Tuesday, June 2, 2020

From Treatment to Film Script

One of the techniques and aspects of screenwriting we want you to learn is to write effective description. Writing plays for the stage, you learned to avoid unnecessary stage directions and focus on the DIALOGUE. In a film script, you want to focus on the VISUAL DESCRIPTION rather than the dialogue. It's the opposite. These ACTION directions are essential when writing a film script (as opposed to heavy dialogue writing that we associate with play scripts for the stage.)

Film is a visual medium (art). As such, it is the film writer's job to effectively describe the setting, characters, actions, and create a tone with his/her description using effective diction (word choice) and just plain, good writing that shows a scene rather than tells us.

A well-written script creates in the mind of the reader the experience of watching a movie. To that end, you must describe settingscharactersimagessoundsactions, and speech (dialogue) in such a way that the scenes appear as they would on a screen. You've got to see the picture in your mind, then describe it!

In the movies, unlike in a novel, we are limited to the physical senses of sight and sound. Refrain from describing what would not be visible or audible to us as we’re watching the movie. For example, don’t describe (tell) a character in terms of their occupation--(He's a banker; she's a lawyer, etc.), as this usually isn’t evident from a character's appearance. Describe (show) props and clothing to give us visual clues, or reveal a character’s identity subtly in dialogue, as you would in a play script.

Before you tell us what actions take place in the scene, it’s a good idea to focus on the setting. The first time we see a particular setting, describe it. Insert a blank line to separate this description from the action that follows.

Make the description kinetic and visual, but succinct and specific. Replace passive verbs (e.g. “is”) with active verbs to make the action more dynamic. Use active verbs! (see the list at the link for examples...and you can use them for your resume as well...) 

Avoid editorializing by using adjectives or adverbs that express personal reactions, such as “hideous,” “amazing,” or “incredible.” Instead: SHOW don't TELL
Ex. Hideous: the man shuffles along the sidewalk, as though one leg is shorter than the other. His fetid breath puffs out in small grey clouds of vapor as his cracked and blood-crusted lips part. A blackened and swollen tongue darts over the dry lips and we see his mouth gape open wide, wider, wider--a string of viscous drool dangles for a moment. Then we see the rows of shark-like teeth, jagged and sharp as he lurches forward to bite a shiny red apple. We hear the crunch and gurgle of the fruit as it slides down his esophagus. 
While I'm overdoing it there, the trick is to describe characters, actions, scenes, etc. visually, aurally, and, if possible, kinetically, or gustatorily or with olfactory imagery. 

Strip your description of any clich√©s and generic phrases that contribute nothing to our understanding of the characters or situations. Don’t just write that a character is standing in a room, for example, or sitting at a desk. Give them some business that indicates their personality or attitude. Open each scene with the characters in the scene already engaged in some action that relates to the story. This is what screenwriters mean when they mention mise-en-scene or mise-en-shot: literally: what details are included in the shot or scene...!

Such camera directions as “PAN TO,” “DOLLY IN,” and “CRANE UP” should be used sparingly. No director wants the writer to tell him how to move the camera. It’s possible to convey the shot you envision simply by describing the scene in a manner that leads the mind’s eye of the reader. That means describing in details what the camera does: 
ex. We move past the tent flap and into the crowded arena, tracing a jagged path through the party-goers and revelers until we settle on the rosy-cheeked face of our protagonist, Shelley the Elephant Girl. 
It’s not necessary to describe minor gestures and reactions or obvious acting notes. Nor is it necessary to slug out a different camera angle (e.g. “BACK TO JONATHAN”). Such overwritten description tends to distract rather than enhance, especially when it interrupts an exchange of dialogue. Leave it to the actors and the director to interpret the script. Your job is to describe the action, characters, setting, and dialogue using effective diction and imagery. Show us the story in your head by describing what you see in your mind detail after detail. 

Remember to include scene headings or what we'll call SLUG LINES. There are two types you can use at this stage of your education:

Type 1: Slugline: Starts either with EXT (exterior if the shot is outside) or INT (if the shot is inside). This is followed by the actual name of the location, followed by a hyphen and the time of day (or night). 

EX. Slugline: EXT - MOUNTAIN LEDGE - NIGHT

Type 2: Slugline: name a camera shot or angle instead, but this appears in all-caps.

EX. Slugline #2: TRACKING SHOT across the football field as JOHNNY runs for a touchdown.

Sluglines (either type) are separated from other descriptions of characters, setting details, actions, etc. by a single blank line in the script.

Finally, a character's name or CHARACTER CUE should appear about 3" with the typical 1" left margin default (or 4.2" without a margin)
  • NEVER center the character cues! It may look cool, but it actually makes the script harder to read. 
  • Don’t place a colon after a character cue. While some published stage plays may have colons after their cues, this is incorrect in screenplays.
  • It’s not necessary to use both the first and last names. Leads generally go by their first names.
  • Acting notes (use sparingly) usually appear at 2.5" (5 TABS)
  • Dialogue appears at 2" (4 TABS). All dialogue should start or carry over at 2". 
  • Most importantly, keep your spacing/formatting consistent. A little error of .5" (1 standard TAB stroke) will not destroy the world. If your lines and formatting are all over the place, then you appear careless, ignorant, or just plain wrong.

Let's see it in action: Read the first 3-4 pages of Video Game High School (a running series of short films from RocketJump), then let's see what it looks like all filmed up. 

Now here's an example of a short film--you'll note they are shorter than feature-length films that you are used to watching. They have a definite beginning, middle, end and are more like short stories than novels. But notice how the film VISUALLY develops character/plot quickly and uses DIALOGUE to tell an interesting story or plot. Ex. from Rocketjump: Jess' Big Date.

After viewing this, it's your turn to start writing your film based on your film treatment. If you wrote your treatment with a lot of detail, you can use the treatment as a guide by breaking your treatment into the 3 important components of a film script: the sluglines, the description of the action, and the dialogue. 

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