So let’s talk about writing the shots.
I once had a brief conversation about this topic in e-mail with Jennifer van Sijll, a screenwriting professor, consultant, former professional reader for Universal, and author of Cinematic Storytelling.
“I think a writer should avoid anything that takes readers out of the read. As soon as they start visualizing equipment rather than what’s on the screen, they’ve broken from the story. Here is an example.
Joe scans the room. His eyes land on the glock. He stops. He trains his eye on the murder weapon, and puts a match to the curtains.
This is a pan, probably a push in to closeup, and a wideshot.
If you can write without mentioning camera angles, it’s more engaging.”
I think a writer should avoid
anything that takes readers out of the read.
She also wrote a great article about this called Directing-the-Director. Here’s a portion in which she discusses a scene from Pulp Fiction. (People always remember Pulp Fiction for its great structure and dialogue, but many don’t realize that he also wrote the shots and practically edited each scene through the action lines.)
Editing – Pacing and Expanding Time
In the drug overdose scene, midpoint in the movie, Vincent (John Travolta) attempts to revive Mia (Uma Thurman) by stabbing Mia’s heart with a hypodermic needle filled with adrenalin. The scripted scene fills us with tension. We hold our breath hoping that Mia is going to make it.
The reason “we hold our breath” is because the script is written “already edited.” In this case it is edited to “milk the scene” and thereby pump up suspense.
So how does Tarantino do this?
Tarantino does this through overlapping action. He includes cuts to the needle, the red dot, and the faces of characters. These cuts lengthen the time needed for the real-time-event of the stabbing to occur. Although Vincent counts out three seconds on the dialogue track, it takes ¾ of a page for the moment to take place or 45 seconds of screen time. That means that we are holding our breath 15 times longer than Vincent’s three-second countdown suggests.
Through purposeful use of editing, the writer is guiding the reader’s emotional experience, and delivering a scene that can be imagined as a movie.
Writing in Shots
Tarantino accomplishes this by writing in shots. He doesn’t write in descriptive paragraphs like novelists. Each of his sentences implies a specific camera angle. “Implies” is the operative word here. Camera angles and lenses are not called out, but understood from his description.
The script’s pacing mimics what we will later see on screen. Paragraphing and sentence length suggest how long a shot will play on the screen. For example, a single one-sentence paragraph implies one shot. The implication is that it should play out longer on screen than would say, multiple shots implied in a four-line paragraph. The white space buys the single shot time. Adding an editorial aside like “Mia is fading fast. Nothing can save her now” is like saying “hold on the shot”. It again gains the shot more screen time.
Let’s take a look at how this is done in the actual script. This excerpt is taken from mid-scene.
The top line is from Tarantino’s script, where no camera information is given. The parentheticals in the line below are my interpretation of the shot that is implied.
Excerpt from Pulp Fiction
Vincent lifts the needle up above his head in a stabbing motion. He looks down on Mia.
[LOOSE CLOSE-UP VINCENT] [VINCENT POV -- MIA]
Mia is fading fast. Soon nothing will help her.
[HOLD ON MIA.]
Vincent’s eyes narrow, ready to do this.
Count to three.
Lance on his knees right beside Vincent, does not know what to expect.
RED DOT on Mia’s body.
[CLOSE ON RED DOT ]
Needle poised ready to strike.
Jody’s face is alive in anticipation.
NEEDLE in the air, poised like a rattler ready to strike.
The needle leaves the frame, THRUSTING down hard.
[CLOSE ON NEEDLE]
Vincent brings the needle down hard, STABBING Mia in the chest.
Mia’s head is JOLTED from the impact.
[CLOSE ON MIA’S HEAD]
The syringe plunger is pushed down, PUMPING the adrenalin out through the needle.
[CLOSE ON SYRINGE PUMPER]
Mia’s eyes POP WIDE OPEN and lets out a HELLISH cry of the banshee.
[CLOSE-UP ON MIA’S EYES]
She BOLTS UP in a sitting position, needle stuck in her chest---SCREAMING
[WIDE SHOT – MIA]
In this brief page, Tarantino has implied 15 camera angles. Despite his use of camera, the reader isn’t taken out of the read because the script never calls out specific camera positions or angles.
Had Tarantino described the camera angles with 15 descriptors like CLOSE-UP ON MIA’S EYES, it would have been an unbearable read.
Tarantino was able to slow down real time by cutting away to objects and multiple reaction shots of the characters. He used editing and the inherent elasticity of the medium to help dramatize a pivotal moment and up the suspense.
Pacing was further aided by how Tarantino suggested shot length through paragraphing.
I also want to share one more quote from Jennifer’s article:
“Writing cinematically is not the same as Directing-the-Director. Directing-the-director is when you write: “JOE’S POV WINDOW– LOW ANGLE,” instead of “Joe looks up at the window.” They mean the same thing. The first unnecessarily draws attention to camera information taking us completely out of the story.
Writing cinematically is not the same as Directing-the-Director.
The second method implies it’s a POV shot and a low-angle, but it does not distract us with technical jargon. Similarly if a tracking shot is essential to a scene it’s better to say “Joe jogs alongside Susan” rather than “TRACKING SHOT – JOE AND SUSAN JOGGING which is considered directing-the-director.”
Exactly. I couldn’t agree more.
Consider the “write the shots” example I gave in my Billy Mernit script review. Remember how visual that was?
Consider how Melissa Mathison brilliantly incorporated low angles from the creature’s POV in the opening sequence of her E.T. screenplay to make the trucks, the lights, and the keys, all so very scary and to establish the humans as the antagonistic force.
Consider the L.A. Riverbed sequence in Chinatown where Gittes follows Mulwray. With Secondary Headings, Robert Towne starts with long shots, then cuts back and forth between Gittes and Mulwray. When the action gets intense, he goes to close-ups of Gittes.
Consider the way Apocalypse Now and Barton Fink uses creative camera angles to disorient the audience in order to make a statement about the mental state of the protagonist. You can write that so long as you don’t use camera angles. I could go on and on.
Did you know that the world’s first screenplay was written by a woman? Yes, Alice Guy-Blaché wrote “screen-plays” in order to organize her thoughts and all the ways she would experiment with sound and visual effects in the late 1800s. The whole point of her “screen-plays” was to write the shots. By the way, the first screenplay was for a short called The Cabbage Fairy/La Fée aux choux (France, 1896), which was a comic fantasy about babies that were born in cabbage patches. Guy-Blaché would go on to direct over 700 short films and establish one of the world’s first movie studios – Solax.
Did you know that the world’s first screenplay
was written by a woman?
I don’t mean to say that you have to edit every scene and write every shot with every action line. Sometimes, you just need to write about the action, and yes, the director will figure out how to film it. But write the shots when it really counts.
And now you can also take a deep breath and embrace and study all those old screenplays that are full of camera angles. The only thing that’s changed is the fact that we no longer write camera angles, but the principles of action lines have never changed in that we should think like filmmakers, we should render our stories cinematically, and we should write the shots.
– Mystery Man
I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.
I also write for Script Magazine.