I used to spend hours trying to write sparkly/moody/funny dialogue, thinking this was the secret to writing a great screenplay.
Guess what? I was sadly mistaken.
I’m not saying good dialogue isn’t important (it is!), but over MANY years, I painfully discovered 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.
One of the best writing exercises I ever did as a first year graduate student was to make a short film. We shot our projects in Super 8 (yes, it was the dark ages) and there was only one requirement— that there be no synchronous sound. Needless to say, everyone in the class proceeded to freak out, then get really creative. The project was so valuable to me because I was forced to tell a ten-minute story using only images.
Whether you’re starting a new project, deep into a first draft, or rewriting, here are some tips on how to write visually…
1. Try opening your movie with a strong image– one that reveals character or theme. Remember the opening to GLADIATOR? We see Maximus’s hand gently touching a field of waving wheat, then cut to him on a dark and gloomy battlefield. With these two simple visuals, the writer reveals the core of what the main character wants– to go home.
Check out this terrific opening to The Place Beyond the Pines. In a completely visual way, we are introduced to the coiled violence inside the main character, his weary world, and as he drives his motorcycle into the carnival’s steel cage, we see he’s trapped, literally going nowhere.
2. When you have a scene with too much jawboning, 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. Although you shouldn’t overuse this device, the most common way to do this is through the use of montage. Here’s a great example from Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, where he uses montage to visually shorthand his characters’ first plunge into drug dealing.
First, watch the clip here (you only have to watch the first minute.)
Now, read the screenplay page as written…
Sodium streetlight pops as Tyrone cold lamps by a beat up Bodega.
A black hand slaps Tyrone money. The money slides into his pocket. Tyrone’s eyes swish left , then right. He slips something out from behind the tire of a parked car. And slaps a bag of white powder back.
Pop, slap, slide, swish, slip, slap! Again. And again. And again.
EXT-THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PROJECTS-NIGHT
Neon crackles as Harry chills outside an OTB.
A white hand slaps Harry money. The money slips into his pocket. Harry’s eyes swish right then left. He clinks something out of a trash can. And he slaps a bag of white powder back.
Crackle, slap, swish, clink, slap! Again. And again. And again.
See how Aronofsky uses pure short visuals in the pages to reveal a whole night of action? As a bonus, the style in which this montage is written also reveals the tone and vibe of the film.
4. Use action to reveal character change. In the early pages of THE GODFATHER, Michael continuously pushes away from his family. Toward the end, he destroys his family’s enemies and allows a soldier to kiss his ring. The last image, where the door closes on Kay’s face, creates the final separation between Michael’s old and new worlds, and is in my opinion, the best movie ending ever. It’s also purely visual.
5. Use action to reveal character backstory. Don’t let the 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 “blah” because of too much chatter and let the character achieve his or her objective through action. 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.
Have fun writing visually!
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