Let's assume you have a great story.
You've got a great hook, premise, structure, theme and characters.
Despite these necessary qualities, it's still anyone's guess if
you've got a great screenplay. Why? Because having a great story is
only half the job. To get to the finish line, you also need a story
that's rendered cinematically. When the studio readers read your
script they need to be able to imagine it up on the screen. If they
can't, you may have a great radio play or a budding novel, but it's
not a screenplay unless you write it as one.
Classic Script Examples
One of the quickest ways to understand
how to write a cinematic script is to study some classic examples:
Take a look at ET
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
, or Raging Bull
. None of
these are written by writer-directors. For writer-director scripts
you might read The Professional
, Pulp Fiction
, Dead Man
, The Piano
Boyz N the Hood
or The Sixth Sense
scripts have in common, whether written by screenwriters or
writer-directors, is that they rely on cinematic tools to advance
their stories. These writers use everything: sight, sound, motion,
camera angles, camera lenses, transitions, editing, locations,
graphics, and color, etc to tell their story. Of course these are
not employed all at once, or even in every script, but are enlisted
according to the needs of a specific story. Rather than rely on
dialogue to tell the reader the plot, the writers demand that
readers participate by translating their text into sound and
picture. Consequently, readers have to construct the "screen" in
their head and then decode it as the movie unfolds. This ups the
readers' emotional and psychological engagement, even if it's
subconscious, or maybe because
Let's take a look at a concrete example. Here's how Quentin
Tarantino uses editing
as a storytelling device in Pulp
. The excerpt occurs midway in the script.
Cinematic Example: Editing - Pacing and Expanding Time
In the drug overdose scene, midpoint in the movie,
Vincent (John Travolta) attempts to revive Mia (Uma Thurman) by
stabbing Mia's heart with a hypodermic needle filled with adrenalin.
The scripted scene fills us with tension. We hold our breath hoping
that Mia is going to make it.
The reason "we hold our
breath" is because the script is written "already edited." In this
case it is edited to "milk the scene" and thereby pump up suspense.
So how does Tarantino do this?
Tarantino does this
through overlapping action. He includes cuts to the needle, the red
dot, and the faces of characters. These cuts lengthen the time
needed for the real-time-event of the stabbing to occur. Although
Vincent counts out three seconds on the dialogue track, it takes ¾
of a page for the moment to take place or 45 seconds of screen time.
That means that we are holding our breath 15 times longer than
Vincent's three-second countdown suggests.
purposeful use of editing, the writer is guiding the reader's
emotional experience, and delivering a scene that can be imagined as
Writing in Shots
Tarantino accomplishes this by writing in shots. He doesn't write in
descriptive paragraphs like novelists. Each of his sentences implies
a specific camera angle. "Implies" is the operative word here.
Camera angles and lenses are not called out, but understood from his
The script's pacing mimics what we will later
see on screen. Paragraphing and sentence length suggest how long a
shot will play on the screen. For example, a single one-sentence
paragraph implies one shot. The implication is that it should play
out longer on screen than would say, multiple shots implied in a
four-line paragraph. The white space buys the single shot time.
Adding an editorial aside like "Mia is fading fast. Nothing can save
her now" is like saying "hold on the shot". It again gains the shot
more screen time.
Let's take a look at how this is done in
the actual script. This excerpt is taken from mid-scene.
The top line is from Tarantino's script, where no camera
information is given.
The parentheticals in the line below are
my interpretation of the shot that is implied.
Excerpt from "Pulp Fiction"
Vincent lifts the needle up above his head in a stabbing motion. He looks
down on Mia.
(LOOSE CLOSE-UP VINCENT) (VINCENT POV - MIA)
Mia is fading fast. Soon nothing will help her.
Vincent's eyes narrow, ready to do this.
CLOSE-UP - VINCENT)
Count to three.
Lance on his knees right beside Vincent, does not know what
(WIDE SHOT - LANCE AND VINCENT)
RED DOT on Mia's body.
(CLOSE ON RED DOT )
Needle poised ready to strike.
(CLOSE ON NEEDLE)
Jody's face is alive in anticipation.
NEEDLE in the air, poised like a rattler
ready to strike.
(CLOSE ON NEEDLE)
The needle leaves the frame, THRUSTING down hard.
Vincent brings the needle down hard, STABBING Mia
in the chest.
Mia's head is JOLTED from
(CLOSE ON MIA'S HEAD)
The syringe plunger is
pushed down, PUMPING the adrenalin out through the needle.
(CLOSE ON SYRINGE PUMPER)
Mia's eyes POP WIDE OPEN and
lets out a HELLISH cry of the banshee.
(CLOSE-UP ON MIA'S EYES)
She BOLTS UP in a sitting position, needle stuck in her
(WIDE SHOT - MIA)
In this brief page, Tarantino has implied 15 camera angles.
Despite his use of camera, the reader isn't taken out of the read
because the script never calls out specific camera positions or
Had Tarantino described the camera angles with 15
descriptors like CLOSE-UP ON MIA'S EYES, it would have been an
Tarantino was able to slow down real time
by cutting away to objects and multiple reaction shots of the
characters. He used editing and the inherent elasticity of the
medium to help dramatize a pivotal moment and up the suspense.
Pacing was further aided by how Tarantino suggested shot
length through paragraphing.
Directing the Director
Many new writers steer away from this kind of writing
because they believe only writer-directors are allowed to do this.
Somewhere they have read that screenwriters should not
direct-the-director. They interpret this to mean that screenwriters
should focus on scene description and dialogue exclusively.
The best way to dismantle this myth is to compare the
screenplays of successful screenwriters with those of
writer-directors. Take a look at Melissa Mathison's ET
look at her use of camera angles and sound effects. Study the
scripts of Robert Towne, Shane Black, or Larry Karaszewski &
What you will find is both sets of writers
are well-practiced in writing cinematically. Both use the full
complement of visual and aural messaging. They do so without calling
attention to the technique. While they write cinematically they do
so purposefully. They don't throw in a 360 degree camera move just
to have one, or describe everyone's clothing and hair color, unless
it's important. Everything depends on the needs of the scene.
Writing cinematically is not the same as
Directing-the-Director. Directing-the-director is when you write:
"JOE'S POV WINDOW- LOW ANGLE," instead of "Joe looks up at the
window." They mean the same thing. The first unnecessarily draws
attention to camera information taking us completely out of the
story. The second method implies it's a POV shot and a low-angle,
but it does not distract us with technical jargon.
if a tracking shot is essential to a scene it's better to say "Joe
jogs alongside Susan" rather than "TRACKING SHOT - JOE AND SUSAN
JOGGING which is considered directing-the-director.
The Good Read
Writing cinematically requires understanding
the language of film, knowing how to use it creatively and how to
translate it into script form.
Editing is just one of the
many film techniques. Lighting, sound effects, camera angles, camera
position, transitions, space, framing and so on are other tools
available to the writer.
Studio readers don't want to read a
novel that's been poured into Final Draft. They expect to read a
script that they can envision as movie.
Exploiting the tools
of cinematic storytelling can't turn a bad story into a great
script, but it can help translate a good story into a cinematic
screenplay. Worth a shot.