Use Screenplay Format Limitations to Define Your Writing Style
There’s a rumor going around the interwebs that there’s a prequel/not-prequel to Alien coming out soon. Perhaps you’ve heard this rumor, too? Anyway, all this chatter reminded me how difficult it is to create a new world, especially a science-fiction world, when writing in screenplay format (perhaps one of the myriad reasons why I don’t write sci-fi scripts). By virtue of the format, screenplays are economical in their language, and not necessarily conducive to describing entire galaxies yet unseen. And while this certainly isn’t the first time this has been covered, I think this is a great opportunity to revisit screenwriter Walter Hill’s screenplay for Alien and how he used the format’s limitations to his advantage. Instead of long descriptive paragraphs, Hill’s script uses short, clipped descriptions in quick succession to paint this stark new world. Check out a screenshot of the script here:
By embracing the limitations of the format, Hill’s script practically reinvents the format, leaving the reader in a cold, stark world. Plus, the quick succession of short descriptions makes the script a fast read (bonus!). I should point out that screenwriter David Giler is also credited as a writer on this particular script, but this “haiku”-style of writing has been attributed to Hill for his other screenplays, too.
This screenplay style wasn’t how Alien was originally introduced, either. Check out the introduction as written in Dan O’Bannon’s original screenplay for Alien:
I would argue that both versions of the screenplay convey very similar information to the reader in their introductions, quickly establishing the setting, but the format of Hill’s script immediately shows the reader that this story takes place in a very different world. This is “show, don’t tell” in screenplay format!
Many screenwriters talk about exploring genres in new ways and twisting conventions to keep audiences intrigued. I would argue that the limitations of the screenplay format can be explored in new ways, letting screenwriters define their style on the page in a way that helps readers see the world through their eyes.
Have you experimented with screenplay format conventions? Have you found a unique style of writing screenplays that sticks to the rules, yet lets your unique worldview jump off the page? Let us know.
- Alien shooting script by Walter Hill and David Giler on SimplyScripts
- Original Alien script by Dan O’Bannon on SimplyScripts
- WALL-E script by Andrew Stanton, PDF format (via SimplyScripts and Walt Disney Studios)