Cinematic Writing

It surprises me, talking to folks who are new to screenwriting, how many of them don't have a movie in their head. If you don't see a film, how are you going to make anyone else see it? They are telling a story, not creating a film. This often becomes clear if you ask them - what is character y doing while x and z are talking here? Or some other detail about something they put in the room and then left alone. They aren't *seeing* the scene.

Of course, I've always imagined somewhat cinematically. Even my most abstract poems (with the exception of a couple of grad-school literary cut-up experiments) run in my head as a short film. And I can tell you what every detail of each frame looks like.

Then there's the other sticking point - once you have the movie in your head, knowing how much to put down on paper to evoke those images in another person's head. Most of us have been told enough times not to overwrite that it's less common to see an overly florid screenplay than one which chooses such generic descriptions/dialogue that they flatten out and the flavor of the imagined story is lost. You can do a lot with the flavor of the language, rather than endless description - something I learned from poetry.

Yes, the language of a screenplay is stripped down, basic and straight-forward. That doesn't mean it can't be evocative. Your hero can walk down a wet street, or they can splash through the wet grime of rain-slicked asphalt.

My signature on Triggerstreet is: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass..." (Chekhov) and it illustrated perfectly what I mean. The moon may be shining, but what we see is the glint of light...and that piece of glass can add to a threatening or a down-trodden tone, depending on context.

Every word matters, every word is a chance to evoke the movie you see, in your reader's head.

By the Sequence

I've written about the sequence approach to structure before here, but recently discussed the actual progression of sequences on the boards at Triggerstreet. Thought I'd share that here as well.

The idea behind the sequence approach is that each section has a beginning, middle and end, and each has its own conflict and resolution or reversal. This not only helps to assure you have tension and stakes all the way through, but gives the rhythm a rise and fall, peaks and valleys.

These sequences can blend well with a three-act structure, the mini-resolutions falling around the turning points, or they can be seen as following their own rhythm. Shorter sequences, interspersed, can be used to develop sub-plots.

At any rate, you only have to think 12 pages at a time. And if you feel you need one or two more sequences, that's possible.

Here are breakdowns for It Happened One Night and Rushmore.

Now, the guy who wrote the book on the sequence approach lays them out like this (but other uses of the sequences are possible):

- Setup: The hook - a puzzle, conundrum, question in the audiences mind - used to stimulate curiosity. Then a picture of the protagonist before the story proper begins, the kind of person and type of life they have now. Ends with a Catalyst, the intrusion of instability into normal events.

- Development: The main plot point (or central dramatic question) is set out. Protag comes to terms w/ the change in circumstance, or tries to put things back as they were. This attempt fails - usually with some kind of big event (first act turning point) which signals the point of no return

- Special World: Protagonist tries to solve the problems posed at the end of the last sequence, usually an easy fix attempt which fails. Protag ventures out of their usual world and they have to learn the rules of the new domain that they have entered before they can move forward. (often a training or learning sequence)

- Game: The easy fix inevitably makes things worse, there is a desperate attempt to return to normality. Usually results in a revelation which makes everything more complicated and difficult for the protagonist. The protagonist may have a very real chance of winning only to have this feeling rapidly reversed. (midpoint reversal)

- Grace: Protagonist grapples with a new situation after the midpoint culmination and twist - leading to new situations (or a new view of them). Sometimes the quest changes direction. Usually ends w/ another change, another raise in stakes, and often confrontation w/ the antagonist

- Intensification: The main dramatic question is answered, the main tension is resolved. Can either be a dark night or a bright spot before the last reversal.

- Sprint: The apparent resolution brings unexpected consequences, which have to be dealt with immediately. Often a complete reversal of apparent objectives. The final showdown.

- Resolution: wrap up and come-down