, and 6 countries later, get up from it in Jerusalem. There are any number of witty cinematic ways to get Jane from one place to another. Quick cuts: She calls for the check in French -- in German -- in Greek -- maybe top the bit with Jane, fatigued and not fluent, making the universal sign for "check!" Or do a montage of national dishes being set before her, from a British crumpet to flaming Albanian cheese... Only minor set dressing required, and more fun for the audience.
When the Coens write "A car bursts through the curtain of snow" (Fargo) or Minghella notes "Hana is caught by the stray shafts of moonlight" (The English Patient), they're forging images made with color and light, which I like to think of as "emotion pictures." But cinematic storytelling is also about bigger filmic ideas, like the famous cut in The Graduate that has Ben Braddock dive onto the raft in his dad's pool... and land atop Mrs. Robinson in their hotel bed. Only in a movie can you have that kind of visceral manipulation of time and space to vividly express a metaphor.
So if you're writing a movie, you might as well use the medium. Asking yourself, how "movie" is this scene? is a smart idea, because the goal of any screenplay is to get the reader to see the movie. Just as I'm always suggesting that student screenwriters take an acting class so they'll understand more about what kinds of writing works for actors, it stands to reason that screenwriters should take film courses so they'll understand how filmmakers think, and utilize those techniques in their work.
You can take a sort of crash course in this approach by reading Jennifer Van Sijll's Cinematic Storytelling. Or you could take a crash course -- it's a 4-day intensive workshop -- with yours truly, at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program 2006 Writers Studio in Westwood next week, Thursday Feb. 9th through Sunday Feb. 12th.
I've been teaching Cinematic Storytelling at the Program for about 7 or 8 years now, and the 4-day version's intense immersion in learning about "how to write The Movie" has proven to be extremely effective. People walk in writing one way, and they tend to walk out a few days later with many more tools at their disposal. This year my guest speaker is writer/director Henry Bromell (Panic, Last Call), and we'll be looking at excerpts from his work specifically to see how what he imagined on the page got realized accordingly on the screen.
You might want to check out the other courses being offered at this year's Studio, since there's 9 other talented instructors on board, including friends Barbara Abercrombie and Steve Mazur (Liar, Liar).
And while we're on the subject of writing courses, my friend Deborah Brown is offering a weekend of seminars that's more directly apropos to this blog's bailiwick. Just in time for Valentine's Day, you can explore Love, Lust and Longing: Writing Cupid's Arrows (a one-day seminar on Saturday Feb. 11th) and/or What's Love Got to Do With It? Writing the Wounded Heart (a one-day seminar on Sunday Feb. 12th) with an inspiring teacher (and award-winning poet) who's got tips for creative writers and screenwriters alike (email: Sambapoet@cs.com for details).
How about a story of love, lust and longing told in vividly cinematic emotion pictures? Hmmm. Sounds like the sort of thing that I for one would pay to see.