Monday, February 2, 2009

Why Screenwriters Need To Pay Attention To Attention

Veteran Disney storyboard artist Francis Glebas, packs a huge amount of information about visual storytelling in his wonderful new book Directing The Story. He goes into great detail about all the key principles that contribute to clear and dramatic storytelling, all of which he illustrates with copious storyboard examples from a variety of films.

One principle particularly struck me, and this is the principle of deliberately and methodically directing the viewer’s attention in order to affect their emotions. This is perhaps par for the course for directors, but for screenwriters, who often focus more on the “what” of the story rather than the “how” of its realization, it can be enormously helpful too.

Whether you’re writing a first draft or a final one, it’s important to have a clear image in your mind of the beat or scene you’re writing. Once you see the scene in your mind’s eye, you’re able to choose how to describe it on the page. With the aim of creating a specific emotional effect.

If you imagine (or draw) the scene you’re writing in storyboard form, what does the viewer see first? What doesn't the viewer see? How many different ways can you think of showing exactly the same beat? What is the difference between these different executions in terms of affecting one emotion or another? It’s the same principle regardless of genre.

Of course, you don’t want to start filling the script with explicit camera angles. It makes the script hard to read, and apart from that it’s the director’s job. However, even just thinking about which visual element of the scene best compliments the character’s action or contrasts the dialogue in an interesting way, or creates suspense or humour … the mere act of imagining seeing the same action from different perspectives, can greatly clarify your understanding of what the scene is about and what it needs.

And it all comes down to directing or diverting the viewer’s attention in order to create a specific emotional effect and to avoid boredom or confusion.

In contrast to directors, screenwriters don’t have to be specific about the technicalities of camera angles, composition, lenses, lighting and so on. However, suggesting these elements when they serve to heighten the emotion of the story, is definitely an option.

As Glebas puts it:

A story is like a giant knot that we have to unravel and show the audience how all the pieces connect in a linear way and then tie it all back up for them at the end. It’s not about creating the drawings as much as deciding which images should be shown and when.

Happy visualizing!


Milli Thornton said...

Thanks, Dave. I had not heard of this book ... and probably would have passed it by under other circumstances (with the assumption that I have zero talent for the storyboarding side of things so the book would not be relevant to me).

I used the "Search Inside This Book" function at Amazon to read the Table of Contents. I found it compelling. The questions Glebas raises about storytelling are universal, not just about the art of storyboarding.

Thanks for blogging about this. I've added 'Directing the Story' to my list of books to help me learn and grow as a screenwriter.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Hi Milli,

I'm glad the Glebas book inspired you too! He certainly deals with universal storytelling principles, and it's refreshing to see these issues discussed from such a purely visual point of view.

When you're up to your eyeballs in character, plot and theme, it's sometimes easy to forget that you're writing a film rather than just a story ....