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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Directing the Eye of Your Reader

We all know that including directorial/camera instructions in your script is a big no-no. It's annoying, it's unprofessional, it's overstepping, it's pretentious and it's annoying. Yeah, I said annoying twice.* I'm talking about stuff like MOS (without sound), SMASH CUT, PAN TO, TRACKING SHOT, etc.


*an anonymous Rouge Waver commenter once pointed out that I had used a word twice in a very ha-HA way. To which I responded, dude, I am a good writer. I never use a word twice unless I am being ironic or comedic. Every word I write is thought through. Because that's what writers do. Unless I'm too lazy, tired or hung-over to notice in which case, ha-HA away; nobody should drink 3 grape soda and vodka cocktails in a row and I know that now.


Anywho, I get the impulse - we screenwriters see and hear the scenes we're writing. Aspiring screenwriters often do one of two things wrong: they either add camera directions as above, or they just - don't. They do something like:

WALT crosses to the sink and rinses his coffee cup. He notices the birds singing outside. Behind him, a drooling monster enters the kitchen and begins to pant hungrily. Walt turns and sees it.

Walt: Oh my god a drooling monster!!


So the trick is, how do you guide the eye of the reader in your action lines without over or under serving the moment? How do you get that nice dun dun DUN moment in there?

Walt is the character whose point of view we are with, right? We are experiencing what he is experiencing. In the example above, the scene is written as if from a bird's eye view and it saps the scene of any tension. But try this:

WALT hums while he rinses his coffee cup in the sink. Outside, two robins chirp merrily at the bird feeder. Walt smiles when - another sound, one he doesn't's not coming from outside. Slowly, Walt turns.

A DROOLING MONSTER is right behind him!

Walt rockets backwards onto his ass, spilling water all over himself.

Walt: My god! A drooling monster!

So we jump in later, we put Walt's attention on something else before he notices the monster, we create a nice dun dun DUN! moment when he sees the monster and we give him a sharp reaction to the sight of it.

Now that silly example might be really far from what you're writing but the concept applies to good scene work in any genre in any script.

Action lines are not just a droning narration, they are more akin to telling a story around a campfire. You know? Like in summer camp?

And THEN -

Everybody stares at you, the crackling of the fire the only sound as their respective marshmallows start to burn...

Behind her...

Your fellow campers can't stand it - what? What is behind her? I know you know what it is but TELL US!!

And it doesn't have to be scary, though I keep using those types of examples because I write psychological thrillers.

Let's crib that set piece from BRIDGET JONES I was talking about the other day. Without looking at the script, mind you, which was probably written differently than this but you'll still grok my point:

Darcy takes a swing at Cleaver. He goes down momentarily then rushes Darcy. The two struggle then tumble into -

A packed Greek restaurant!

Now, again, I actually don't know how that scene was written but you'll notice that the way I have done this here, the mere separation of the action lines gives the reader pause long enough to be pleasantly surprised. They don't see the Greek restaurant coming because you, simply using a line break, waited to show us that.

Another writer might have done this:

Darcy takes a swing at Cleaver. He goes down momentarily then rushes Darcy. The two struggle then tumble into a packed Greek restaurant.

You see how much more fun the first example is? But what I most commonly see from new screenwriters is this - the worst way to write this:

Darcy and Cleaver fight. Behind them, a Greek restaurant is open. They struggle their way into the restaurant.

I kid you not, I see that kind of writing all the time. Dull, dull, dull. You've told us everything from a bird's eye view and there's no fun to be had in the reading of that. YOU know there's a Greek restaurant and they're going to tumble into it but as the viewer (or reader) I only vaguely know there may be businesses on that street but I'm not really paying attention to what kind of businesses - I'm on the fight. That's the beat of the scene. The fight. But you, the writer, you're going to top the fight with the introduction of a new element - a packed restaurant.

Writing kinetic action lines is a variation of show don't tell but I prefer to think of it as an issue of pacing and where the eye is directed. What do you call attention to in order to then create some surprise on the page? A Greek restaurant! Wow! But if you tell me the restaurant is there in the first place, I already saw that moment coming and it sucks the fun out of getting there.

Using line breaks, hyphens, all-caps - these are all tiny little mechanical cheats to draw attention where you want it. In the Walt example, above, we put his attention (and yours) on the birds outside. That way the monster will be more surprising. In the Darcy/Cleaver scene, we want your attention on the fight itself. We save the Greek restaurant for the topper.

Now, before some smarty pants Rouge Waver sends me the BRIDGET scene and says SEE- Fielding did it thus and such way which was totally different from your example, let me say in advance, I don't care, I am making a very salient point here and I think we all get that. Or, I hope we do.*


*Dear anonymous commenter, stuff it.


Look at the rhythm and pacing of your action lines. Make sure you play out your scene in such a way that you are taking the reader by the nose and putting their attention where you want it so that I get maximum fun and entertainment out of not noticing the CREAM PIE about to be heaved into the character's face. Or the guy standing behind the door with an ax. Or the elevator door about to open on a crazy circus clown. Who has a cream pie.

Pacing and rhythm is fundamental to all entertaining writing - whether it's a blog post, short story, novel or script. I do it on the Rouge Wave all the time. Pretty much in every single post. Because otherwise this blog becomes information, information, information, information. And that is dull and you wouldn't come back for more, would you?

Now if you'll excuse me - DING! - huh, what's that? I pause in my blogging, I turn and -


I wipe the cream from my eyes and it's then that I notice -

It's Anonymous Commenter!

Julie: Very funny, dude. Very funny.

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Racicot said...

Hello Julie,

I find myself flip-flopping between CAPS and non-caps:

Darcy takes a SWING at Cleaver.
He goes DOWN then RUSHES Darcy.
The two STRUGGLE then TUMBLE into -

A packed Greek restaurant!

Whaaaat do I DO?!

A Who said...

I was curious about the grape soda and vodka cocktails. Were they good? I've mixed rum with my Chai tea lately -- not bad if you add honey.
: )

Christian M. Howell said...

I feel great that I've been using that term since I got serious about cinema and writing.

I liek to use secondary slug lines to do that. I always assume that reader's tend to place things in the "middle of the screen" when emphasized or pointed out.

As an example:



Charcoaled faces drip sweat. Gloved hands lug axes. Broad shoulders support expended fire hoses.


A reporter speaks excitedly into a microphone.

I use that all the time as it's cleaner and you always know what you're looking at(as a reader).

There is a fine line though between crisp descriptions and over-written ones though.

I try to keep my action "sentences" less than ten words. That's how I control pacing. By limiting how much you say in a sentence, I think you can not only the read easier but can imply emotion or tension:

The dark hall emanates a palpable feeling of dread.

A tear rolls slowly down his emotion torn face.

A quick sword thrust and entrails spill to the floor.

You get the idea. I just love the elegance afforded by screenwriting. I really like misdirecting the eye so to speak, where you show people one thing openly while ambiguously emphasizing another.

Novels are truthfully more wordy than I would like.

I'd actually love to try an adaptation. 500 pages to 120 would be exhilarating, though I really love to come up with my own ideas. I'm think I'm at 80+ now. Hopefully my day job will slow down a little so I can get the 5 that I'm working on finished by the end of January.


Your post had perfect timing for me. We are struggling with our first screen play and it is a battle to stop myself from using CAMERA direction. I just went through and took out all the WE SEE’s that I used to replace the first round of PAN TOs and POV’s. Your illustration of the monster is very helpful, and I will use it as I go through our screenplay again looking to make improvements.

chaia said...

I am soooo guilty as charged about including the occasional MOS/cut to:s/etc. but it's left over from my amateur directing days.

NYCWriter said...

You know writing camera directions like SMASH CUT, PULL OUT, PAN OVER is not just the work of amateurs... it is also the work of pros.

I work with a guy, a produced HW screenwriter, and he uses camera direction all of the time. It is soooo annoying. And... if I try to tell him in a friendly easy going way that he should cut a few of those ANGLE ONS, CAMERA MOVES, PULL OUTS he accuses me of being over-schooled in screenwriting.

Go figure.

Julie Gray said...

@Racicot: here's my rule of thumb. I use the Occam's Razor of Annoyingness. Look at that little paragraph you sent. Too many all-caps. It looks like your shift-key finger has tourettes.

All-caps are fine but use them sparingly. that way you a) do not annoy yourself or a reader and b) use them for full effect, rather than appearing as if your cap-key is hiccuping.

@AWho: Welch's Grape Soda, Club Soda to dilute it some, Skyy Vodka, lemon twist. Behold: a bubbly, purple, refreshing cocktail you made for like a dollar. :)

meg said...

When I decided to give screenwriting a go and had yet to open up a book or read a blog my number one concern was how to do all those specific/technical camera directions I ASSUMED I'd need.

What a relief that I didn't need 'em.

Rather I can spin my yarn. Take my readers and myself on a journey. WAY more fun than just telling what happened...which is passive and doesn't involve the reader in any of it.

Your dull example of the Greek restaurant reminds me of writing a report. Never did like writing reports in school.

I want my readers to live it!

Joshua James said...

I second whomever uses Secondary Slugs, I use them a lot, especially in action scenes ... great for directing the reader's eye.

Belzecue said...

Brad Ingelsby -- oh my Lordy, The Low Dweller. I'm 15 pages in and thinking this is much of a History of Violence. But the writing! Brad writes like a seasoned novelist-turned-screenwriter -- the good kind, not the bad kind who who struggles with the transition to screenwriting.

The dude is 27! His writing shows all the best qualities of screenwriting AND literature, which is to say a smooth blend of fact/fiction. And the dude is 27. Sigh. Professional jealousy aside, you earned that $650K, my friend. No doubt about it.

To add fuel to the debate here about including directions, not including directions, etc. -- here's a passage from page 15:


CLOSE ON SAM NEBRASKA... forties, with eyes like dying embers. His face is marred by cavities and a cleft palate the damage of which surgeries couldn't ameliorate.

Sam -- you uh --
-- that brother a yours doin' alright...?

John turns back to the sandwiches, removes them from the pan and the hot grease and he's shaking like a leaf and his breaths are quick and fast and he can't think anymore so he PULLS THE KNIFE FROM HIS SLEEVE and whips back to Sam and --

SINK! SAM'S BOXCUTTER INTO JOHN'S NECK and John stumbles back against the counter, WHEEZING HORRIDLY for air.

Sam stands and moves behind the counter as smooth as unwinding smoke.


So, look, including the ocassional explicit camera direction is not going to get your script passed. On the other hand, in doing so your writing better be on par with Brad's: so fluid and engaging that the Reader can only assume you are so in command of your craft that you are bending the rules for effect, like a master painter.

Julie Gray said...

Interestingly, in Whether to Give Camera Directions World, the occasional CLOSE ON is relatively okay since it is also essentially saying WE LOOK RIGHT AT SO-AND-SO, whereas using MOS or PAN TO or SMASH CUT is more technical in nature.

E.C. Henry said...

LOVE all the comments. This peanut gallery is SOOOO SMART, I feel intimidated. What are you folks eating for breakfast?

Seriously though, I did enjoy reading the comments AND this subject is paramount as pertains to writing scripts. And this skill, directing the eye of your reader, is the biggest thing I'm working on in attempt to improve my own screenwriting.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

P.S. Joshua James, with your recent success in the short scene competition, why are you even bothering with this? Interfacing with us, "little people?" Shoudn't you be headlining a ticker tape parade, or signing autographs somewhere?

Luzid said...

Or the elevator door about to open on a crazy circus clown... who has a cream pie --

-- and a bloodied axe.

Racicot said...

Thanks Julie,

What do you call your Drink?

Le Violet, perchance?

Julie Gray said...

I have dubbed it the PYT (pretty young thing) and a certain young man knows its named after him :)

Désirée said...

Great post. Very illustrative.

A bold question to pro: You wrote "another sound, one he doesn't recognize" - how do we see that he does not recognize the sound?

I'm not asking to be provocative. It's just that I find these situations difficult. My character does not recognize a sound but how do I express that in a script?

Julie Gray said...

Desiree - you express it exactly as I did. It leaves room for the actor to interpret that.

Désirée said...

Thank you. Things get much easier then.

I've use that kind of phrasing and got the feedback "we can't see or hear that".

Thank you for telling me that it is to overdo it by trying to show it.

Julie Gray said...

Desiree - it's a fine line. Don't abuse it. A character can "not recognize a sound" but he can't "think about his brother". Get the difference? Always shoot for showing not telling but in the example I gave, it's clear that the character is confused. But please, please do not take this as a free pass to be lazy and expositional. Read as many produced scripts as you can and practice, practice, practice being pithy and clear in your action lines. If you have gotten "we can't see that" feedback, chances are you are guilty as charged.

meg said...

@Desiree: I found it really helpful to read a script and watch the movie or tv show at the same time.

Anonymous said...

How do you feel about POV angles? Director's decision or writer's? Feels right and powerful in my script but could be oh-so-wrong.