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Cinematic Storytelling: Make Your Script More “Cinematic”
by Jennifer Van Sijll

Articles - Editing

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  • “I can pick up a screenplay and flip through the pages. If all I see is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, I won’t even read it. I don’t care how good the dialogue is—it’s a moving picture. It has to move all the time. Screenwriters do not get the lesson… It’s not the stage.”
    —Robert Evans, producer of Chinatown and Marathon Man

    If you even quickly scan the screenwriting section on Amazon.com, you will discover hundreds of books—most of which counsel on premise, theme, character and structure. The focus is understandable, as the first requirement of every great script is a great story. The problem is that having a great story is only the first and very important requirement of a screenplay; the second is to render the story cinematically.

    When producers, development execs or studio readers read your script they have to see a movie in their minds’ eye. They don’t want to read a radio play; they want to imagine a movie. To deliver that kind of script, writers need to understand the medium for which they are writing.

    Movies have three distinct properties—motion, a film frame and a soundtrack—and each expects to be “fed.”

    These properties are what generate the dramatic tools with which screenwriters have to work: Lighting, lenses, camera angles, editing, sound effects, props, time, scene transitions, wardrobe, locations, colors, shapes, frame composition and so on. These things are the basis of film language, the language in which all screenwriters must be fluent. Unfortunately, few novices are. Instead, they rely on dialogue to carry the story, which more often than not results in a radio play poured into Final Draft.

    Think back to the power of films like Citizen Kane, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Godfather, The Piano, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Raising Arizona or American Beauty. These films are textbook cases of visual and aural storytelling. Cinematic storytelling for these films means going beyond dropping in a beautiful sunset from time to time. What it means is to rely on visuals to advance the plot and character.

    When movies first came into existence, there was no sync sound and consequently no dialogue on which to rely. Screenwriters had to use the full complement of cinematic tools to tell their stories. Dialogue (in the form of title cards) was used sparingly and always as a last resort.

    One of the most globally successful movies of the last 25 years is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial—a film that exemplifies these principles. If you take a look at Melissa Mathison’s brilliant script, and then at the film, you will notice that the first 10 minutes are completely without dialogue. This requires the viewer to engage in the material and to decode sound and picture in order to interpret meaning.

    This may sound challenging, but any eight-year-old viewer from Beijing to Cape Town could tell you exactly what went on in those first 10 minutes, who the bad guys are and why. This engagement and decoding is what first made movies magical and universal. It gave viewers “ownership” of the experience because it was their singular interpretation that gave the piece meaning. The ability to decode sound, picture and motion is also what the silent movie industry banked on; without it, D. W. Griffith couldn’t have founded an industry.

    One of the quickest ways to understand how to write a cinematic script it to study examples. Take a look at the scripts for E.T., Witness, Chinatown, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Raging Bull, The People vs. Larry Flynt or American Beauty. None of these are written by writer-directors. For writer-directors you might read The Professional, Bound, Barton Fink, Pulp Fiction, Dead Man, The Piano, Boyz n the Hood, The Sixth Sense, Amelie or Brick.

    What each of these scripts has in common is that the writers employ the full complement of cinematic tools to tell their story.

    The job of the screenwriter is to set down a story draft employing everything that will make the movie in their head appear on the page. When the writer constructs a chase scene, he or she is editing the “movie” by suggesting when to cut. Similarly, when a cop shines a light on the thief’s face, lighting is suggested.

    Sound is an equally potent—but grossly under-used—storytelling tool. Consider this brief example from Transamerica:

    Sound: Transamerica

    In Transamerica, transsexual protagonist “Bree” ponders his decision to have a sex change operation. He is seated, playing an old phonograph record. He places his index finger on the record to slow it down and we hear a low, baritone voice. Then he lets the record resume normal speed and we hear a female alto. He goes back and forth between the two speeds—one suggesting a male voice, the other female. Clearly we understand that the protagonist is thinking about the upcoming operation and what it will mean to go from male to female. By putting sound to use here, the writer has deepened our understanding of the character by externalizing his internal world.

    Sound is not just used as ambiance, but is enlisted to carry part of the story load.

    For the great Russian theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin, constructional editing was a tool he encouraged screenwriters to study as he believed it represented a new opportunity for expression. What is important is that Pudovkin, writing in 1926, fully assumed that part of the screenwriter’s job was to write an “edited” script. But let’s take a look at a modern example. Here’s how Quentin Tarantino uses editing as a storytelling device in Pulp Fiction:
    Editing: Pulp Fiction

    In the drug overdose scene at the movie’s midpoint, Vincent (John Travolta) attempts to revive Mia (Uma Thurman) by stabbing her in the heart with a hypodermic needle filled with adrenaline. 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” for suspense.
    How does Tarantino do this? By writing overlapping action. Tarantino’s script includes cuts to the needle, the red dot and the faces of the 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 three quarters 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. Through purposeful use of editing, Tarantino’s script is guiding the reader’s emotional experience, and delivering a scene that can be imagined as a movie.

    Tarantino doesn’t write in descriptive sentences or paragraphs like novelists, but builds his scenes in shots. Each of his sentences implies a specific camera angle. “Implies” being the operative word here, as camera angles and lenses are not called out, but understood from his description.

    The script’s pacing mimics what will later be seen on screen. Paragraph and sentence length suggests 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. Note: Tarantino does not include explicit camera angles.

    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.
    (HOLD ON MIA.)
    Vincent’s eyes narrow, ready to do this.
    (TIGHT CLOSE-UP – VINCENT)
    VINCENT
    Count to three.
    Lance, on his knees right beside Vincent, does not know what to expect.
    (WIDE SHOT – LANCE AND VINCENT)
    LANCE
    One.
    RED DOT on Mia’s body.
    (CLOSE ON RED DOT )
    Needle poised ready to strike.
    (CLOSE ON NEEDLE)
    LANCE
    Two.
    Jody’s face is alive in anticipation.
    (CLOSE-UP JODY)
    NEEDLE in the air, poised like a rattler ready to strike.
    (CLOSE ON NEEDLE)
    LANCE (OS)
    Three!
    The needle leaves the frame, THRUSTING down hard.
    (CLOSE ON NEEDLE)
    Vincent brings the needle down hard, STABBING Mia in the chest.
    (MEDIUM SHOT)
    Mia’s head is JOLTED from the impact.
    (CLOSE ON MIA’S HEAD)
    The syringe plunger is pushed down, PUMPING the adrenaline out through the needle.
    (CLOSE ON SYRINGE PUMPER)
    Mia’s eyes POP WIDE OPEN and she 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 chest—SCREAMING
    (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 angles. Had Tarantino described the camera angles with 15 descriptors like CLOSE-UP ON MIA’S EYES, it would have been unbearable. 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. Pacing was further aided by how Tarantino suggested shot length through paragraphing.

    Many new writers steer away from this kind of writing because they believe only writer-directors are allowed to “direct” a script. 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.

    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. But 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, nor do they 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 the reader with technical jargon.

    Similarly, 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.”

    Writing cinematically requires understanding the language of film, knowing how to use it creatively and translating it into script form. Editing is just one of many film techniques. Lighting, sound effects, camera angles, camera positions, transitions, space, framing and so on are other tools available to the writer. 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. It’s certainly worth a shot.

    This article is an expansion of Jennifer Van Sijll’s article, “Directing the Director,” available on WritersStore.com under “Expert Series.”

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