Warning! In this post, I am actually going to combine clips from WALL-E, CITIZEN KANE, and a violent montage from THE GODFATHER.
It’ll be sweet and sour, heartwarming and bloody, and all about the visuals!
For many years, I used to think the key to writing a great screenplay was dialogue. I spent hours trying to give my characters witty, profound, or clever lines. I would sit in my room and say these witty and profound things out loud until I could make them sound even more witty, and even more profound.
But what I discovered, after these fruitless years, is that film is a visual medium and that one powerful image is worth thirty pages of brilliant talk. I know this concept isn’t new, but it bears repeating. The most effective screenwriters tell their stories with pictures. If you think about it, probably the most memorable moments from your favorite films had little or no dialogue.
Cinematic writing is visual.
So whether you’re just starting a new screenplay, writing a first draft, or even rewriting, here are some tips on how to write visually…
1. Open your movie with a strong image– an image that reveals character or theme. Check out this terrific opening to WALL-E. In a completely visual way, we are introduced to the world of the story and our main character as he fulfills his daily goal of pressing recyclables into metal squares. We also get a sense that he’s full of life as he trolls around his dead planet, bringing his portable happy soundtrack wherever he goes.
In the next scene, he enters his home. We not only see that Wall-E is kind (consider his treatment of the cockroach,) but that his main goal is to find love. All this is beautifully revealed through visuals and action– no dialogue at all.
2. When you have a scene that’s too chatty, try cutting out all the dialogue. What is the character’s objective in the scene? Can he or she try to achieve it through action alone?
3. Use visuals to compress time, and move the story forward. Although you shouldn’t overuse this device, the most common way to do this is through montage. Taking short snippets of scenes or pure images to bounce the viewer forward, keeps the narrative moving. Montages can also reveal change. Check out the famous breakfast montage from CITIZEN KANE. There is dialogue, but Welles uses a repeated visual (Kane and his wife having breakfast throughout the years) to show their marriage unraveling.
4. Use action to reveal character transformation. In the early pages of THE GODFATHER, we see Michael pushing away from his family. He doesn’t want any part of the criminal world. Here’s the baptism sequence at the end of the film. As Michael violently destroys all his enemies, we see that his transformation from war hero to murderer is complete. The only dialogue is spoken by a priest and starts, “Do you renounce Satan?”
5. Use action to reveal character backstory. Instead of having your character “explain” her past, show her behaving in a way that reveals a fear or darkness created by her past. This will suck us in and and we’ll wonder, “What happened to her?”
6. Write only what we see and hear onscreen. And try not to “hear” too much.
Take action! Open with a strong image, one that subtly (or overtly) reveals character or theme. Toss a scene that plays flat because of too much dialogue and let the character achieve his or her objective through action only. Reveal a character’s transformation through a specific behavior that you set up, develop and pay off. And finally, write more of what you see than what you hear. This will keep you on the visual straight and narrow.
Remember, images are your most powerful cinematic tool, and one picture is worth ten thousand natterings.
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