Screenwriting: Writing for the Camera

It’s an oft-quoted maxim in screenwriting that one should never write camera directions into a script. On the other hand, writers are encouraged to write as if viewing the scene through the camera lens. How does one achieve this apparently contradictory feat? The Crafty Writer asked writer / director John Allen to give us some tips.

Writer/director John Allen

You may have heard that you should never write camera directions into a script – camera pans out, close-up on Bob etc … Well, this is mostly true – among other things camera directions bring a story to a complete standstill. But writing for camera is a different thing altogether. It is a fundamental technique that makes a screenplay an enjoyable read and more immediately visualised by the reader. They’ll see it in their head whether they want to or not. Writing for camera is not rocket science and you don’t need to be an expert in lenses to do it. It’s an approach. Simple as that.

Think images

Think of classic images you know and love. Analyse them. What makes them work so well? Nine times out of ten it’s something as simple as juxtaposition. One that immediately springs to my mind is of a very wealthy executive who opens the curtains of his designer house to see a large crater in his lawn – with a horse standing in it. This is from a book by the way – ‘This book will save your life’ by A.M. Holmes.

Write visually

This does not mean in the tradition of novels. Paragraphs of lush descriptive prose make a screenplay drag. Aim for tightly-packed sentences and make the words count. The screenplay then seems agile and more compelling. Your reader must enjoy their read and want to keep turning those pages.

Consider dialogue breaks

If you’ve just had a heavy section of faces talking to other faces freshen the audience up by dropping in a strong image. It lets them breathe and prepare for the next drama with which you’re about to confront them.

If you have long exchanges of dialogue break them up with occasional simple gestures and expressions. Don’t leave all of it to the director and the actors. This is a great tool for creating pace and mood. Here’s an example from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. The family are around the dinner table, the suicidal gay uncle is telling his heart-wrenching story and as he ends grandpa brings the axe down by loudly blowing his nose. As with anything, though, be subtle and do not overdo it.

Read screenplays

If you have the time get your hands on a printed screenplay (every bookshop has a shelf full) then compare it to the finished film. I did this with Get Shorty and it’s amazing how much has been packed in on the journey from page to screen.

Keep your objectivity

Keep stepping back and viewing the film in your head. Stay in control of how it plays on the page. Keep focused on the size of film you are writing. Maintain a rough idea of what can and cannot be achieved. A lower budget production can only stretch so far, so don’t write impossibilities. Stay realistic.

Capture movement

Finally, remember that a movie camera’s purpose is mainly to capture movement (even a still image ‘breathes’). It has an insatiable appetite for this and gets bored very quickly. If you bore the camera your audience will develop ‘numb bum syndrome’ and run screaming from the screen. So write with a camera in mind. The reader of your screenplay will finish it thinking they’ve just seen a film!

Read further

For a grounding in basic film making techniques there are a million ‘how to’ books out there. What you need is a book that won’t blind you with science. Here are my recommendations:

After graduating from Northumbria University film school John Allen served his apprenticeship on shoots for the BBC. Branching out on his own he produced documentaries and community films under Metaluna Media. His ‘sometime company’ Malleable Films has produced two independent short films ‘Butterfly’ and Last Gasp which both received critical acclaim and film festival exposure. This led to UK Film Council funding for his latest short film ‘Real Must Have’, produced by Vita Nova Films, which is currently in post-production.

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6 comments on “Screenwriting: Writing for the Camera

  1. Thom Brooks on said:

    An excellent and highly useful piece — well done, John!

  2. Kim H Peres on said:

    If I just stick to things I can see or hear things go pretty well.

    Once camera angles pop into my head I just zoom out and make it a master shot. I try my best to just put the visual and auditory information the audience needs for the story to be comprehensible and leave the style to the director.

  3. Fiona on said:

    I try to put in visual or aural details that will ‘suggest’ to a director what they could focus on. For example:

    EXT – PORT O’SPAIN – DAY
    ‘BILLY BROWN, black, good-looking, 30, makes his way up the gangplank of the Ocean Monarch. He is wearing a black day suit, a jaunty hat and a striking pair of black and white snakeskin shoes – jazz man shoes. He is carrying a small leather suitcase. He stops, halfway up the plank, pushes his hat to the back of his head and looks directly into the curious gaze of a beautiful, young socialite, leaning over the rail of the first class deck, cocktail in hand.’

    There are multiple potential shots in this description but it’s up to the director which image he / she focuses on. I hope that it’s the shoes as they become central to the plot, and the emphasis I’ve placed on them in my description will hopefully lead the director to the same conclusion.

    Sometimes though, when the details are irrelevent, it’s enough to just paint the picture in the broadest of strokes and trust that the director/DOP will do his / her job:

    INT – ZOOTS JAZZ CLUB – NIGHT
    The décor is sophisticated, the clientele upmarket, the jazz, cutting edge.

  4. John A C Allen on said:

    The shoes jumped out at me straight away!

  5. Fiona on said:

    Then my job here is done, adieu …

  6. Pingback: Just Write Blog Carnival August 7, 2009 Edition | Incurable Disease of Writing

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