Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Difference Between Fun To Read And Fun To Watch

If there’s one thing you learn from writing animation, it’s to stick with what you can see and hear on the screen. In the buzz of writing a wacky animation sequence, it’s easy to get carried away with descriptions that are fun to read, but don’t actually tell anyone enough about what they’re going to see. Not that the flavour and pace of a scene can’t benefit from a few snappy similes or the occasional well-placed adverb, but in moderation.

In live action, description sometimes needs to leave a certain ambivalence for the actors and director to play with on set. In animation there is no room for that kind of ambivalence, but equally, it’s impossible express the kind of detail that is subsequently created in the storyboarding and animation phases.

So the trick is to find a balance between describing as much of the action as possible without going into superfluous detail and without the writing becoming boring and technical.

Here’s a brilliant little quote from the screenplay of Ratatouille, by Brad Bird. It’s from the scene on page 40 where Remy the rat accidentally discovers he can control Linguini’s movements by tugging his hair:

Remy is yanking tufts of Linguini’s hair like a kid with a new toy. Linguini jerks around like a helpless puppet.

In this one little paragraph there are two concrete actions, “yanking hair” and “jerking around” plus two accompanying similes: “like a kid with a new toy” and “like a helpless puppet.” This combination of specific description and general flavour expresses quite precisely what the beat will look like, without trying to depict every little movement.

Entertaining though it may be to read, superfluous flowery verbiage (= wordiness) in a screenplay risks diverting attention from the action to the author. Ideally your screenplay has to be fun to read and fun to watch, but given the choice, it’s more important to focus on the “fun to watch” aspect. Everyone else involved in the production needs to be able to understand as clearly as possible what’s going to be seen and heard.

Of course, if it’s fun to watch, it’s probably going to be fun to read too…


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

But screenplays are not supposed to be read by the common public????
Could you see an office-employee-lady on the subway reading the screenplay "Blade" or "Star Wars" or "Alien" or "The Notebook"?

On this planet we have people that can visualize and cannot visualize...As per Nick Cave.

Very important: some people CANNOT visualize written words into scenes in their head. They have to read novels. The don't have the propensity to VISUALIZE. They don't care for it. Some of these guys become very wealthy doing office jobs or work for the government etc. And lead good simple life. And they laugh at visualists.

Worst off, some writers cannot visualize.

Even worst off, some producers cannot visualize.

And the saddest part of this is that some film directors cannot visualize.

We all should be thankful for
being able to visualize words on paper into scenes in our head while we are reading a screenplay.

It's not easy using a few words to describe a fight, for example.

Thanks Dave for this great post.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks for your comment.

Firstly, a screenplay is usually intended for industry professionals, not the general public.

Secondly, as a screenwriter you can't assume that the person reading your script will magically see what you see in your head.

You have to spell it out.

Not because producers or directors can't visualize, but precisely because they can. If you're not specific enough about what your intention is, visually, then they will fill in the blanks by themselves.

In the best case this will lead to them "seeing" a different scene to the one you intended. In the worst case it will lead to them thinking you're a lousy screenwriter.

Whatever the case, you can't blame the reader for not being able to visualize the film from the screenplay. That's precisely your job!

Keep writing!

Anonymous said...


I'm reading tons of script from these cats:

1. Script Shadow
2. The Script Collector
3. My Pdf Scripts
4. The Scriptfix blogspot
5. Mscript paradigm blogspot

And with 80% of these top script, I'm having difficulty visualizing the scenes. But they have been optioned? I'm happy for them. Really.

There are scripts that are written that makes visualization easy.

Others, well, they are well written but not visual.

Do you see my problem?

I think everyone visuaizes differently. And it does not matter how you write them.

I think screenwriting is a big gamble. Is this true? Because visualization is so subjective and mysterious and at times genetically controlled.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Interesting perspective...

I'm sure some people have an easier time visualizing than others. But I don't agree that it makes no difference how you write a screenplay. It's precisely the choice of words that makes all the difference.

Of course, you can never write a screenplay that will work for everyone. Just look at the history of many of the top scripts you've been reading, how often they were rejected before someone finally saw the potential.

In that respect screenwriting is a gamble. But more than that I'd say it's a profession that takes a long time and a lot of practice to master...