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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Writing Films - How Descriptive should a Movie Script be?

Just how descriptive should a script be?

Well, it all depends on whether you are writing a script that you intend to make yourself or whether it is going to be made by somebody else.

I'm going to focus on talking about writing a script that you are making yourself.
I should warn you that this is another one of my long postings ;)

Ok. First things first: you should write in your own voice and manner. Don't go all flowery with the language just for the sake of it. If you are a straight-talking type person you should write in that way.

Remember, you are not writing a novel, you are simply trying to lay out the blueprint/set the tone for a movie.
You need to get the feeling of the story across and include references to any characters, locations, props you need...but no more.

The script is the blueprint.
It is not the be all and end all. It is an in-between stage to get your ideas from inside your head and present them in a clear and concise manner.

Let's take an example.
Say you have thought up a scene where a man walks into a bar and sits at a table.
It is a basic scene, but can be staged in countless ways.

You need to ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the purpose of the scene? How does it further the story?
- What is the character's motivation? Why is he here?
- Where are we? What does the location look like? What time of day does it take place?
- How can I get across the mood/feeling in a way that reflects the idea's in my head?
- How can I communicate this idea in a way that makes sense to the viewer?

The last point is the most important: the need to respect the audience and ensure that your idea's are conveyed in a way that they will accept and enjoy.

Let's move on to the process of getting it all down on paper.

One writer may keep it extremely basic and write:
1: "The man enters the bar. He walks across the floor and takes a seat at the far end. He orders a drink from the barmaid."

Another may write:
2: "It's late in the night, near closing time. A man in a tattered shirt and baseball cap pushes through the door, pausing briefly as a neon Budweiser sign hums and flickers behind him. He moves forward, head held low, through the almost empty place. Reaching the far end of the bar he draws back a wooden stool and sits down awkwardly. Raising a finger he orders a beer from a barmaid wiping down the counter top".

A third writer may put it like this:
3: "A wide interior establishing shot of a bar at night. Cut to a mid shot of man in cap pushing through the door. Pull-in as he pauses briefly in the doorway. We pull-in real tight for an extreme close up, revealing just his eyes and an out of focus Budweiser sign behind him. We cut to an overhead wide shot as he moves forward, head held low, through the almost empty place. Cut to a low-angle shot as the camera dollies behind him as he reaches the far end of the bar. Cut to a medium close up behind the bar as he draws back a wooden stool and sits down. Raising a finger he orders a beer. Cut to an over the shoulder shot of the man (with him filling most of the frame) as we see a barmaid wiping down the counter top".

Which one to use?
- The first one gets across the general idea but it lacks any emotion. It is flat. Boring. Dull.
- The second is descriptive and creates a mood that the first lacks.
- The third is descriptive and features camera placement ideas.

Despite number 3 having the inclusion of descriptions of camera moves and set-ups, I still believe number 2 is the best overall.

Having lots of intricate camera moves worked out in advance is fine when you know exactly the location you are going to be shooting in like the back of your hand. But you can get easily bogged down in simply recreating shots based on a plan rather than using your intuition and gut feeling which often leads to far superior outcomes.

I used to always over-write my scripts; every single camera movement described in precise detail.

But do you know what? It took the fun out of actually shooting stuff!

As far as I was concerned, the film was virtually already made on the page and the act of actually filming it was a tedious chore.

A script needs to include enough information to get across the feelings required yet still leave wiggle room when shooting.

You should be inspired by the script to go out and shoot.

Including certain essential camera moves/placements in ok, but you shouldn’t kill the story flow by breaking it up all the time with technical jargon that doesn’t enhance the story-telling.

Besides, you can use storyboards for this purpose if needed. And it’s far easier to have a quick glance at a picture than it is to make sense of a bunch of words trying to describe the angle and height of the placement of a camera!

A much more important element to include in a script is sound.

I’ve written before on the blog about the importance of sound in film, and it’s something that should be thought about at the script writing stage.

“An icy wind whistles through the alleyway, scattering a clanking tin can along the street” and “a throbbing beat resounds in Dave’s head, lub-dub-lub-dub, before he collapses to the ground with a mighty oomph” are just a couple of examples of how sounds play a vital role in bringing a script to life.

The name of a song/band/act a character is listening to in your story should be included instead of simply typing “John listened to a song”.

That tells us nothing! The line “John listened to Beethoven/Metallica/Tellytubbies” gives us an insight into the fascinating character of ‘John’!

Even if you don’t have the rights to use a particular song/artist you should still include it in the script. Who knows, you might get lucky and get permission to use that Beatles song you really wanted (Paul McCartney could be in a good mood that day). But even if you don’t, you can always use piece of royalty-free music that has a similar sound and will work just as well, if not better. Plus, because film is an audio/visual medium it should be planned to make use of the effectiveness of sound during the pre-production phase and not just concentrate on pictures.

An editor will always use a temporary soundtrack when piecing together a movie so as to find the correct rhythm of cuts; a scriptwriter should never ignore the power of music and sound either.

Including music references throughout your script will immediately add more life and character to your story.

This includes the use of sound effects where needed.

Let’s say your lead character is firing a gun during a getaway sequence: writing “John fired the handgun” is boring. But “John fired the handgun. Krackkkk!” lets the audience better visualise the feel of the weapon’s power.

Now lets get to wordiness. (yes I know I am one to talk!)

The average script breaks down as one page = one minute of screen time.

So a 90-minute movie would be roughly 90 pages long (when written in the standard Hollywood format).

You’re probably thinking that if you start adding all these descriptions of sounds and stuff like that you’ll end up with an un-doable 1000-page script!

This is where script editing comes into play.

Be selective in the amount of words you need to get your story across (says the man who has been busily typing all this!). You don’t need to describe every single detail of the rivets in the side of the ship in your Titanic-themed story. But if your story is about how some badly inserted rivets contributed to the sinking of the ship then you should be all means go all out and describe them in detail.

The whole thing is dependent on context: what you write is significant insofar as it moves the story forward and contributes to the tale.

A good script is like one of those little model buildings that architects have made-up when showing off a new development. It should be well made so as to convince viewers of the viability of a project and show a proposed depiction of what the finished job might look like. But it is an intermediary, a simulation of what the finished project might be like. It is not the finished goods - just like a script’s job is to be the solid foundation of a movie, something to inspire filmmakers on their journey to produce their best work.

Happy writing!

(all images from google images. Copyright of their respective owners)

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