The Power of Cinematic Writing

Screenwriting is difficult. It’s difficult because it is technically demanding. It is also difficult because good drama flows from well-observed characters. This means that screenwriters need to understand people and what drives them to greatness and/or disaster. Novelists and playwrights also have to struggle with the complexity of human existence whilst dealing with the technical demands of their medium. So, it would appear that writing problems are universal to all disciplines. That would be true if it wasn’t for the biggest problem screenwriters face, a problem which is unique to the discipline of screenwriting. Scripts have one major difference from novels and plays.  A novel contains all the information the audience needs to fully appreciate the novel; a play contains about 80% of the information a reader needs to appreciate the final play; but, a screenplay contains less than 5% of the movie it will eventually become. The script doesn’t have the advantages of casting, cinematography, music, CGI, the performance of the actors, costume design, locations or lighting. Even great scripts are no more than the ghosts of the movies they could be. I would go so far as to say that a great script is no more than the inspiration for the movie it eventually becomes. This is why French critical theorists were able to coin the idea of the director as the “auteur” of the piece. If the screenplay is merely 5% of the creative input and the director is the decision maker for the other 95%, that’s a reasonable assertion. However, it’s actually more complicated than this. The screenplay, despite only being a very small part of the creative process, has to contain the potential for the other 95%. In essence, a screenplay is like a zip file. It is the entire film compressed to a usable size. Unlike any other medium, a film script needs to contain significantly more information than is feasible. The question is, how do we do that?

The first thing screenwriters need to understand about the 5% nature of a screenplay is this… due to its compressed nature every single sentence needs to work for its living. There isn’t any room for a line of dialogue or description which doesn’t contain huge amounts of information. At the same time, it has to be readable. Screenwriting is therefore about creating highly-readable, information-rich sentences that also tell a story cinematically. 

In my opinion, cinematic storytelling is about using both action and dialogue semiotically. Put into the most basic terms, when a character does something that action has to be loaded with meaning. So, when your protagonist picks up an ornament, the writer must know why they did that, the actor must be able to understand the significance of the moment, and the audience must be able to use the action as a clue to tell them something new about the story. The same is true for the dialogue. Imagine that for the audience the movie is a puzzle to be solved. They arrive with only a rough idea of what the story is about and who the characters are. From the very first moment, the audience will closely examine each word and action in order to figure out what is happening. Great screenplays, therefore, play with that relationship. They feed the audience information only to subvert it later on. To do this well the writer must understand human nature; the way actors work; the semantics and syntax of cinema; and, the craft of story-telling. This is what I mean by cinematic screenwriting. Most screenwriters seem to become bogged down in one aspect of the process whilst ignoring the rest. Some screenwriters concentrate on getting human nature onto the page. Their screenplays tend to be dialogue heavy and to read like stage-plays. Too many screenwriters (and producers) become obsessed with the craft of story-telling. Their screenplays tend to creak from one predictable moment to the next, as they slavishly smash their stories into a shape that mimics three-act structure.  And, then you get those who write as though they are watching the movie. Their screenplays tend to be detail heavy. They mistake superficial description of detail for content and those are two very different things. 

My approach to the compression problem in screenplays is to literally compress the information I have. In order to encode meaning into a sentence the meaning has to exist prior to the sentence. Or in other words… all of the information that will eventually exist in the film needs to exist prior to the writing. I do all the work a dedicated actor would do to understand the characters prior to writing. I mentally cast the movie. I pick out and find images of all of the locations. I think about how I would shoot and edit each scene (based on my filmmaking experience). Only when I can create each scene in my head do I start writing. My writing, therefore, isn’t a creative act, it is the act of compressing the information I know about the film into a readable form. 

The cinematic writing approach to screenwriting is very different from the creative writing approach. Creative writing sees the writing as part of the creative process. What I am saying, is that it isn’t. The creative process happens before the writing and the writing is more about the semiotic compression of meaning into each sentence.

I am, of course, aware that 99% of all screenwriters will disagree with me about this… but I believe this is largely because most screenwriters are looking for easy “off the top of my head” answers to what are essentially complex research problems. Most screenplays are bad simply because little or no development work has gone into the process. Yes, we need to be creative to write scripts, but we also have to be hard working and diligent.