Scripting films

December 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’m a few months in on Advanced Creative Writing with the OU, which means I am slogging through assignment two: write a script for radio, stage or screen.

I say ‘slogging’, but it’s not that I object: I expected script-writing to be an interesting stretching exercise, so to speak, to break me out of ingrained patterns of composition. And so it is proving to be. I don’t know if I anticipated quite how different it would be, however.

There are some very specific criteria for film scripts, it seems. Point one: only about 30% of the script should be dialogue. The rest is about the pictures. Okay, interesting. I like dialogue, but I’m a visual person. I can manage that.

One very important rule for film scripts, though, is ‘don’t overwrite’. This is because there has to be oodles of room for all the other members of this big, happy, creative community to add their own interpretations. Sensible enough, but it means that while I’m being very visual and imagining everything that’s going on, I should generally avoid writing much – or anything – about what the characters look like, what they wear, how they behave, what the environments look like, or how the scenes are seen or portrayed. These are jobs for the actors, costume designers, set designers and director.


Example. I have two characters in a carriage belonging to a nineteenth-century steam train. They are travelling somewhere. I might want to write that the interior is spotlessly neat and polished: obviously intended for use by wealthy and fastidious passengers. I envisage that one character is a lady in her sixties with perfectly arranged iron-grey hair, the sort of face that is made for thin-lipped disapproval, and a very fine blue silk gown. She is staring with fixed contempt at the passenger opposite, who is a young man with disordered chestnut hair and a scuffed bowler hat. His coat is patched at the elbows with as much subtlety as possible, and his trousers are worn. He isn’t even wearing a waistcoat. He is slumped behind a newspaper –  not the high-brow kind – and oblivious to the disdain of the only other person in the carriage.

If the above condensed piece of short fiction becomes a film script, all I get to write is approximately as follows:

The interior of a first-class passenger carriage on a steam train. An elderly woman, obviously wealthy, sits opposite a scruffily-dressed young man who is reading a newspaper. She is staring at him with fixed contempt, to which the young man is oblivious.

Mhmm, three sentences.

So if we are not writing that much dialogue and we are not including much visual with our visuals, what are we doing? The primary task of the script-writer, it seems, is to mark the plot and assemble the basic building blocks (to use a cliche) of the story. The main challenge is to decide how best to present the action: in what sequence the elements of the story should appear; what should be included and what should be missed out, or only implied.

This is the part that is useful for any sort of writer to attempt. It’s so easy to enjoy the details so much as to get bogged down in them, and consequently to lose sight of the most important element of the story: that being the story. This is a technique to be filed away for future use on… well, on almost everything, but particularly on those occasions when the story seems to be spiralling out of hand and I’ve lost sight of where I’m going.

That said, I do not think my destiny lies in film scripts. I like to paint the full picture; it’s one of the most fun things about writing.

But the real truth is that I am probably a control freak as well: I don’t want to share that much of the process.


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§ 2 Responses to Scripting films

  • Andy says:

    That’s really interesting, I had no idea about the script writing process. Interesting how little space is delegated to dialogue, which I intuitively though would’ve made up the bulk of it. I guess it’s about letting go and putting your trust in others to get it right, and hope something nice will result. I’m kind of the same way (a control freak), but it can also feel liberating I find.

    • Charlotte says:

      I made the same assumption about dialogue in film. We were right if we were thinking about writing scripts for radio plays, and that is an interesting challenge in itself – how do you tell a complete, rounded story almost entirely in dialogue, with nothing further but a few sound effects? Anyway, you may be right about letting go and seeing what happens – if there was any way this script would get made into a film I might be able to see what it’s like to share.

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