A Screenwriter's Challenge: Visualization

Posted by Guy Magar on

'Heck, we'll just write them, and let the directors worry about visualization!'

More often than not, and consciously or not, this seems to be the mindset of most writers based on the many hundreds of screenplays that have crossed my desk at all levels of proficiency. Sorry folks, it's called 'motion pictures.' This does not just mean writing movement, or pacing or action...it means you better write VISUALLY, and when and if you do, it is my professional belief that not only will you succeed in communicating the scripted visualization of your story and achieve that all-too-rare experience of your readers SEEING your movie, but consequentially, it can only enhance the sales success of your work. Hard to achieve? Well, it damn well seems to be!

So what is writing visually all about? Usually, the first line of defense I hear when I give this little speech at the Action/Cut Filmmaking Seminar, where I have the pleasure of meeting filmmakers and screenwriters throughout the USA, is the immediate rebuttal that 'we have all been told not to direct on paper!' This is such a browbeaten no-no in the world of screenwriting, it has fearfully tilted most writers to make absolutely sure to write non-visually. As a professional director for 20 years, does it annoy me when I read a screenplay with direction built in, such as camera shots, lenses, angles, tracking, etc.? Absolutely, as it would most directors worth their salt.

Writing 'we open WIDE on the beach' or 'we slowly ZOOM into her eyes' or 'the LOW ANGLE CAMERA SLOWLY TRACKS past the crowd' is not at all what visual writing is about and is a sure way for most directors to quickly reject a screenplay. There is a huge difference between directing on paper and writing visually. The difference is between writing at an F grade or an A grade, putting aside for now the wildly differentiating creative talent and storytelling ability of each and every screenwriter.

Visual writing is simply this: A FOCUSED USE OF VOCABULARY TO EVOKE A VISUAL IMAGERY OF THE ACTION. When should it be used? Every scene! Yes, of course, words are the tools of every writer, but it is the choice of words that separates the average from la crème. Writing a boring or disengaging or badly structured story using visual language won't cut it either. But if you are an accomplished screenwriter who can convey a great story with all the accoutrements that make it so, then carefully choosing your visual vocabulary is the last hurdle that can take you to the Super Bowl!

My recommendation: MAKE ONE LAST REVISION DEDICATED TO VISUAL VOCABULARY. So why is this such a shared difficulty to achieve for most aspiring writers, and also, by the way, for lots of pros?

Simple answer: most screenwriting gurus, writing instructors, authors of the numerous how-to-write books, are not directors or have never visually interpreted written material, their own or of others, to a movie screen. I want to be clear that I respect and admire their knowledge, personal techniques, ability to teach and communicate, and as a professional screenwriter myself, I have been helped by and learned much from their teachings whenever I indulged in screenwriting academia earlier in my career. But with utmost respect to the good ones I have learned from in person or from books, not once did any address, example or advise on the issue of visual writing to me.

It's only from my experiences through my work as a director that I realized the obvious critical need of all in my profession to visualize material, and hoping time-and-time again that the writer has given us a visual map of his/her story to translate to the screen. From words to images -- as mundanely clichéd as those four words sound -- I beseech writers to nurture this process and guide us filmmakers to tell your stories the way you see them. If you don't, then do you really have the right to bitch about how we screwed it up, how characters didn't come to glorious life as written, how pacing sucked, how transitions were awkward or how we failed to fully visualize the story?

I can hear what you're thinking ... yes, of course, directors come in many varying grades of creative storytelling talent themselves. A director of the highest caliber, e.g. Ridley Scott, can tell an amazing visual story regardless of whether there is an ounce of visualization in the writing of the script or not. But, I'll bet you the Bank of America's holdings that a visually written screenplay will not only catch his eye and commitment faster, but what he puts on the screen would be a lot closer to the writer's vision and visual intent. Same for all talented directors. Thus, the holy marriage between a writer and director, in visual storytelling sync, would result more often than not in an especially wonderful motion picture experience and not in bitter failure or divorce!

So, instead of writing 'Bob ran to the store,' which is boring exposition (the most common trap for new writers), how about, 'Bob arrives breathlessly at the store?' -- a more visual choice of vocabulary. Instead of writing 'The hustler is skinny, paranoid, with unkempt hair,' which is expositional description, how about 'The hustler couldn't pass a urine test on a bet?' -- more visual.

If you're dying to give direction (which is actually expressing your visualization), be smart and resourcefully subtle. Try it this way: instead of 'we open WIDE on the beach as she walks alone feeling abandoned,' how about 'sunlight shimmers across the ocean waves, silhouetting her moment of loneliness?' How else would a talented director interpret/shoot this but with a wide lens on an empty beach with the character small in frame with heavy backlight? A win-win?

Instead of 'we SLOWLY ZOOM into her as she cries seeing her man leave in the pouring rain,' how about 'as rain drops bead on the window pane, a tear rolls down her cheek as his reflected window image disappears in the mist?' Again, how else would we see her tear and window reflection through the rain without a director calling for a slow push-in close-up and focus-pull between them? A writer using visualization to communicate with a director the imagery of the story? Hallelujah! Or instead of 'the LOW ANGLE CAMERA SLOWLY TRACKS past the grieving funeral attendees,' how about 'a collage of profound sadness expressed on the many faces surrounding the coffin?' A sure bet a director would interpret this as a slow tracking shot across faces from a low-angle coffin POV? Bingo!

I don't care if you agree or quibble with these specific examples; I care that you get the visual vocabulary process I am highly recommending you adopt...religiously.

Does this mean a writer needs to learn/know about the director's visualization process and the basic tools and language of directing to write subtle visual vocabulary in expressing the imagery of their stories without including actual direction? You betcha! No other way.

Sometimes, writers tell me how 'difficult,' 'tough to do,' or 'laborious' this all sounds. Which brings me to my last point: who the hell ever said good screenwriting was easy? Is it just an arrogant by-product of those who think they can write because they possess a pen and paper or keyboard? Is there a general lack of pride of workmanship from the majority of aspiring writers? Or is it simple (sorry) slacker-laziness or rush to judgment? How else would you explain a writer handing you a screenplay hoping/expecting a six- figure payday and wishing you to devote months/years of your life to realize it when they haven't even bothered with such basics as proper screenplay formatting or even a simple spellcheck?

When I ask what 'pass' (how many times it's been revised) is a certain screenplay, I usually get 'first' or 'second' or maybe 'third.' My response is always, 'please don't ask me to waste my time, but I would be happy to read it when you get to the 10th revision!' I do have one-on-one consulting opportunities with my seminar graduates, so months later I am always happy to read that much improved revision, and more often than not, it is now bursting with visual language.

YES, good writing is very difficult. It is as all-consuming as the search for proper story expression, be it action or dialogue or even just carefully thought-out choices for character names. It is all about the profoundly personal, and, hopefully for you, joyful craft of creative screenwriting. Personally, I would never dream of letting a new screenplay out onto the playing field until I reach double-digit rewrites...why would you? Selling screenplays is serious business, and a calling card of your talents. Should it not reflect your absolute best, most accomplished work?

So, besides all the three-act structure techniques, plot-point triggers, story arcs, surprises/reversals, character development, subtext layering, etc., be smart -- develop further or add to your writer's quiver the discipline of careful, intentional choices of crafted evocative vocabulary. This is essential to create the wonderful stories we can SEE when we read your own written visual imagery, to be translated by directors to movie screens 'coming soon at a theater near you!'

God created visual language to inspire great moviemaking...let's use it! Amen!

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