I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve said this, so I’ll say it again… Screenwriting is more a visual than a literary medium. The most basic unit of film is a frame which is based on an image. Not only does your reader need to visualize your scene direction, they need to experience it.
A major problem of scene direction in screenplays is exhaustively writing exactly what is happening, rather than combining it with what the character (and audience) is feeling.
A reader must feel your screenplay
They key here is to decide WHO is doing what and their corresponding EMOTIONAL state. Many early film script drafts suffer from too much episodic or atmospheric writing; one action followed by another and another, or lots of moody description which doesn’t progress your story. Use a hybrid of both, but ultimately, the drama must appear on the page.
In a previous post, I mentioned that early storytelling evolved from the re-enactment of events. It’s aim is to surreptitiously draw your audience into the moment, rather than simply describe past events. It’s all about the immediacy, intimacy and urgency of the here and now. Ensure your scene direction reflects this. Write all your verbs in present first person subject tense. This means the subject is actively performing the action rather than an action passively happening to them.
Use short, sharp verbs for short, sharp actions and long, flowing verbs for equivalent actions. Each produces a distinct visceral response.
Consider a simple scenario of a character walking in the park. How many different verbs can you suggest? Stomp, saunter, skulks, trudge, plod, prowl, slog, hike, trek, march, amble, promenade, wander, blow, tip toe and glide. Notice the difference in MOOD evoked between words like stomp and glide. It’s imperative to get your audience to emotionally invest in your movie script, so make your choices count.
Recently the use of capitals is becoming increasingly common in film scripts to highlight verbs, rather than indicate the first mention of a character.
Jack PROWLS up the hill searching for JILL.
Compare this to “Jack wanders up the hill looking for Jill”.
You can also utilize these verbs with inanimate objects. “Jack’s knife GLISTENS with deadly intent”, rather than “Jack is holding a knife”. Watch out Jill!
The way you write your scene direction is defined by your genre. Are you writing a comedy, thriller, action or horror?
It’s also worth studying comic books and graphic novels for their visual grammar. Before your film script is shot, it is broken down into scene blocks and shots.
A storyboard artist interprets your intent and pictorially represents action sequences and trajectory of your story. Much like a comic book, storyboards demonstrate the inter connection between scenes as well as the central question of the story, with minimal or no dialogue.
When writing your action, imagine how a story board/ concept artist will draw it based on the tone of your description. Does it convey character and conflict? Does it externalize your character’s internalized thoughts? Consider scene a description such as “She STABS the tomato on the chopping board within an inch of its life”. What does this say about the emotional state of the main character? They are possibly agitated, angry, anxious or on edge.
A practical visual exercise would be to blindfold a friend and describe a household item that is unfamiliar to them in as much detail as possible. Describe size, texture, color and function without naming it. Then ask them to draw the object (after they’ve removed the blindfold, of course). Alternatively, read a few phrases and ask them to describe an image. Examine their word choice, their intonation and their pauses.
They way you write your action is a subtle way to focus camera shots without offending the director. Consider, “Muriel’s wedding ROCK (ring) blinds the guests as she parades down the aisle”, suggests a close up followed by a medium shot.
Given that your action is written as concisely as possible, chose your verbs carefully. Something like “He gives her a look” or a “gesture” is too vague. Rewrite it as “Jack shoots Jill an evil look”. Run Jill run!
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