The one element of a screenplay that audiences notice and (usually) attribute to the writer is the dialogue.
That's because most moviegoers have never read a screenplay and don't understand that dialogue makes up a mere fraction of the words that are necessary to create the world they are watching on the screen. Much of the craft of screenwriting is the economical choice of words and phrases, carefully constructed and arranged on the page, to bring a movie to life in the mind's eye of the reader. And the majority of those words are not dialogue.
In a recent episode of the ScriptNotes podcast, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin look at short excerpts from seven produced screenplays across a variety of genres to break down different styles of how to write everything in a screenplay except the dialogue. You can listen to the podcast below (the main conversation begins at the 14:12 mark). If you have trouble playing the episode, you can also find it at John August's website along with a transcript for the full episode. To follow along with their discussion, they have provided images of the excerpts from the seven screenplays they discuss: Aliens, Erin Brockovich, Ocean's Eleven, Unforgiven, Wall-E, Wanted, and Whip It.
If you don't have time to listen to the full podcast right now, here are three main takeaways from their conversation.
Want to See Great Scene Description on the Page? Read Aliens
In many episodes of ScriptNotes, John has discussed how James Cameron's screenplay for Aliens was a major influence on his early screenwriting career as well as many other screenwriters who started in the industry at the same time. As John and Craig point out, the scene description for the second scene of the film conjures up very clear images of what we will see on screen using short sentences and clauses.
Cameron uses capitalization to introduce characters for the first time and highlight sounds we hear, but also to draw the reader's attention to a specific image. For instance, "The door falls inward REVEALING a bizarre multi-armed figure."
Cameron uses evocative verbs: "Light glares as a cutting torch bursts through the metal. Sparks shower into the room."
He uses metaphor to set the mood: "Like the tolling of a bell, a BASSO PROFUNDO CLANG reverberates through the hull."
As we read this scene description, we not only see the world of Aliens, but we can also understand how the movie will unfold shot by shot because of how Cameron focuses our attention. As Craig says in the podcast, "This is very classic. I think you could not go wrong if you adopt this as your style."
How to Write a Montage
Because montages cut across multiple locations, characters and times, writers can easily get hung up on how to create a montage on the page. John and Craig look at a short excerpt toward the end of Ted Griffin's screenplay for Ocean's Eleven to discuss a great example of how to write a montage.
Since this excerpt comes from a shooting script, the 1st AD (presumably) has assigned each shot with its own scene number. This montage is also referencing people, locations and objects that Griffin has already established, so he doesn't need to write a traditional slugline for each shot. Instead, he writes what he needs the reader to see immediately: MIRADOR SUITE, WHITE VAN, FIVE SEDANS, TESS, UZI GUARDS, RUSTY'S CELL PHONE, BENEDICT. Each one of these becomes the focus of each shot in the montage. Griffin then uses succinct phrases, not complete sentences, to describe what we see at each location or what each character is doing.
Craig highlights one of the best parts of this montage when Griffin writes, "and maybe we NOTICE (or maybe not) the Rolls-Royce tailing them." Craig points out that this little detail tips off the reader and the production team that some audience members will notice the Rolls-Royce but others won't, and now we have a subtle direction from the writer on how this shot should be composed.
When Not to Use Present Tense in Scene Descriptions
Screenplays are written in the present tense because the story is unfolding on the page as we would be watching the film on the screen. Sometimes, though, the present tense is the wrong choice for scene description. Looking at an excerpt from David Webb Peoples' screenplay for Unforgiven, John and Craig point out the shortsightedness of screenwriting books and gurus that tell writers to never use -ing verbs or any other tense than the present. Specifically, they discuss this snippet from the scene:
Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer which is leaning against the bar near his leg but he freezes because...
Munny has turned the shotgun on him and Munny sees Ned's Spencer there and his eyes show how he feels about it.
John and Craig explain that this excerpt from Unforgiven very specifically cuts to actions while they are already happening: "Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer which is leaning against the bar." This is an important difference when compared with, "Little Bill reaches for the Spencer." When the film cuts to Little Bill, he is already reaching for his gun. We don't cut to Little Bill, then see him make the decision to reach for the gun. Peoples has to use an -ing verb to tell the reader that the action is already happening.
Immediately after this moment in the script, Peoples uses the present perfect tense to describe a crucial action that has happened off-camera that has just been revealed: "Munny has turned the shotgun on him." This reveal is set up when Little Bill freezes in the previous shot. We get to see Little Bill's reaction to what he sees before we see it. We don't see Munny turn the gun on Little Bill then see Little Bill's reaction. This subtle difference in verb tense tells the reader exactly how the scene will be cut, and the tension is so much better on the page and the screen as a result.
Be sure to listen to the entire podcast to hear John and Craig discuss more examples of scene descriptions and how different writing styles work for specific stories. To listen to the 20 most recent episodes of ScriptNotes, you can find the podcast at johnaugust.com or subscribe on iTunes. To listen to the entire back catalog of over 200 episodes, you can subscribe to the premium version of ScriptNotes for $1.99/month at scriptnotes.net.