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How to Write With the Screen in Mind (part 1)

Every writer has a clear vision for how their movie will look... In their mind.

But how do you effectively express this vision on the page so others can see exactly what you see, even down to how tight of a close-up a shot should be?

It's actually NOT by writing in a ton of details or listing specific shots (please don't). It's by using certain words to help the reader visualize your idea as you want them to.

I wanted to go over some of the basics of how to make it easy for a reader to see your movie in their mind, from my perspective as someone who analyzes scripts (and as a writer myself!)

I also interviewed two amazingly talented storyboard artists from my team on Bad Guys 2 to get some insight into their process of bringing a script to life through their drawings.

If you're a writer or an artist -- or both, you multi-hyphenate superstar -- this post and my next one will have some helpful tips for you!


If you read my posts about writing effective action description, you know that the goal is to be concise and clear, while still maintaining your unique voice.

When a script contains lengthy action description blocks, it's a sign the writer has a super clear vision for their material, but they're a bit too attached to the specifics.

Contrary to what you may think, having too many specifics actually makes it more difficult to visualize your story.

It's hard to focus on what matters most in the script when we have to have to remember that this certain character has mousey brown hair, dark green eyes, always wears white tennis shoes, and leaves the top two buttons of his shirt undone, and another character has raven black hair, blue eyes, is 6'2, and wears graphic t-shirts.

If expressing every single little detail you see in your head is helpful for you, go ahead and do it... In a separate document to have as reference just for you and no one else to ever see. ;)

Because unless these details somehow serve as a story point (maybe your 6'2 character committed a crime, and he's the only one in a suspect line-up who's above 5'10, making it obvious he's guilty!), they are only necessary for you as a writer to know.

Which brings us to first and most important tip:

1. Knowing where your job ends and someone else's begins

As the writer, your job is to lay out the blueprint of the movie, not to build it.

If you include too many specific details, not only are you overwhelming yourself with things to write, you're taking away from the jobs of all the creative, talented people who will help make your movie!

Looking over your screenplay, if you're noticing a lot of minute details like:

  • how to frame a shot (cinematographer's job)

  • parentheticals that explain the delivery of dialogue (director's job)

  • staging + actions the scene already calls for (actor's job)

  • full descriptions of a character's wardrobe (costume designer's job)

  • very specific aspects of how a location looks (set designer's job)

then stop coming for these people's gigs!!!

In another post, I can get into the specifics of how to tell whether or not you're guilty of this! Sometimes, it's very subtle, and you may not even realize you're doing it.

Can you imagine if you were paid to write a screenplay, but the executives, producers, or directors told you specifically how to write it, down to the exact verbiage?

You'd feel pretty duped, and like you're not being given the chance to add your creativity to the project despite being a creative person who was hired to do a creative job!

However, something (most) executives, producers, and directors are great at doing is providing enough information to clarify the guidelines, while still leaving room for another creative person to fill in the details.

It's all about...


2. Conveying key information

Think about what directors do to prepare an actor for a scene.

They don't tell their actor exactly how to read the lines, they put them in the headspace of their character so they can deliver the lines how the director envisions them.

It's the same with a screenplay! With targeted word choices and sentence structure, you can put your reader in the right headspace to clearly see your vision.

How can you tell if your action description is too specific and distracting the reader from your story?

We'll get into the super specifics of it in my next post hehe ;)

But as a general guideline, the main indicator that your script is too detailed is:

Length of action blocks

Anything beyond 3 lines in a single block is a warning sign there's likely too much being expressed at once. Beyond 5 lines, and you've likely lost your reader entirely.

Interestingly, you can have the exact same information that takes up 5 lines, but separate it into 2 blocks, and it instantly becomes more effective.

But why is that?

Let's take a look at an excerpt from the first page of THE DARK KNIGHT screenplay:

Notice how that 7-line block of action description contains a TON of visual information?

Take a look at this beat plays out in the film:

When reading that action block, was it immediately clear to you how that moment would look on screen?

Since I'm not the writer or director of this story, I had to read that action description twice just to catch all the information, and a third time to see it play out in my mind.

If your reader has to do that, you're taking them out of the moment of your story.

So how could this 7-line action block be more digestible to someone looking at the script for the first time?

Simply, by splitting it up into "shots."

Here's a list of the shots that portray the information in this 7-line block of action, as they play out on screen:

  • Dopey shoots his gun

  • Dopey grabs the cable launcher next to Happy and shoots it out the window

  • (cutaway to the Joker standing on the street corner and getting into a car)

  • Dopey secures a kit bag to the cable

  • Sends the bag out the window

  • He and Happy slide out the window

That's 5 different shots conveying the information in one block of action (not including the cutaway to the Joker, which was not in the 7-line block).

Why would this information be split into so many shots?

Because the director wanted us to see each of those actions individually so we could clearly understand what's going on in the scene.

In the script, this doesn't necessarily come across when all of those actions are being described at once.

To allow the reader to more clearly see how this beat would play out on screen, and allow them to digest the information in a way that's easier to instantly understand, it can be split up to reflect the shots we'd be seeing.

Here's a revised version of that 7-line block (with a couple word changes to include the information as we see it exactly on screen):

Although I combined two of the shots into one action block and separated one shot into two blocks (to ensure there weren't too many or too few key details in each section)...

The information being split up like this is a more accurate portrayal of how this all plays out on screen because each of the actions is being focused on individually as the director intended.

Now when you put this into practice, DON'T YOU DARE EXPLAIN SPECIFICALLY WHAT KIND OF SHOTS!!!







Well, okay, think about what kind of shots we'd be seeing, but don't tell us exactly what they are.

Notice how, when taking exactly what was already written into the script and separating it into smaller lines that focus on specific actions, you can clearly envision how these shots would look?

Knowing I had a medium shot in mind, I could've written: "In a MEDIUM SHOT, a man in a CLOWN MASK holding a SMOKING SILENCED PISTOL ejects a shell casing. This is DOPEY."

But the framing of the shot is implied by what's being focused on in the action description.

In order to properly see the smoking gun and Dopey ejecting the shell casing, we'd likely need to be in a medium shot.

And further, we could say: "In a WIDE SHOT, he grabs a CABLE LAUNCHER next to a second man, HAPPY, also in a clown mask."

But because it's now established there's second person present, and they weren't introduced in the previous block, we know that this would likely be in a different, wider shot where both people can be seen.

I'll save some of the more specific ways you can imply visual information for my next post. Otherwise, this post would be novel-length ;)


Head over to my next post to read about a storyboard artist's perspective on effective action description and how to visualize what's on the page (plus other tips!)

85 views1 comment

1 kommentar

05 maj

This is awesome. Thanks!

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