The art and craft of visual screenwriting…
July 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been a script consultant on far too many screenplays from screenwriters who don’t tell their story visually. Their scenes are usually plagued with pages and pages of dialogue where everyone says what they mean and everything is too on the nose. A screenwriter’s poor use of exposition will kill a scene in a heartbeat. Aspirants need to quickly learn that in good screenwriting, visuals should come first and the dialogue second. I always err on the side of allowing actors to act first and speak second. Characters show their intent or motivations by their actions and not always through their dialogue. Master the use of subtext because a well-written scene is never really what it’s about on the surface.
This is why I suggest going back over dialogue scenes and stripping them down to the bare essentials. It’s also about what you leave out that creates the subtext behind the character’s motivations. I read far too many scripts where the characters respond to every line of dialogue when many times, no response is a greater statement than any line could deliver. Think of this when you’re writing—if someone offered you a hundred bucks for every word you cut out of your script—you’d work hard to cut what you could.
Watch this fantastic scene from “The Big Sleep“ (1946) with Humphrey Bogart and directed by Howard Hawks. Study the economy of the dialogue and where the screenwriters could have gone another direction. The characters show us their intent by their actions, not always by their dialogue. It’s a great example of visual storytelling within a scene.
Billy Wilder does this in a fantastic scene from his classic movie “The Apartment.“ The visual use of an object and the character’s reactions tells volumes. When Jack Lemmon sees Shirley MacLaine’s compact, he immediately knows she’s the girl his boss has been bringing to his apartment. It’s a screenwriting master’s use of privilege and revelation subtext.
Here’s a terrific excerpt from the book, “The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age” by George Stevens, Jr. Interviews with legendary directors at the American Film Institute:
Director Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight, The Mark of Zorro, Blood and Sand) remembers director Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, Heaven Can Wait) — “The great comedy director Ernst Lubitsch was doing a film, and he explained to his writer that the beginning of the film had to show that this man had been married a long time and that he is kind of tired of it. He had gotten used to his wife and had a roving eye. So the writer brought him four pages of introductory exposition of character. Lubitsch looked at it and said, “You don’t need all that.” He took all four pages out. “Just put down this—the man walks into the elevator with his wife, and keeps his hat on. On the seventh floor a pretty blonde walks in, and the man takes his hat off.”
Genius, right? It’s a perfect example of telling your story visually. Ernst Lubitsch and protege Billy Wilder were masters of visual storytelling. Always strive to create imaginative ways to show and not tell. Don’t linger in a scene, but cut to the chase. Avoid the pitfalls of overwriting your screenplay and err on the side of cutting to the bone. Hollywood is a business where nobody actually likes to read so remember the mantra, “Less is more” and maybe they’ll read your script to the final page.
“I can pick up a screenplay and flip through the pages. If all I see is dialog, dialog, dialog, I won’t even read it. I don’t care how good the dialog is — it’s a moving picture. It has to move all the time… It’s not the stage. A movie audience doesn’t have the patience to sit and learn a lesson. Their eyes need to be dazzled. The writer is the most important element in the entire film because if it ain’t on the page it ain’t going to be on the screen.” —Robert Evans, “The Biggest Mistake Writers Make”
“All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out.”—Ray Bradbury
“ If I can find visual metaphors to act out with the truths for me, to begin scenes and then end them, then I do it. There is usually too much talk in films, unless you are doing a comedy of manners.”—Ray Bradbury
“The truth always lies in the character’s eyes. It is very important to light so the audience can see what’s behind each character’s eyes. That’s how the audience gets to know them as human beings. It opens up their souls.”— Sven Nykvist, cinematographer
“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema; they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialog only when it’s impossible to do otherwise… It is essential… to rely more on the visual than on the dialog. Whichever way you choose to stage the action, your main concern is to hold the audience’s fullest attention.” — Alfred Hitchcock, “Hitchcock” by Francois Traffaut
“Everything must serve the idea-I must say this again and again. The means used to convey the idea should be the simplest and the most direct and clear. I don’t believe in overdressing anything. Just what is required. No extra words, no extra images, no extra music. But it seems to me that this is a universal principle of art. To say as much as possible with a minimum of means. And to be always clear about what you are trying to say. That means, of course, that you must know what you are trying to say. So I guess my first principle is to understand myself, and then to find the simplest way to make others understand it, too.”—John Huston, Film Quarterly, Vol.19, No. 1, Autumn, 1965.
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