Thinking Visually as a Writer

Apr 3, 2018

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Thinking visually as a writer – is it important? As a screenwriter, there are many obstacles you must overcome in order for your script to be exciting enough for someone to want to make it. It’s a unique craft. Unlike a novel where someone can kind of like a book – if you want someone to actually turn your screenplay into a movie – they have to love it. The amount of money and time that goes into translating a screenplay into a movie is massive and “kind of” just doesn’t cut it to getting a greenlight.

Still, out of the hundreds of movies that come out in theaters every year most of them pretty much suck. How does this happen? What makes that amazing script turn into rubbish when it hits the screen? I used to think that it was almost always the writing of a piece that made it horrible, but the truth is that I’ve seen my own work dragged through the mud enough times to know that a director can take any script and turn it into a pile.

While there’s no way to guarantee your script will become a great movie, one thing I’ve noticed that helps get the director or even cinematographer see the same movie you see in your head as a writer is to start thinking and writing visually in your screenplays. Most of the time as writers we are told not to write in specific shots into a script unless they’re integral to the story but there are still ways to hint at the style of shooting and shots you want in order to lead the director and/or cinematographer in the right direction.

Also, if you want your movie to be a visual spectacle, you should be thinking visually. It shouldn’t be completely up to the director to come up with those breathtaking shots that make a movie a feast for the eyes – it needs to start on the page.

Thinking Visually as a Writer – Get Inspired

Before we even get into how to write visually, I think it’s important to inspire yourself with gorgeous shots. It’s very easy for a writer to get bogged down in the details of structure or spend hours on a line of dialogue – it’s good for the eyes to be blown away from time to time to remind yourself that you’re in a medium that has unlimited potential. As such, I’m going to provide a few clips for you to get some inspiration on how amazing movies can be.

This first clip is a supercut of shots where the character’s back is to the camera. It’s amazing how much of a story can be told in just one shot. Get ready to be visually blown away:

Another one I’ve gone to time and time again is the trailer for Tree of Life. Even though I’m not a fan of the movie – I find that Terrence Malick movies make some of the most breath-taking trailers. I respect what he’s doing as a filmmaker very much, I just happen to respond more to more formalized narrative structures than he typically uses in his features – still gorgeous stuff:

Weave it into the style of the narrative

Part of the trick of writing beautiful shots into your movie is not really labeling them as shots but writing it in a way that feels integrated into the narrative. For example, take this overhead crane shot from Amelie when the camera flies over her head by the waterfall as she skips stones:

You could write this shot in any number of ways. Let’s examine the typical way it would appear, the wrong way to write it in, and the way I would personally handle it.

The Typical way

The typical way to write this into a script would be to not describe the shot at all. Here’s an example of how it may appear:

Amelie kneels down by a waterfall grabbing hold of some smooth stones that sit just below the surface by her feet. With an expert throw she sends the smooth stones sailing across the water, bouncing across its surface effortlessly like a trampoline.

Not bad. It gets the idea and the tone of the scene somewhat right but the way it’s written a director might think to break that up into several shots (one of the stones, one of her reaction, one of her grip, another of the stone skipping, etc.)

The Wrong Way

The wrong way to write this into a script as a shot would be to call attention to the camera move blatantly. This would look something like this:


Starting from above we see the waterfall then move over to see Amelie skipping stones in the lake. The camera continues until it lands just above the surface to catch a stone as it skips by.

While the shot is explained here pretty well, it’s also very dry and most directors will have a knee-jerk reaction to being told how to film anything. You’re not writing an instruction manual, after all, you’re writing something that has to act as a blueprint but still read in a way where the audience can get lost in the story.

My Approach

My approach to writing in a shot like this would be to describe the shot visually without referring to the camera. It might go something like this:

From Above we see the crashing white foam of a waterfall as it crashes into the stream below. As we gracefully glide past the violent froth of the waterfall we see Amelie standing there, in her red dress. From this height she looks like a little red blip in a sea of green.

We continue past her and lower down until her face comes into view – she’s the picture of innocence as she grips a round stone in her fingers and expertly skips it across the pond until it flies just past us.

Now this style of writing the shot in clearly gives the reader the idea that we’re moving and that it could be shot in one take, but it doesn’t force them out of the story as much as the instruction manual approach. To be clear, this will not guarantee that the director gets the shot but it does kind of act as a compromise between the two approaches.

To be fair, I wrote a piece that was obviously meant as a hand-held type of aesthetic only for the director to tell me that he saw the whole thing as a series of dolly shots so there’s no accounting for people pushing their own vision but you still have to try your best as a writer.

How much of it should you write?

If you’re going to write in the more compromised style where you use words like “glide” and “move” you can litter your script with visuals like this and it can be totally fine. As long as it flows with the style of the narrative you can write a whole screenplay where you’re describing shots – the only thing to be careful of is your page length. Sometimes when you describe the details of a shot you can get a bit long in the tooth and you might end up with a 150-page script that only yields 90 minutes. Just try to be brief. Get the tone and the movement across without getting too flowery.


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