Written by Karyn Keene
Very little compares to the energy and buzz of a film set. Bright lights flood your senses, complicated equipment flies around you, gaffers yell for C-47s, and terrified looking PAs run in pursuit of hot bricks (which are actually just batteries, for anyone interested) and then suddenly everything falls silent and still. The scene rolls.
This scene would be hectic to anyone. To the writer, it becomes even more nerve-wracking as you realize that every person here is interpreting and changing your story. One of the most challenging parts of screenwriting is knowing that, once you give your script to a director, it’s completely out of your control. At the same time, that freedom is exhilarating. Your story takes on new meanings and tones as other creative minds work to tell it. As a screenwriter you have to write with the entire production crew in mind, giving each department the information they need without stepping on their toes. If you present it just right, you can influence how creative decisions are made so you don’t have to entirely release control.
Screenwriting for Directors
A director’s job is to have a clear vision and ensure that the project moves in that direction. That means, as a writer, the director is the most important person you are writing for. You must balance suggestions on creative decisions without dictating what they should do. In my experience, directors love getting scripts that are rich in details but leave production elements (shots, lighting, editing cuts, etc) in their control. With that said:
- Give plenty of details that express the scene’s mood and colors.
- Write compelling descriptions of locations, props, and characters.
- Make character movement clear throughout a scene if it’s necessary to the plot.
- Be clear about what time of day each scene happens–this will help with lighting.
- Leave a few places for the director could insert his/her own creative ideas.
- Say exactly where the characters are all positioned in a scene if it doesn’t matter to the plot–that is called blocking and a lot of visual rules go into it.
- Spell out character motivations. Let you writing say it for you.
- Explicitly state camera moves–see the next article on Writing for Camera & Lighting for an example of how your writing can suggest camera motion.
- Explicitly say what kind of cut to use between scenes unless it’s vitally important.
All of the advice above comes down to this: write a scene so compelling that there are only a few ways you would ever want to create it. At the same time, trust the directors to do their jobs and leave non-essentials out of your script.
Screenwriting for Actors
Watching an actor perform your lines can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. Suddenly, those words you wrote have materialized in front of you. So awesome.
Writing for actors is also a delicate balance. You want to give them enough information so they know exactly what is going on, but you also don’t want to tell them how to do their job. In my time writing, actors have told me that strong dialogue with a few key motions highlighted in the script is particularly helpful. It gives them clear direction, but leaves the details up to their discretion.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard actors frustrated with poor writing that either dictates their hand positions for every beat or never provides enough context for them to get a feel for their character. Try to avoid these pitfalls of over-writing and under-writing and your actors will thank you.
Join us for Part II on Screenwriting for Camera & Lighting and Production Design!