Developing an Artistic Sensibility for Screenwriting

You've probably heard the saying "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Now, that doesn't mean that you should copy the stories or even the style of other writers, but you may want to try moving through the world as they do.

In the old stereotype, writers don all black and scowl at the world while scribbling furiously in a notebook or subsist on coffee and cigarettes while scribbling furiously in a notebook or drink heavily while scribbling furiously — well, you get the picture. Although you can certainly offset your creative anxiety in healthier ways, that stereotype does contain a small grain of truth — writers are always scribbling, whether armed with a notebook or not. Their senses are story-ready, carefully selecting details from their environment and sequestering them away somewhere for the next great script. Some writers are born with this awareness, but most hone their skills with every new project. To develop this sensibility in yourself, you need to take a closer look at which details writers collect and how they select among them.

What a writer sees

Imagine that you attend a school reunion. You see all the usual trappings: a welcoming committee equipped with name tags, tables piled with food, a beverage bar, party decorations, and perhaps a band. Most people find old friends, socialize a bit, and call it a night. Most people do, but not most writers.

A screenwriter notices the tight smiles on everyone's faces, their quizzical look before they remember someone's name, the one-time school football star drinking too much in the corner, the former sweethearts who exchanged glances then left arm in arm, and so much more. The writer can also recreate the scene in such a way that those images are evident to a casual observer. Under a writer's piercing gaze, these moments flourish and may quickly become the next scene in a script.

The writer's process here is no different from any type of physical training. You're preparing your eyes to catch certain details — in particular, details that personalize the scene. Some of those details include

  • The scene's overall layout: Screenwriting consists of visual images constructed in a telling way, meaning with choice details in mind. When you enter a space, test how quickly you can assess it, close your eyes, and then recreate it. How would you write it down so that someone else imagines the same space?
  • Anything out of the ordinary: Scan the scene for unusual details. What about it seems out of place or ill at ease? The man in the suit wearing the lovely woman's wristwatch or the table of sports enthusiasts drinking hot cocoa — many stories rise out of something curious.
  • Telling looks or exchanged glances: If someone looks at another person for any length of time, generally, something's going on. He may be recalling a past visit, trying to catch her eye, or checking up on her for someone — any number of musings are possible. If two people exchange glances, a silent conversation is underway. Watch and see if you can translate what's being said.
  • Loaded gestures: Many conversations take place in a single gesture. A father puts his hand on his son's shoulder — this movement may be menacing, commanding, or supportive depending on how it's executed. The gestures of any given moment become a silent score of what's going on beneath the conversation. If you can track the gestures, you can recreate them later.
  • Personality quirks: Someone's eccentricities, physical and emotional, immediately distinguish that person from others. Twin brothers may look, walk, and talk alike, but one of them may dress with care while the other seems to own a single sloppy outfit. If you watch the world long enough, you soon acquire a list of personality traits ready to enhance any character you create.

Looking at the world this way eventually becomes a habit. Your eyes automatically adjust to the process. When that occurs, you may be ready to retrain the next sense — your sense of sound.

What a writer hears

Imagine the school reunion again. Interesting visual images crop up all over the place now, but what sets them off? Is it the overly loud dance music, the constant whispering behind you, the clinking of glasses in toast, or the flash and click of numerous cameras? Screenwriters pick up on all sorts of sounds that enhance a scene. Try locating the following in your own surroundings:

  • Noises that suggest the event: Many scenarios come equipped with their own soundscapes. You'd be quick to distinguish a christening from an accident site, even with your eyes closed. Whether your scene takes place outside in a field or inside a prison cell, the surrounding noises immediately provide an atmosphere for your piece.
  • Noises that punctuate the scene: Occasionally, you may notice a sound that enhances the moment. If you're watching a man cry softly to himself, the laughter of two lovers nearby may enhance the man's loneliness somehow. In the film In the Bedroom, Sissy Spacek smashes a dish on the counter the moment she gives way to her anger. The sound of shattered glass mimics her emotional state.
  • The rhythms of conversation: Every conversation has its own unique sound. The pace of the voices, the repetition of phrases, the moments of silence — a screenwriter listens to all these things. Listening to the rhythms of conversation helps you compose your own dialogue and provides aural examples of human communication.
  • Slang and jargon: These terms refer to words and phrases that suggest a culture, a socio-economic background, or a profession. They suggest character immediately, sometimes even location. Filmmaker Spike Lee often utilizes street slang to differentiate between cultures, gangs, and prejudices. Television shows like E.R. rely on hospital jargon to give them a believable edge.

You're not responsible for including all the sounds that you discover in the body of your script. However, if you can close your eyes and hear a scene, you'll be far better able to write it. Sound is often a more intimate way of understanding your story. Because the noise represents the world of your characters, this process may also help you understand their internal dilemmas as well as the external ones.

What a writer remembers and what a writer forgets

Enhancing your perceptive skills can be a full-time job. When you consider the volume of compelling images around you, it's a wonder that most screenplays aren't four hours long. After your senses adapt to this new process of viewing the world, finding and recording those details is the easy part. Like spring-cleaning, the difficulty comes in selecting which few you may keep and letting the rest go.

Of course, which exact details a writer cherishes and which he forgets will vary according to personality. However, if you're stumped as to what you may hold on to, consider the following information.

It may be important to remember

  • Details that create a compelling image: A "compelling image" means one that is full — full of tension, full of emotion, full of potential movement, full of life. As a screenwriter, your job is to grab an audience's attention through such images. Remember anything that catches your eye in this way.
  • Details that raise a question: Questions are the key to strong writing. Personal questions fuel the desire to write and find answers; the characters' questions determine the choices they make throughout your story. Any detail that forces a question is worth remembering.
  • Details that tug at your moral or ethical code: Hopefully, every script you write will serve some purpose — to inspire, to spark debate, to inquire, and so on. In order to communicate clearly, a writer needs to know what she stands for and why. Any details that refute or support your own views may come in handy later.
  • Details that establish a debate: Many films rely on ongoing arguments to bolster the momentum. Whether the argument exists between characters or audience members, if your script sparks a debate, it successfully engaged someone. Watch for the moments in real life that elicit arguments of various kinds.
  • Details that help you understand the human condition: Most art strives to understand life and its injustice, its irony, its savage nature, and its glory. Once in a while, you encounter a moment that provides a piece of the puzzle. Keep those moments close above all.

If the detail in question doesn't fit into one of these categories, it may be worth abandoning. Remember that you're constructing every image with an aim in mind. If the details you include distract from or compete with that aim, getting rid of them isn't only a good idea — it's your job.

Consider this example: You're constructing a scene from the school reunion, and you want the audience to focus on one girl hovering by the buffet table stuffing food into her purse. If her eyes dart over the crowd, if she has the hollow look of a woman who hasn't eaten in a while — these are details to preserve. They strengthen the tension of the moment. The fabric of her purse, the size of the table, the number of brownies she takes — these details are unimportant. They distract from the scene's primary focus — the action of a person quietly stealing food.

This process becomes second nature as you orchestrate your own scenes. The screenwriter's job is to tilt the audience's head towards the most dynamic portion of each scene and let that portion jump into the next. Eventually, the story will become so clear that it demands the necessary information and refuses the rest for you.

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