Many people, including readers of this book, have confidence in their basic ability to write but are unsure of how they should apply it to writing a script. To know how to write for visual media, it is important to understand how such writing differs from the writing most of us have learned to do until now. To change these habits and learn how to write a script, we need to see the specific problems that this different kind of writing solves. Above all, we need some kind of method to solve those problems. The first part of this book is devoted to a logical and pragmatic analysis of the reasons why scripts are written a certain way. If you understand the problem, you will understand the solution. This part also introduces you to a basic process of thinking, a method of devising content, and a method of writing in stages or steps.
Writing is a peculiar business. It is at once an intensely private act whose intention is to become public. If it works well, the writer disappears and the writing itself has a life of its own. This is true for all writing, but it has a particular importance for scriptwriting and writing for media because the words constitute instructions to others to do something and create content in another medium, which is essentially visual. So you could say that the writing doesn’t count; yet it does in ways that are critical for the final product if perplexing in the process.
I had always thought of myself as a pretty good writer, and I liked writing before I ever wrote a script. Many of you might feel the same way. I started writing scripts to have something to shoot in film school. After all, I could hardly hire a professional scriptwriter, and people around me were too busy doing their own projects to help out with mine. Besides, I wanted to write my own scripts. A lot of you are probably students in media production and will have to invent content for production projects. We all learn the hard way, by trial and error. The following chapters are intended to minimize those errors. Although there is a considerable body of craft to learn, this part of the book is about what a writer should understand before dealing with specific visual media, their formats, and writing screen directions. Let’s begin.
- Academy of Motion
- Picture Arts and Sciences
- creative concept
- dialogue cards
- Thomas A. Edison
- D.W. Griffith
- Louis Lumière
- omniscient narrator
- sequence of images
- visual metaphor
- visual writing
- writing in one medium for another
The essential problem of writing for visual media comes from the difference between print as a medium, or words on a page, and the medium of moving images. You have to describe an audiovisual medium that plays in real time by using a written text that is stuck on a page and frozen in time. So a description in words on a page of what is to be seen on a screen has limited or no value until it is translated into that moving picture medium itself.
The fundamental premise of scriptwriting is that you are writing words that are not to be read but to be made. This does not mean that a script is not read by producers, directors, and others who must decide whether to put resources into producing it. It means that the audience generally doesn’t read the script. By contrast, a novelist or a poet or a journalist writes what a reader reads. I am now writing what my readers will experience directly as written language. But this is not so for a scriptwriter! Just as the musical score is a set of instructions to musicians and an architectural blueprint is a set of instructions to builders, a script is a set of instructions to a production crew to make a film, a video, or a television program. Only the ideas, scenes, and dialogue that are written down get made. This is the first principle to keep in mind. Whatever your vision, whatever your idea, whatever you want to see on the screen, you must describe in language so that a team of technicians and visual image workers can understand and translate it into moving images and sound. They can’t shoot what you don’t write, or worse, they might shoot something different if you did not write clearly, or worse still, improvise something that you didn’t write.
A script is fundamental to the process of making a movie, video, or any type of visual program. It is the basis for production. From it flows a huge number of production decisions, consequences, and actions. The first of these is cost. Every stroke of the pen (or every keystroke) implies a production
cost to bring it to reality on the screen. Although the techniques of filmmaking and special effects are seemingly without boundaries these days, extravagant ideas incur extravagant cost. A writer must keep in mind that a production budget is written with every word by virtue of the visual ideas contained in the script, whether that script is for a feature film or a training video. A script writer can reach an audience only by visualizing and writing potential scenes for directors and producers to shoot and edit. The finished work often reflects a multitude of creative choices and alterations unspecified by the writer—in an ideal world, the inspired interpretation of a director or editor.
It is often said that a good script can be ruined by bad producing and bad directing but good producing and good directing cannot save a bad script. Producers and directors have more recognizable roles in the process because production is visible and material. Sometimes, the writer’s role is combined with that of either producer or director. Some writers can direct, and some directors can write. Writing and producing can also be combined. If you study program credits, you will see some of these dual roles and combined responsibilities. Some individuals attempt triple responsibilities. Among the Academy Award nominees for 1998, James Cameron had writer, director, and producer credits for Titanic (1998). He combined these roles again for Avatar (2009). Quentin Tarantino usually writes the scripts he directs. The Coen brothers have written and directed many very successful films, such as Fargo (1996), which won an Academy Award for best original screenplay, and No Country for Old Men (2007), which won for best adapted screenplay. They also directed these films.
As a rule, audiences pay little attention to the scriptwriter and often don’t recognize the producer or director. Audiences identify with the actors they see on screen. However, they do so only because the writer has created the story that the audience wants to hear, the characters that it believes in, and the words that it accepts as those characters’ speech. A film or a television series gets made because a producer, a director, and sometimes key acting talent respond to the potential of the script idea. The script expresses the primary imaginative vision that can become a successful program or film.
The writer’s work is somewhat isolated because the writer is the originator, with no one else to lean on. Others are waiting for the scriptwriter to deliver before they can do their work. However, strong collaboration can occur between the original writer and the producers and directors, and sometimes with co-writers. The scriptwriter’s work is less isolated than that of the traditional novelist, poet, or biographer because those writers write their words to be read directly by the audience. They do not need any intermediary, except perhaps a publisher, whereas a scriptwriter is never read directly by the audience and needs a team of skilled technicians as intermediaries and a risky investment of millions of dollars to create a result visible on screen.
In the entertainment world, the viewing audience is usually much larger than the reading audience for a book. It is a measure of the media age we now live in that visual media are so predominant in our imaginations. In fact, the very word audience
is a carryover from another age when audiences listened. The word derives from the Latin audio,
meaning “I hear.” Perhaps we should invent a new word, vidience,
from the Latin video,
meaning “I see.” Printed media no longer have the monopoly they have enjoyed for 500 years, since the Gutenberg era and the invention of the printing press. With the invention of the motion picture camera/projector by Louis Lumière in 1895 and the movie projector by Thomas A. Edison in 1896,1
a visual medium was born—one that, with its electronic derivatives, has probably displaced the print medium as a primary form of entertainment and now rivals it as a form of communication. Audiences today are primarily viewing audiences.
Figure 1.1 Edison in his laboratory.
Since the invention of the motion picture on film, these visual media have multiplied in type and nature so that a range of visual communication types now exists that requires scriptwriting of many different kinds. After movies came television and a dozen different types of program requiring a variety of writing talents. From television came portable television or video, programs recorded on a single camera and edited to be distributed on videotape rather than broadcast. Other exhibition media based on micro-chip technology synchronizing slide projectors led to extravagant multi-image and multimedia projections for business meetings, museums, and exhibitions. This led to video walls that involve composing images across banks of nine or twelve TV screens. New combinations of video and computer technology have led to the creation of interactive multimedia both for entertainment and instruction published on CD-ROMs, DVDs, and websites.
The French Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave school of French movie directors that emerged soon after World War II and famously expounded their theory in the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, argued that the director is the auteur, or author of a film. It is a strongly held view with which I disagree. After writing, directing, and producing feature film, corporate film and video, and interactive multimedia, I have found that narrative or structure and fundamental visual meaning are overwhelmingly established in the script phase. If you also direct your own script, you may take the liberty of altering your script on the floor or on location, but that is a temporary change of hats. Directors may develop a style of shooting that confers visual qualities on the work. They also cast and draw performance out of actors. They translate the script into visuals by commanding the production craft skills. Both writers and directors are indispensable. Filmmaking or production requires direction. However, in the final analysis, everything begins with a script as the first cause. That compels me to side with the writer as auteur. This debate underlines our point about writing that is not to be read but to be made.
Scriptwriters are indispensable to all these visual media. Their craft and art lie behind every program. Every time you watch a program on television, see a movie, or watch a corporate communication, remind yourself that it began as a script—as words on a page. Don’t walk out of the
movies or switch the television channel when the credits roll—look for the scriptwriting credit! According to the Writers Guild agreement with the producers of movies, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the script credit must come immediately before the director’s, which is always the last credit. Is the director or the scriptwriter the author of a film? Keep this question in mind as you read on.
In the transformation from a beginner into a competent scriptwriter, most of us begin with the experience of being in the audience. We grow up going to the movies and watching television. A complete media experience written, produced, and edited is presented to us for our enjoyment. We are conditioned to be passive consumers of these images. We learn to interpret them. We do not think in depth about how they were created, although some viewers might have had a mild curiosity about the creative process. We just enjoy watching.
You begin to be a scriptwriter when you start to think about how the story got invented, who wrote the dialogue, who decided what the voiceover should say, whether they could have been better or different. It is a change of mindset. A member of the audience decides to get up and cross over to the other side and become a creator. The writer creates for an audience. A writer has to know what it is like to be in the audience, but no one in the audience has to know what it is to be a writer. This transition in awareness and in point of view must take place before you can function successfully as a scriptwriter. The following chapters are designed to engender that transition. It will take time. You are an apprentice to a craft. Where do you begin? Because you are writing in one medium for another, you have to change the way you have been used to writing, which was meant to be read by an audience, and instead write so that your writing works as a set of instructions for a production team.
Everything begins in your mind, in your imagination...