From script to screen

 Should you write for your­self or for an audi­ence? The answer is “for an audi­ence”. But not to impress them. The idea is to help them discern some­thing you know they’d be able to see, if only they were looking in the right place. Under­stood this way, writing isn’t a perform­ance, a confront­a­tion or a matter of ramming inform­a­tion into someone else’s brain. It’s the writer and reader, side by side, scan­ning the land­scape. The reader wants to see; your job is to do the pointing.

Oliver Burkeman, How to Think About Writing, Guardian 28.6.2014

Under­standing the rela­tion­ship between words on a page and the ‘end product’, a live cine­matic event, is the central concern of a scriptwriter. It may appear super­fi­cially easy but this is very far from the truth.

Watching a film is a visceral exper­i­ence, imme­diate and concrete, taking place in real time in front of you. How do you create that on paper?

To add to the problem, Film has its own ‘grammar’ and is as capable of subtle shades and nuances of meaning as any piece of written language. Finding a way to convey to a reader your film as you imagine it is frequently a struggle, an imper­fect art at its best.

And yet this is the scriptwriter’s job. To make it worse, there are few hard and fast rules that apply and those there are (as we’ll see) can some­times be broken.

Here is a little advice on how to avoid some of the most common mistakes when you first write for the screen.

Keep it simple

One of the hardest habits for certain novice scriptwriters to over­come is a tend­ency towards a literary style of writing:

“Jane approaches John with trem­u­lous eager­ness and looks deeply into his blue, pier­cingly intel­li­gent eyes …”

An event is taking place on the screen but the overly descriptive words draw atten­tion to the writing instead of making it lucid, helping the reader to “see” it for himself. Bare descrip­tions and a focus on outward appear­ances and actions are better suited to the purpose and to the actual nature of what a camera captures in time.

Consider the language a sports comment­ator uses: “And Beckham has the ball … he runs towards the goal … he lines up his shot and he shoots …” There’s no time here to embroider the words; the comment­ator tries to commu­nicate what is happening as simply and directly as possible.

You should strive for the same imme­diacy in your writing. Keep your sentences short and your vocab­u­lary basic. Avoid rhet­or­ical flour­ishes that only work on the page. Most import­antly, try to make your writing trans­parent; don’t let your style get in the way of your story

Conjunc­tions and cuts

We are condi­tioned to think of written narrat­ives as some­thing happening in the past (“Once upon a time, there was …”) and there is a whole vocab­u­lary of words used throughout stories in books and news­pa­pers to help a reader follow the chro­no­logy of events and stop them getting confused.  Often writers use these without even thinking:  At first … however … then … when … mean­while …  finally …

But there is, strictly speaking, no past or future in film and there­fore no need for these verbal sign­posts. Film is made up of shots strung together sequen­tially and juxta­posed to create a narrative. It is the cuts between the shots that tell the story, making those kinds of words unne­ces­sary. Avoid using them wherever possible.

Staying present

Consider the differ­ence between these state­ments: “Jack ran down the street … Jack runs down the street … Jack is running down the street …” Think for a moment about the job that the words do in each of these statements.

“Jack ran down the street …” Although I stress from the very first class in my course that film that film is some­thing that happens in the present tense, I will often get a student submit­ting work that lapses into the past. A gram­mat­ical slip? Maybe, but it usually indic­ates that, on some funda­mental level, the indi­vidual hasn’t really grasped the point and it shows in other aspects of their writing.

“Jack runs down the street …” This is obvi­ously better. It means the writer has at least under­stood the analogy about a sports comment­ator describing a live event. But there are many kinds of comment­ators and some­times the commentary becomes a dull and life­less reportage, a mere list of events: “Jack runs down the street. He crosses a bridge and goes through the gates of a park.”

“Jack is running down the street …” It’s subtle but what the use of the parti­ciple suggests here is imme­diacy. It conjures up the idea of a spec­tacle, of arriving in the middle of some­thing happening. Of course, if you continued to use it, it would become laboured: “Jack is crossing a bridge. He is entering a park …”  But the idea of a spec­tacle is useful and some­thing you can apply to your writing: “Jack runs across a small iron foot­bridge, dodging tour­ists and pram-pushing mothers …” You are writing now for your reader’s inner eye rather than just listing events.

This is one illus­tra­tion of how our choice of words, even small changes in vocab­u­lary, can affect the way your script works when it comes to giving the reader a sense of what it would look like up on the screen.

Write vertic­ally

The dynamic pace of a scene can be given a textual emphasis by split­ting up chunks of action/description to suggest a style of editing.

For example, instead of writing:

JOHN crosses the busy street. All around him, commuters are hurrying on their way to work, umbrellas up against the rain. ANNA, a young girl, is talking into her mobile phone and laughing. John stops and stares at her.

Write this instead:

JOHN crosses the busy street.

COMMUTERS  hurry on their way to work, umbrellas up against the rain.

ANNA, a young girl, is talking into her mobile phone and laughing.

John stops and stares at her.

This gives us the ‘shots’ and the white space has the added benefit of making the script more read­able. This tech­nique is espe­cially useful in action films where short sentences on separate lines convey a sense of urgency – with corres­ponding sharp cuts between shots.

Hide the camera

You will still find scripts that include camera direc­tions like CLOSE ON’, ‘CAMERA MOVESand PAN AROUNDbut they are less common these days; just as most writers leave out the super­fluous CUT TOat the end of each scene. They really belong only in the shooting script that a director prepares for his camera crew.

Camera direc­tions simply get in the way of the reader’s absorp­tion in your story; rather like catching sight of a camera in your shot. It is nearly always better to convey a sense of the effect you intend through your use of language than by baldly stating what the camera is doing.

Simil­arly, avoid the use of  ‘We see… ‘  and ‘We hear…’  unless there is some special reason for it. It really doesn’t need to be said – we are talking about a film here – and it has an unne­ces­sarily distan­cing effect.

Present your case

It’s not a bad habit to cultivate thinking a little like a lawyer. Legal brains are trained to see things in terms of phys­ical evidence.

When a lawyer cross-questions a witness, they have to focus on what was seen and what was heard. Spec­u­la­tion is frowned upon. How do we know a char­acter is worried, for instance? Because of their expres­sion and the way they act.

Your writing should also strive to be evid­en­tiary, even forensic, as it puts before the audi­ence the ‘case’ you are building. Remember – if it’s not up on the screen, then it doesn’t count.

(For more on this subject read this article on Cine­ma­to­graphy For The Screen­writer by Blake Harris)

Every second counts

It shouldn’t need to be said that film-making is an expensive busi­ness and that there­fore every second of screen time repres­ents a use of resources and has to justify its exist­ence.

But I still come across sentences like this in scripts by beginner scriptwriters:

… He works at his computer for five minutes and then stops”

Five whole minutes? That better be important to the story!

A far more common fault is with those writers who compress or elide time the way a novelist does. For example:

… Even­tu­ally, she is ready to go out …”


… After a while, he gets up and crosses to the window . . ”

The ques­tion here is exactly how long is “even­tu­ally” or “a while”? Twenty seconds? Thirty? Forty-five? This displays a basic ignor­ance of how films work.

If you don’t know, or won’t say, how long “a while” is then you’re effect­ively deleg­ating that decision to some­body else: the director perhaps, or usually the editor. There are times when it is correct to delegate decisions (see below) but timing is a crucial aspect of your story-telling. Try not to be vague about it.

(In prac­tice ‘dead’ time  – meaning screen­time that doesn’t (a) move the story forward or (b) enhance the mood or atmo­sphere –  is often pruned in the editing suite if the editor knows their job. Put those cuts in your­self and your script will become leaner and tighter on the page).

Words equal time

If one page of correctly formatted script equals one minute of screen time, this also is affected by the number of words on a page. If you write this as scene descrip­tion: “A busy Indian restaurant”, you are taking up very little of that precious screen time. In effect, you are econom­ic­ally setting the scene where the main dramatic action is taking place. The audi­ence will register: ‘oh, we’re in a restaurant’ and then main­tain focus on your story.

But if you write this:

The restaurant has purple flock wall­paper, a green carpet on the floor and red table­cloths with a white check. There are paint­ings on the wall of exotic land­scapes and brass light fittings giving out a cheerful glow. Several Indian waiters in smart white aprons are standing about in groups and couples at the tables are busy chat­ting and eating.

Then, in effect, you are creating for the reader a slow pan of the camera that would allow the audi­ence to take in all these details. Fine – if that’s what you intended.

Be conscious of the way that words equate to time and only put on the page what you intend to register.

Focus on your story

The primary task of the screen­writer is to tell a story. If you are at all confused about what to leave out or include in your script then put your­self in the posi­tion of the audi­ence. If your story is enga­ging them (and if it isn’t, you’re in trouble), then their atten­tion will always be focused on the unfolding action.

Write for your audience

Everything that isn’t central to that point of focus (sets, costumes, lighting, atmo­sphere) is received by the audi­ence only as a general impres­sion. It’s important, of course, but only in the context of the story. Write for the audi­ence but also as one of them and you can’t go too wrong.

What is the audi­ence meant to see? For example, you might write:

JOE walks into the bank.

This describes the simple phys­ical action and many writers stop right there, letting the audi­ence (or the reader, who is standing in for the audi­ence) imagine the rest. Stark writing like this, with a few well-chosen touches of ‘colour’ (see below), can be extremely effective and powerful.

What is the audi­ence meant to be feeling? You could write:

Squaring his shoulders, JOE strides purpose­fully into the bank.

Here you may be trying to make the audience/reader identify with the hero, delib­er­ately using words that conjure up a feeling or mood.

Where is the audi­ence being lead?

The audi­ence is hope­fully following your story; one that is dramatic and enga­ging, that has moments of crisis and climax to sweep them along. It does no harm to remind them of this occasionally:

The moment has come. It’s now or never. JOE pushes open the doors of the bank.

None of these styles of writing is inher­ently better and they all might be more or less appro­priate in different situ­ations. That is your decision and it’s some­times just a ques­tion of your personal writing style (see below) as to where you choose to place the emphasis.

What you should strive for is to keep your writing taut and make every word you put down neces­sary to the job of putting your story across.

Knowing where your job ends

Part of this is knowing how to delegate success­fully. Just as you shouldn’t tell the cameraman where to put a camera, don’t try to do the job of the costume or set designer for them.

“She is fash­ion­ably dressed” does just fine in most cases.

Whilst “She is dressed in an auber­gine Versace back­less dress, with suede Jimmy Choos and matching accessories” might well be overkill unless you’re scripting a vehicle for Sarah Jessica Parker.

Keeping it short and sharp

Students some­times mistake the classic and worth­while advice to write in a concrete and specific way (i.e. it’s never  just “a gun”, it’s a Browning auto­matic, or it’s never “a house”, it’s a decaying mansion on the hill ) as an instruc­tion to add lots of specific concrete detail.

Be specific, by all means, but try also to be succinct at same time – pithy, if you can manage it. Char­acter descrip­tion is a case in point. You may have a very detailed picture of a char­acter in your own mind but putting it down on paper runs the risk of boring the reader. As we say else­where: char­ac­ters are only inter­esting when they’re in pursuit of a goal – so let their actions speak for them. Instead, try intro­du­cing a new char­acter with a little flair and wit.

Here’s a great char­acter descrip­tion from a recent tv script by Paul Unwin:

MRS TIERNEY appears. Big smile, floral dress. Hidden Agenda.’

Some of my other favourite char­acter descrip­tions taken from scripts for the stage and screen:

“She believes in beige” (Salonika, written by Louise Page),

“Poly­ester was made for this man” (Thelma and Louise, written by Callie Khouri),

“A rock n’ roll arsonist” (Body Heat, written by Lawrence Kasdan)

What I like about these descrip­tions is that they paint a portrait of the essen­tial quality of the char­acter in a few brief words.

This ability to sum up a char­acter is an art – like being able to draw a sketch of some­body on paper with a couple of lines – but it’s one defin­itely worth practising.

Find a style

A kitchen extends off the living room. But much worse. The living room doesn’t have a sink. This room does and it looks like it’s vomited. The unwashed and the unwash­able are stacked to the height of the taps. Every hori­zontal surface is covered in naso-visual horrors …”

Bruce Robinson (With­nail & I)

Alabama’s laying flat. She actu­ally blacks out for a moment, but the salty taste of blood in her mouth wakes her up. She opens her eyes and sees Virgil standing there, smiling. She closes them, hoping it’s a dream…”

Quentin Tarantino (True Romance)


These two extracts seem to contra­dict most of what was said above. If you read lots of scripts by successful screen­writers (and you should), you’ll quickly realise that many of them break these rules frequently. Just like any kind of writing, writers have indi­vidual styles, from the terse minim­alism of Harold Pinter and David Mamet to the garrulous­ness of writers like William Goldman.

You can break the rules, of course, but you need good instincts to do it; most of all, the instinct to know when it works in your favour.  Mostly the writers who do it have one big advantage – they know how to tell a good story compel­lingly.  It’s part of their style but also, most crucially, the script itself commands your respect and attention.

Some scripts contain all kinds of things that don’t strictly trans­late to the screen: jokes, asides to the reader, foot­notes and even anec­dotes.  Some scripts include writing that is descriptive in a very novel­istic and subjective way  – the term I use for this is colour because it’s only there for the reader to appre­ciate. You shouldn’t however use this as a license to indulge yourself.

Keep in mind that this extra colour is rarely added without a purpose. Like the daubs of an impres­sionist painting, it may look casual, even sloppy at times, but it’s actu­ally quite skilled, and usually being delib­er­ately used by some­body who is very sure of what they’re doing.

If you want to develop a distinctive style of your own, there’s no substi­tute for reading the work of other scriptwriters. Sample as wide a range as you can, from the Maver­icks to the scripts of estab­lished commer­cial screenwriters.

Best of all, it will cost you nothing to do so: on this site, for instance, there is a page of links where you can down­load film scripts for free.

David Clough 2011

Colin’s Sand­wich 1988

Colin’s Sand­wich was an eighties sitcom about a would-be writer (Mel Smith) who works for the complaints depart­ment of British Rail. After success­fully selling a short story, Colin gets a commis­sion to write an episode for a new tv series.

In this sequence Colin labours at writing his script, making most of the classic mistakes of a beginner and getting tough but prac­tical advice from his director (Nich­olas Ball).

(Note the use in one scene of an Amstrad PCW. This was the first budget word processor that came out in the ’80s and many scriptwriters used it.)

© David Clough 1995

Leave a Reply


Site Index