I’ll be back next week with my own dose of bloggy-goodness, so thanks once again to another lovely Bang2writer Pauline Kiernan, writer and all-round scripty Guru for stepping in with some excellent thoughts from her new book. Enjoy!
Many of my students asked me to include advice on Writing the Shots in a script when I was writing my new book. I thought I’d post something here as it’s an aspect of screenwriting that doesn’t get much attention.
Writing the shots was something I had quite a lot of problems with when I started writing screenplays. What helped was when I started to imagine my script as a living, breathing organism, but also how important it is to imagine the industry reader experiencing the actual reading of the words on the page. If the words are breathing with rhythm and evocative language that works on the reader’s senses, the story comes alive and the reader is able to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the film as though it’s before her/his eyes.
As well as writing outstanding visuals to create the mood and atmosphere, expressing character, emotional resonance, the inner lives of the characters, story thread, thematic depth, you have to create your action lines like a heart beating. They have to create or contribute to your story’s breathing.
And that means you have to write the shots.
This doesn’t mean putting in camera angles like CLOSE-UP, WIDE SHOT, LOW-ANGLE ON, JANE’S POV, and so on. It does mean being very creative with your action lines so that they imply or suggest camera positions and angles.
HOW LONG OR SHORT IS THE SHOT?
As well as implying camera angles, writing the shots can suggest pace, contracting and expanding time.
Here’s basic example from one of my screenplays:
“She springs to her feet like a young gazelle, dagger poised.”
Implied camera angles:
MID-SHOT as she springs to her feet.
ANGLE ON DAGGER
“She waits. She listens.”
Implied camera angles:
CUT TO LONG-SHOT of Character and the (implied) door.
PUSH TO CLOSE-UP as she waits.
MID-SHOT as she listens.
“She shakes her head.”
Implied camera angle:
PUSH to CLOSE-UP as she shakes her head.
“She’s hearing things again.”
LOW-ANGLE CLOSE-UP of her face.
Look how the way these shots are written to convey the pace of the scene – what its breathing is like. The short sentences enact how it will play on the screen. “She waits. She listens. She shakes her head – she’s hearing things again.” Say the line out loud. Hear the implied beat between each short sentence. Through short sentences, the rhythm, as you read, mimics the suspense – we hold our breath at “She waits.” Then hold our breath again at “She listens”. Then hold our breath again before the tension is released at “She shakes her head – she’s hearing things again”.
Look how the syntax works.
Feel the difference if I’d written: “She waits and listens, then shakes her head”.
No pregnant pauses, no suspense, no tension, and no real sense of release. Nothing to suggest Time expanding or contracting, no sense of how long or short the shots should be. With the line as written, it implies how each shot will be held long or short on the screen, simply because a sentence was broken up into discrete ‘breaths’ which shows how it’s to be paced.
Each shot is building the tension, before we experience the release at “she’s hearing things again.” The overall effect of this tiny scene is intended to express the character’s emotions, her fear of assassination. Although her fears turn out to be unfounded here, the reader’s sense of tension is intended to linger, and it is a foreshadowing of events which come later.
Now, if I had inserted camera angles, they would have shattered the reader’s involvement in the story. As soon as you draw attention to technicals, the spell is broken. The aim is always to take the reader through the experience of what is being put on that page as though it is happening – and moving – before their eyes. The aim is never to detach the reader from the beating heart of the story.That’s why flagging up camera angles is a big No-no – it detaches the reader from the story.