Here’s a lovely quote from On Filmmaking, a collection of legendary director and teacher Alexander Mackendrick’s writings:
It is the job of screenwriter, not the director, to decide whether his film story will be built with images or merely decorated with them.
Touché. Well, he has a good point, right? It’s all very well having strong characters, an intriguing theme and a gripping narrative, but what does it look like?
The other day, while my writing partner and I were struggling to find the right image for a scene we were rewriting, he suddenly remembered something he’d seen fifteen years ago. It was absolutely perfect for our scene, and it had just been sitting in his memory waiting for the right time to pop up and say, “Remember me?” Needless to say, both of us were thrilled and relieved. Suddenly we could write the scene visually, writing it around a powerful image, rather than sticking an image on like a band-aid.
Someone who incorporates this notion of writing from images integrally into his approach is Phil Gladwin, of Screenwriting Goldmine fame. I love the way he encourages screenwriters to make sure the main scenes in a story are firmly based on emotionally-charged pictures rather than conversations, and to visualize every beat in a scene.
But to be this image-centred takes practice. It requires you to deliberately keep your eyes wide open wherever you go, and to consciously take note of detail. It’s what painters are trained to do. Screenwriters also need to be able to “depict” situations and dilemmas, only in words rather than paint.
The same standards apply to images as apply to all other elements of the screenplay: Unless it’s clear to the viewer that you’re deliberately using a cliché to make a point (as in satire, comedy, etc.), go beyond the cliché, subvert it. An image we’ve seen countless times before, whether it’s a location, a piece of action, a situation, or whatever, can be terribly distracting. Whereas a variation of a familiar image, or a completely original image, can be hugely intriguing.
So a useful question to ask yourself over and over while you’re writing, until you no longer have to, because it becomes second nature, is “What does it look like?” Or: “What’s the image here?” Or some other formulation that suits you personally.
As for me, it's half-term and I have an image in my head of my kids sitting downstairs watching a dvd of Cats & Dogs and wondering when their old man is finally going to bring the drinks and snacks he promised about an hour ago …