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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!

Hill’s haiku-style for Alien inspired Andrew Stanton to write his screenplay for WALL-E in a similar style to put the reader in the mindset of a new world:

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.



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  • It seems there was a hiccup with Facebook’s synching with NoFilmSchool, as this article was posted four times in succession within the same minute. Just a heads up. Anyway, it was a good read—thanks for posting.

  • I write in a very similar style to Hill’s. My first feature was a sci fi genre script. I think this style epitomizes ‘show don’t tell’ by eschewing passive voice and copula usage as much as possible.

    However the screenwriting software I use will simply not let me write description without spaces. I am thankful for that! Because if I couldn’t have a space between:

    “A building burns in the night.”


    “It illuminates the squalor of endless urban rot.”

    …my screenplay would not have made it to 90 pages!

  • Great read, Christopher! I love this kind of stuff. Especially since most people don’t think to go back to their favourite movies’ screenplays and read them when they’re writing their own. Most finished movies’ screenplays are freely available, if I’m not mistaken… ?

    • Christopher Boone on 05.31.12 @ 11:12PM

      Thanks, Gabriel. Through the magic of Google, you can find many screenplays in either PDF or HTML.

  • Funny, just as I was finishing the outline for my sci fi script, and nailing down the science which governs the world in which I am about to tell my story… I read this. Very informative, I really like this style. So brutal / succinct, essentially getting the point across with as few words as possible.

    I love how in each line, you can almost anticipate exactly how it translates to the camera / what’s shot. In a full sentence filled with description, it’s anybody’s guess as to what’s being shown at any given time or what the camera needs to be focusing on.

  • Can anyone recommend an action movie scripts written in the past 20 years or so, that are considered laudable for their script writing technique?

    • Jorge Cayon on 05.31.12 @ 7:53PM

      I’m pretty partial to most James Bond movies for their action set pieces. Quantum of Solace comes to mind as a not so campy, yet high paced screenplay. Might want to look into Bourne trilogy, as they are pretty decent for the genre you’re looking at. Just throwing it out there, though I don’t know if those are laudable choices.

    • Die Hard has always been a favorite of mine. Check out a few James Cameron scripts like Aliens and Terminator 2 (co-written with William Wisher).

    • shane black’s lethal weapon is cool writing too…

    • Thanks guys.

  • Nice article mate. I like the minimalist approach of Hill. Reads like a shot list, which is straight to the point and doesn’t fluff around with overly descriptive set ups.

    I’ve been loving the screenwriting articles lately, keep it up!

  • kinda like hard boiled detective writing, I’ve got a couple of sections in my script similar but this wants me want to write more.

  • Lliam Worthington on 06.1.12 @ 12:33PM

    I’ve written scripts in both these styles, and not surprisingly I guess, have had mixed responses. Some people like/respond to the heavily truncated/punchy sentences and I think the point Christopher makes that it lends itself to some genres or moods is a great point. But others definitely prefer the much easier rhythms of the less staccato and more flowing narrative.

    I personally find, as McKee says, that the staccato approach really can lift you out of the story or prevent you from falling into it – especially if over done. I had read the Alien script previously and while I still think it is great story and a true master class of a film, I confess I really struggled to stay with it or be caught inside. (I seem to be the odd one out) But for me it’s a pretty severe example of this style so a great reference to make Christopher’s point. I confess I was somewhat in suspense just trying to figure the script out :))

    Whereas scripts like Avatar if we are talking Scifi or The Abyss for that matter if we are talking Cameron, Last of The Mohicans, Gladiator, or even the quite punchy Collateral are all much easier and more enjoyable reads I think. The Bourne Ultimatum is an example of another more truncated style which I think is quite hard to read.

    For myself, I’m finding I prefer the staccato more as a pacing action style tool, than as something utilised for a whole script. But each to their own of course.

  • Hmmm, I don’t know. This seems to go strongly against usual conventions, so I would think it would be very risky for a new writer to submit a script written in that style if they are not already well-known. It seems to me that a script reader would reject something written like that before they even finished reading the first couple of pages.

  • Any professional credited screenwriter
    whos feature has became a mega hit
    could write diagonally down the page
    and it would get read.
    Pretty risky for a newbie to go against
    the standard format.

  • I tried to write it diagonally down the page but this comment page would not do it. Does that tell us anything.LoL

  • Lliam Worthington on 06.2.12 @ 12:47PM

    It’s fast.

    But difficult to read.

    The EXEC slings the script into the already piled bin.

    • Daniel Mimura on 06.12.12 @ 11:11PM

      I disagree. I think this staccato style of writing is much easier to read (especially for busy execs).

      Lots of white space. I see several lines of thick ink and I kind of cringe inside, knowing I’m gonna have to get thru this.

      (No, I’m not an exec or screenwriter—but I have to read scripts I shoot or operate on.)

      Sci-fi has the problem of having to describe a world that you don’t already know versus a rom-com, for example. You don’t have to describe too much besides “shoddy apartment – day” or “cookie-cutter mcmansion – night” to picture a lot of things. Writing short and long like that is a way to get a lot of info out without it being too dense.

  • Love how Walter put things down on paper.It’s like Japanese poetry, so they say; Haiko ? (sic)
    There is nothing wrong with minimalistic writing style if you find the perfect words, like he did.

    Wish screenwriting software would allow it. I have to write in a WP to keep it simple, like that.

  • For the people complaining that their screenwriting software won’t allow them format in this way, there is a simple solution. Write both blocks in the same paragraph. For example:
    Vacant. Two space helmets resting on chairs.

    Go to the beginning of the 2nd sentence (Two space helmets) and use the spacebar to push it to the next line down:

    Two space helmets resting on chairs.

    Works like a charm in final draft.