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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Directing From The Page

"Directing From The Page" is a contentious issue and something levvied at new writers particularly when they send their specs out to initiatives, but also agents I've noticed. Sometimes it's not called "directing from the page"; you might get some feedback that says you have "overwritten" your scene description, perhaps even the whole thing. "WTF? How can you OVERWRITE?" was my initial reaction when I got feedback like this... I *couldn't* have overwritten anything, I'd stuck to the four line rule, I hadn't referenced anything like the camera, I'd laid it all out properly!

Directing From The Page is not just about "proper" format or referencing the camera. For one thing, you can reference a camera without mentioning one: describing shots, pulling back to reveal stuff etc, what's that but describing camera work really? Writers might say, "Aaaah, but we need to pull back because of this story point..." Cool. Surprises are always good. But can you make that reveal WITHOUT talking about the LOOK of the scene? Bet you can.

Because that is what "overwriting" or "directing from the page" really means - a writer has paid more attention to the LOOK of the scene rather than the story. In other words, the writer will talk about every minute detail in a room, clothes, expressions or it tells how an actor how to deliver a line. Story should never pay second fiddle to anything (except those rare moments where character takes over for a second - like Miles' Pinot speech in Sideways: yes, you could cut that and the story would make sense. But the character layer would be diminished).

Whilst parentheticals are *technically* allowed of course, do you need 99% of the ones you put in? I bet you don't. I know going over my old scripts I would cut out most of them (and actually burn the scripts and send the ashes to Mars, but that's another story).

I've said before that I like the notion of scene description being scene action: Bill Martell makes an excellent case in this article for ONLY adding elements that promote action or reveal character in your script's scene description and I agree because it makes a script easier to read and thus more interesting, since story does not go off-track while it has competes with lots of extraneous detail.

Yet what is "extraneous detail"? Well obviously like most things in this scriptwriting lark this is widely open to interpretation and I can only give you my thoughts based on having read the screenplays I have. Before I do though in the next post, I thought I would open up the floor: what counts as extraneous detail in your view? If you've read Bill's article too, then let us know your thoughts on it too. Read it here.

Over to you...


Rach said...

Woah. I've been killing widows and didn't know it. Pity I've not mastered the rest of it yet.

With film being a visual medium and pictures speaking a thousand words it is so hard not to make some detailed images on the page.

I worry that I'll cut out too much and the reader will see a completely different story. Don't mind if it's better. I'm happy to take the credit. But if it's worse?

However I've just read back through some work and do see a need for a big red pencil or maybe a flame thrower.

Lucy said...

Hi Rach, welcome to Blogger!

For anyone who hasn't read Bill's article, "widows" are what he calls those bits of scene description that have sentences where just one word "falls off" the edge of one line and onto the next.

I've actually seen scripts diminish by as many as three or four pages just by killing widows alone Rach, so you're making a good start.

I know what you mean re: cutting too much and certainly a couple of times I've had feedback - good AND bad - where I've gone, "Eh? That was not even CLOSE to what I intended!" However I think that is just something that happens sometimes and no amount of description will change that - in fact it *may* even be more likely TO happen, since the story can get obfuscated by too much detail I think, since the reader may not be sure which details are the important ones.

When I first started writing, I saw the end result so clearly in my head it was like I was MAKING MY FILM myself; now I concentrate on the story and leave the filmmaking to the experts - they know what they're doing after all. And they're not imaginary. Which helps ; )

adsense said...

Bill Martell's great. I've read every single one of his screen tips.

But eliding widows (did you see what I did there) was something I didn't need to be taught -- 15 or so years of magazine writing ingrained it.

(Finished the new first episode of Monsters, now on to the second. Making sure my scene description is scene action.)

evil twinz said...

Extraneous info has GOTTA be clothes. Whenever I'm reading somebody's script in my writers' circle I always wonder why clothes should "characterise" someone. Obv exceptions to that rule - Goths and the like, but even then, just writing the word "Goth" is enough to conjure up a pic in ur head, or at least it is mine. Why do I need to know if someone is wearing a cross, has green hair, or flowing velvet robes UNLESS it's going to play a specific part in the story? Ditto that on colour - skin, hair, whatever.

There are too many obese scripts out there. We all should be aiming for scriptorexia.

Jon Peacey said...

I overwrite a little (so I'm told). I think I do it partly as a reaction to a lot of the scripts I've been forced into reading- which is why I can't be a script-reader. I got really fed up of trying to work out what on earth the writers were banging on about...

I remember several (million) times with fellow students who'd remove rather important information.

I'll just have to make up an example but hopefully you'll get an idea of what was annoying me (and what I'm reacting with)...

Man 1 walks into field near second man.

Man 1: Hello Vince.
Man 2 (presumably Vince! LOL): Hello you.

Man 1 gets a snowball in his face. He is angry. A crowd laughs at him.

And I would just ask my fellow student why I wasn't told certain things like: what snow? when did you tell me it was even winter? who threw the snowball? how do I see this man is angry? where did the crowd suddenly come from? The answers would always be similar: I didn't want to direct from the page, didn't want to direct the actors, didn't want to over-describe...

Obviously I've gone to an extreme but to make a point. I'm at the other end of the scale but I understand and agree with the need to be lean and precise.

Personally, I rather appreciate a broad over-view of a new scene or character. As a place is returned to the need for description is diminshed/removed unless there is a significant change (such as house been blown down by a wolf). I think clothes description are quite important: 'clothes maketh the man' (or whatever it is!)... allowing ability to quick sketch a character or subvert a stereotype.

I'd not advocate the script going off-track or getting bogged in extraneous detail (guilty on both counts, M'Lady!) but personally I like a little colour and a broad-stroke overview to give me a hint at tone, intent and style.

...and finally, this will sound silly, but I've always got rid of the Widow Lines because I just felt sorry for the single words sitting on their own and wanted to move them nearer their friends and family.

Anya said...

That's not weird Jon, I feel the same with widows! And bananas in the supermarket, have to make sure none are left on their own.

As for "a little colour and a broad-stroke overview to give a hint at tone, intent and style", I think you can do this whilst still remaining lean and avoiding big or even sizeable chunks, surely?

I say this of course... Not managed it yet. ONE DAY!

Jon Peacey said...

You're absolutely right that you can still do the broad-strokes and colour while remaining lean however people seem to have taken things to the logical extreme and just go: heading, action, dialogue, action, dialogue, etc. and it was almost becoming abstract in its decontextualization!

I also manage to agree and disagree with Bill Martel simultaneously: I agree in principle with his showing Joe's pizza box strewn room through action but in practice (as TV addict+viewer) I see it being done time and time again to get a scene going clumsily before it's really ready... like the Grolsch ad says, 'Schtop! This scene isn't schtarted yet...'

...and I don't like lonely biscuits either. But that might just be greed.

SK said...

I'm confused. Surely someone writing for the screen should be thinking about how to present the story visually, just like someone working with prose should be thinking about the words they are using, someone writing for the stage about how to use their space, and someone writing for radio should be thinking abotu ways that their story can be told through sound?

To do otherwise would be to not be doing your job -- surely?

I mean, the choice of what actions to mention in stage directions and what to not is directing: 'He drums his fingers on the tabletop nervously'.

Or, more basically, the choice of where to end and begin scenes. If intercutting between, say, a party upstairs and someoen breaking into a safe downstairs, the choice of when to go between the two is firmly in the scriptwriter's purview, and is 'directing'.

Or what about something like:


Gene throws the rest of his sarnie out of the window.

Crappy mayo anyway.

He guns the engine.


The car zooms off.

-- is that not 'directing from the page'?

Indeed, this does seem rather to go against something else I've seen claimed to be a problem -- it may even have been in one of your earlier columns -- of having 'no clear image'. Which is it? Is directing the visuals wrong, or is not directing the visuals wrong, because 'no clear image'?

My own theory, which comes from the unsuccessful wannabe's unassailable position of total ignorance, is that no script is ever rejected for 'directing from the page' or having 'no clear image'. Rather, these are excuses used when the script is amateurish/muddled/boring/just plain bad and the person reading can't be bothered to analyse properly why (or, to be fair to them (but why should we?), is busy and isn't being paid to analyse why), or even when the script is good but the reader just doesn't like it and so can't come up with a real reason to reject so falls back on something like 'no clear images'.

I have even seen on a mailing list a claim that nowadays buyers will reject any script that contains an, yes, even one, adverb. And people were taking this seriously, thus hamstringing their ability to actually, you know, write. (Obviously good writing doesn't overuse adverbs, but banning their use altogether is like trying to paint without using the colour yellow).

I tried to explain that this couldn't be so, and that they should concentrate on writing scripts that make the people reading them care about the characters, laugh, cry, and be sorry when they finish them, and so don't have to search for spurious excuses to reject like 'has the word "quickly" on page 43' (and that if any production company was so idiotic as to institute such a rule then they obviously weren't people any decent writer would want to get involved with, as they didn't understand language) but was met with a barrage of 'well if that's what they want I'm not going to give them any extra reason to reject me.'

One wonders what would happen if we spread the rumour that production companies would no longer look at scripts that used character's names in scene headings.

Rach said...

How's this for an example? My very first short film script.

Old one. At least I hope you can recognise it's an old one.

"Rebecca is pounding bread dough. Train noise is deafening and at full tilt. She stops, looks around the messy kitchen. The camera pans around, showing her point of view. The pan reaches shelves on the wall ahead of her. They are full of jars and bottles. The camera and train noises screech to a halt. She smiles"

I am so ashamed. And it was all one paragraph too. Telling a Director what to do and what sound I want with it.

Current version.

"Rebecca lifts her head up and bangs the table with a fist. She looks at a set of shelves ahead of her, filled with jars and bottles. A smile creeps onto her face."

That's only three lines on proper format. OK Lucy. Go for it. I've still got to cut it back haven't I.

And Jon the buscuits aren't alone. They are all mine.

Lucy said...

"Surely someone writing for the screen should be thinking about how to present the story visually"

Absolutely SK - and you aren't alone in feeling confusion, I know I found the notion of "overwriting" or "directing from the page" really bizarre, as mentioned in the post itself.

Overwriting and what I call NCI are both execution issues, but how they are approached are quite different: if NCI is a question of "WHAT constitutes scene action?" then the notion of overwriting is "HOW do I promote scene action in the best interests of the story?"

Story SHOULD be king - and writers argue for this again and again, yet often want to obfuscate that story with loads of extra stuff that serves no purpose in pushing it forward. It's hard to judge any of the examples you put forward out the context of a draft (because of the holistic nature of story to draft), but the throwing sarnie out the window one I would argue certainly isn't - unless he's throwing the sarnie out the window for no reason (ie. it doesn't push the story forward or reveal character). If he did something like this however:

"He screws his eyes shut, disgusted. He takes a few laboured breaths, then throws the sarnie out the window"

I would wonder, why not just chuck the sarnie? What's the point of all the reaction stuff when you can write something like:

"Disgusted, he throws the sarnie out the window."

If that disgust feeds into the story = ie. he's going to have a go at whoever gave him such a grim sarnie or if it adds to character = ie. he's incredibly picky, then that's cool. If he chucks the sarnie out the window for no reason to either, then what's the point in having it? Economy of words is everything to specs.

But you're quite right that people can hang on to random things: whilst there are Nazi readers out there, just because a writer does something (or not) does not mean their script will "make it". How can it? Loads of excellent writers out there you've got to compete with, then there's production logistics, budget, luck, contacts, opportunities - so many variables it's unreal. Plus no one knows anything - except for the fact that talent and a great story will out no matter what.

Finally Rach - sssh! Don't be "ashamed"... Besides which, like I just said to SK it's impossible to tell out of context. So give yourself a break : )

SK said...

Oh, gosh, the sarnie thing was just something I made up off off the top of my own head, in order to have something in that scene: the real point of the example was the scene-change from inside the car to outside, which is 'directing from the page' inasmuch as it is telling the director what to put on screen: to move from an intimate position inside the car with Mr Hunt to a more distant one.

(I think my examples have been infected by the Ashes to Ashes trails).

Lucy said...

Fair enough, but I guess my point would be the same - what does it add to story to move from inside to outside the car? If it's just because of the look of the scene, then that's *probably* leaving story or character behind; if you wanted to show the car going into a particular town (a town sign?) or to show how the character is driving (badly, erratically, fast), then it *should* be fine.

SK said...

I wonder how many directors can justify their visual choices in story terms, and how many just do it because it 'feels right' or 'looks cool'...

Lucy said...

I would imagine that's the lament of a million produced screenwriters, right there! : )

SK said...

Okay, here's a concrete example. Stage direction:

The RECEPTIONIST looks up to find a bruiser of a man looming over her.

Laying aside the old casual sexism, I think this a pretty clearly specifying the visual effect that's looked for: something low-angle, probably, certainly from the receptionist's side of the desk, emphasising the physical presence and probably threat of the man.

You don't read that and imagine the scene as from a level camera side-on to the confrontation.

This is obviously 'directing from the page' but isn't it also the sort of thing a writer for the screen should be doing, indeed, wouldn't you say that ayone trying to write for the screen who didn't think and write in these terms would be a pretty bad bet?

Lucy said...

You don't read that and imagine the scene as from a level camera side-on to the confrontation.

You might not, but that doesn't mean it *couldn't* end up that way... And actually the scene description leaves enough to the imagination probably (though it's hard to know out of context): what consitutes "looming" exactly? this is where different interpretations can come into play and why so many writers, upon seeing their script filmed for the first time, can scream "It's not meant to be that way!"

Directing from the page is not about visuals, but those elements that come AWAY from the story and/or character. Presumably that "threat of a man" adds to one of those (again, hard to know out of context).

But this is why overwriting or "directing from the page" is such a contentious issue - because of all those interpretations, there is not a level playing field on what "should" be in a script, least of all on this notion quite possibly.

I prefer the term "Overwriting" on the basis of that idea of extraneous information = economy of words is everything, we don't need half of what we write in a first draft, so it figures that as we "grow older" writing-wise, we realise we need to write less and less to get our point across.

Jon Peacey said...

I've come to the conclusion that it is incumbent upon a writer to acquire a certain circumspection with regards to the various rules, written and unwritten, and that it therefore becomes a matter of conscience, confidence or preference as to what extent these are to be followed.

Dave Anderson said...

Seems to me there are becoming too many 'should nots' in a screenwriter's job. What next? Presumably writers should not title their scripts as titles are better left to the Marketing Dept. Oh, and writers should not mention where their stories are set as this is properly the province of the location scouts.

For me, when I write a movie I SEE the movie. The writer is the first person to see the film, so why shouldn't she or he share the experience with the reader?

Let's take the reader to the pictures. Maybe we should package a tub of popcorn and a large Coke along with our scripts...

Lucy said...

What is the screenwriter's job?

Writing visually, certainly - but that's promoting action that moves the story forward, not the colour of a car or dress or the number of things on the mantelpiece.

Revealing character, definitely. We should be doing that.

The rest though? Trifles. If they don't figure in story or character, then there's no film, but a collection of images all vying for attention. Which is the "important" one?

Lucy said...

Oh, forgot there - like I said to the others, welcome to Blogger David! ; )

Paul M said...


Pickup rifles past, moments later tow truck, a tail of spinning black mist in it's wake.

A door handle from the hippie camper van rattles in tow truck's front grill like a food remnant.

Okay Lucy. Take the above. Am I directing from the page, here?

My thoughts on this grey area are that a balance must be struck between not forcing image down the throat, but giving the reader enough detail as to create a clear image and understanding of events and motivations. Personally I'm still getting a clash of opinion out there. The scripts I read online (not the shooting scripts) seem to have masses of detail. These scripts have been made and were highly successful.

Lucy said...

Ok Paul. ; )

Advance story. Reveal character. Give us enough detail to not be sterile, but not so much we have acres of black. That's all I'm actually concerned about.

Give me a truly fabulous story and I couldn't care less HOW you do it. But that's the thing... How many specs do you think are out there that have really great stories that excite a reader like that?

Anya said...

Not many I'd reckon... Don't envy you, lol

Lucy said...

You get me wrong Anya... I LIKE being a script reader and there's plenty I LIKE about people's scripts. Dialogue or ways of speaking. A premise. A character. A particular scene. Sometimes more than just one thing too.

But it's a rare thing that I read a script and just go, "Wow". That doesn't mean to say it doesn't happen. It totally does. But when people have written that AMAZING script, it's very exciting because it's like one of those tile puzzles where it all goes into place.

What I'm saying when I talk about overwriting is, most writers will not deny that story should be king - yet so many want to keep minor details that get in its way and call it visual writing. That's not the way I see it, visuals are wholly different to random descriptions of stuff in a scene.

Paul M said...

Well as with you, I find it's what you don't say, that interests.


Rach said...

Seems a popular topic.

OK. How about this vertical writing then. Seems to be the new catchphrase.

From a description I read, which was probably over-written because it was in a magazine and not a script, you just spread it all down the page instead of across.

If I've got it right you can put in lots of black stuff but smear it down the page by making it a load of short one-liners.

The hollywood readers see lots of white and they are happy. Sounds like just a cop out to me.

Somehow I don't think I'd get that one past you Lucy (a little grovel because I've got stuff heading your way)but are they really saying over-writing is just putting lots of non-dialogue text close together?

Lucy said...

Er... Yes and no.

Vertical writing, keeping it white/vanilla/whatever is not just about spacing it all out instead. I'll never forget a script that had previously had loads of black winging its way back to me through one place only to find it had been extended to about 200 pages by spacing stuff out!

However vertical writing, provided you keep on the "focus" of your scenes and thus the plot, can be really good I think... The script of ALIEN is a very good example of vertical writing, Danny did a great post about it over at his place a while back. If you search "Alien" and "script" you should find it. there's also an excellent article called MAKE YOUR SCREENPLAYS VERTICAL by the fab Charles Deemer in the Bang2write List of Wonder in the "scene description" category too.

And also - you've had enough notes from me now lady to know there is no grovelling required Rach!! ; )

Dave Anderson said...

I write vertical scripts. But now I worry I may give the reader vertigo. What's a poor writer to do?