Today, we will be looking at Story versus the Screenplay.
One of the earliest things I learned was how much more visual-orientated a screenplay was compared to a story. I have touched upon how many stories tend to focus inwards on a character, examining internal thoughts and inner conflicts. Very often this is shown when the story is told in the first person singular. Scripts or screenplays, being more visual, tend to show emotions, ideas or intentions in an external way.
A quick example. A man wearing a hat is disgusted with the price of admission to a concert. Perhaps he has been speaking to a staff member in the ticket office. Maybe he has been reading the ticket rates on a board in the foyer. In a story we hear his thoughts; we read the words pouring out of his subconscious, and then the man walks away without paying. Fine. For a story. But how to show that visually for a screenplay? The trick is to do this in the best way, and that means without a single word of dialogue. Whereas stories and books relish lines of dialogue and engulf themselves in words, dialogue and yet more words via the subconscious, the best screenplays do it with few if any words. The clue is VISUAL. What we see, rather than what we hear. That’s the real difference. One answer is to show in a screenplay a close up of the eyes of the man. What does he do when he is annoyed? Do his eyes narrow in disgust. Or widen in rage. Perhaps we see him take a big sigh. He shakes his head, which even with slight movements, is clearly shown by his hat, when viewed from a distance. Or perhaps he simply grimaces and leaves. Or we can show the simplest way, of how he expresses disgust, which works from a wide shot, that’s camera term, for seeing the whole picture from a distance. He angrily chucks his hat to the ground and storms off.
With stories, the pictures form in your head; the head of the reader. In your mind, from the descriptions given, you build up an image of the characters, you imagine how they sound, you read what they truly think about the lovely buxom lady who has just entered their restaurant – their life. The dialogue, internal or spoken by one character to another, can be flowery, “regional”, beautiful, Shakespearean or poetic, not to say angelic.
With screenplays, the purpose is to tell a story as much as possible visually. It is for a larger audience, and forms the blueprint for a collaboration of many film makers, and just as a single still picture or photograph can only hint at the internal emotions of the subject, so too does the result of a screenplay, a film, of many frames (pictures) shot per second, can only hint at the internal emotions of the subject, unless the subject is DOING something. Visual – not internal, that’s the key. The best screenplays, and by extension the best films tell their stories visually, with style and without too much dialogue.
When I wrote “The Strongest Man Alive” I knew instinctively that I was writing in a more visual way than “Away with the Wind”, and this was partly because of the very visual, very action-orientated theme, and partly because of the subject matter, or theme of the story. To be sure, even the best romantic films are based on a screenplay that shows action, and action in this case doesn’t necessarily mean a couple diving into bed like a couple of Olympic swimmers, but “action” as in movement, the kind of subtle movement which shows emotions, as given in the example of the man with the hat above.
Always the thing to consider with a screenplay is how to show this scene (or part of the story) in a visual way, as opposed to doing it by dialogue. The film E.T is a film which is incredibly moving at the end, and it’s done visually. You will recall how earlier in the film when Elliot hurts his finger and says, “ouch”, ET recognised that this meant pain. Elliot did not have to clumsily say, “it hurts”. “Ouch”, the expression on his face tells us all we need to know. Therefore at the end when E.T is about to leave his friend, and his finger moves from his heart to touch Elliot and says, “Ouch” you know instantly what it means. Watch that scene again. Now watch that scene again and replace it with ET saying, “painful for me to leave you” Is that as powerful? See what I mean? Too many words there. And incidentally, ET himself says very little. In that scene, E.T simply says “come”. Elliot simply says, “stay.” That’s it. As little dialogue as possible. If this intelligent alien had learned the entire English language in a day, like the mermaid in Splash (and by the way, I do like Daryl Hannah, and the film too), and chatted like everyone else, do you think the ending would have been as powerful? “Oh please come with me, Elliot, we can’t break this bond, we’d always be together, you’d love my world, all my people would love you like I do, it would be wonderful…..blah…blah….blah…”
Take the example of the plants springing to life when Elliot had thought ET had died. As soon as he saw the plants springing up (a VISUAL clue) he knew that ET was back! No need for boring dialogue like, “Elliot I’m alive!” No sh** Sherlock. I would never have known for sure as dead people speak to me all the time! Good grief!
In First Blood Part II, after John Rambo’s girlfriend dies in Vietnam, when he has finished burying her, having wrapped around his neck her good-luck pendant, his hands in mud, clenching fist, then he picks up his crossbow, rises slowly and looks out, you know this guy is seriously pissed off! His eyes, his facial expression says it all. He doesn’t even need to shout in rage. And visually the rain helps too. It won’t just be raining water either….
In Pyscho, you know there’s trouble brewing. A mysterious house shrouded in darkness not far from Bates motel. When Norman Bates comes running down to see his guest, already something is not quite right. Then it gets worse. The empty motel, the business with selecting the room key..his quirky movements, pauses, hesitation, awkward silences, uncertainty, unable to say, “bathroom”, wanting to have her share his meal with him in the office, then not in the office, then in the room covered with stuffed birds bearing down on the Janet Leigh’s character, as though advertising for Hitchcock’s next Birds film! Indeed the stuffed animals look like they’re about to pounce on her. Would you eat in a room like that? And that’s even before he speaks to say how “a boy’s best friend is his mother…” Yikes! Sometimes a good screenplay can tell you all about a scene with or without character involvement. Look at the landscape, the weather, the animals, the stuffed birds, claustrophobic attitude, rustling leaves, blood trail, haunting mood – and the music helps too. And yes, even the screenplay can include notes on sounds and music, in a way that a story cannot.
Unlike a story, complete unto itself, screenplays are the first stages in the process of making a film. There are many things to consider, and the script just touches upon it. The first thing you notice when you read a screenplay is the somewhat unusual approach to storytelling. Characters are introduced by name and description in bold font, or CAPITAL, and the dialogue stands out from the rest of the description by virtue of being in the centre of the page. Also certain actions are highlighted in CAPITAL. This shows where the emphasis lies, and helps to distinguish for the director and everyone involved in filmmaking, what needs to be shown and how it needs to be shown, and the actors can clearly see what words they need, and how they will express it in the context given. It certainly surprised me when I first laid eyes on it. It was a strange new world for me. So I had to learn.
INT. HOUSE – DAWN
There was ME, Young and ambitious. And I looked at my paper, RAISED it to my FACE.
How am I going to learn this new form of writing?
How will I learn to write a screenplay?
Then I sat down and STROKED MY CHIN thoughtfully, and set to work…
And so readers, that’s an example of the structure of a screenplay. When the film opens, going from a black image or a series of company logos and opens up, we FADE IN. If you were watching me in a film, then you would see me raise a paper to my face, a (camera) close up of my chin being stroked. Because that’s what the director, or screenwriter wants.
INT. HOUSE – DAWN This simply means Internal, as in the opening scene or beginning of a story based inside the house, and of course it is early morning. EXT. means external, a scene that’s set outside. Yes, there were quite a few things to learn.
But there’s more to it than just the technical structural and visual differences too. Where a novel, for example, can have a myriad of characters, a few dozen or a few hundred, screenplays tend to be condensed and consequently have fewer characters. Very often a character on film can be a composite of many other characters in a story upon which the screenplay was based. The reason is simple. A thousand page novel has lots of time to introduce and build up characters and atmosphere and storylines and gradually bring them to a crescendo in a final outcome. A 120 page screenplay has to do the same job in a fraction of the time. Consequently not only can we not have too many characters in a screenplay, but things have to be trimmed down.
A story can take many pages to depict a character who is fed up with the world and the politics of the world; he is a loner and has many past reasons for being so. We can read the thoughts of his mind and get a clear picture of the character. He can even voice his views to many people within the pages of the story. The challenge is how to show this visually and quickly in less than a page of script. Simple. The film or script opens up with a dishevelled man in a lonely apartment, no pictures of loved ones, few items in the house, and we see him disgruntled, a TV in the background. After adverts the TV then shows a politician speaking. The man sums up the energy to stroll over and switches off the TV in disgust. The telephone answer machine pips up, and a voice says “we haven’t seen you in ages? Why don’t you answer the phone?” Then he switches of answer machine and unplugs the phone. That tells you everything. Below is how I would write it as a screenplay.
EXT. TOWN VILLAGE – DAY
A row of cottages on a quiet street. A speeding car breaks the silence. Passes a brown cottage. We CLOSE IN on a brown thatched cottage set slightly apart from the others.
INT. MESSY COTTAGE LOUNGE – DAY BRIAN COBSON, an unshaven man, unkempt wearily gazes out the window. We HEAR TV ADVERTS in the background. COBSON still gazes out. Then we hear VOICE OF POLITICIAN. V.O. (means voice over)
We need a new kind of politics, this country cannot
continue to carry on this way. If I’m elected I promise..
COBSON suddenly seems wide awake. He turns away, strolls towards TV. He SIGHS. Switches it off. Then telephone rings. Answer machine BEEPS. Recording starts.
Brian darling, where are you? Why don’t you answer
the phone? It’s been ages since we all last saw you.
COBSON SIGHS again and switches off the machine.
And, that is how I’d start the screenplay. In this short time we know that he doesn’t care about his room, his appearance or speaking to anyone. He doesn’t mind gazing out the window, and listening to adverts, but he has no time for politicians. That’s how it’s done. Short and simple, much like the sentences and dialogue in the script. Sentences and descriptions are short, as it depicts camera shots, and angles. Sentences do not deliberately flow as they would in a story.
That was lesson 11.
- My lesson 11
- Understanding and implementing the story in the structure of a screenplay.
- Keeping characters and descriptions simple and above all visual to illustrate the characters, their intentions and storyline.Next week, in part 12 we shall consider Dialogue, continuing the story of my creative film journey.