Screenplay Style

Screenplay style is a little-understood, seldom discussed topic. Possibly this is due to the fact that screenplay writing is often dismissed as not having literary merit, and thus stylistic considerations are seen as unimportant. Yet this is clearly untrue, as script style is inexorably bound with script format, and thus style is an essential mechanism for the transmission of information to readers–who are often potential investors, buyers, producers, or directors. Style can make or break your screenplay on the open market.

Screenplay style of necessity combines the demands of the form with your own particular creative needs. Demands of form can include:

  • The proper formatting of the screenplay: This includes not just obvious considerations such as the use and placement of sluglines, but less obvious and more important considerations such as how to effectively use screenplay form to tell a story.
  • The genre in which you are working: Think of the difference in how you would approach writing an action film, a possible Schwarzenegger or Van Damme vehicle, in which terse dialogue and abrupt motion is the tone, versus how you would write a Merchant-Ivory-style costume drama along the lines of Sense & Sensibility or Wings of the Dove, in which moments of genteel manners, suppressed passions, and even silence might prevail.
  • The necessity to conserve space on the page: In a script, space is at a premium, which means that long descriptive passages are unacceptable. Also, people who read a lot of screenplays tend to skim, and they will skip over any description that looks too dense. Script pages should have a lot of white space. Always remember the standard measurement for script pages to onscreen time is one page equals one minute. This gives you at most 120 pages to tell your story (and 100 pages is even better). Longer scripts are not well-received.

Where your creativity and personal style come into play can be in the realms of:

  • Description: Your words will affect how the final film looks onscreen. What kind of environment exists inside of a submarine? A haunted house? The office of a powerful corporate executive? What kind of lighting does the place have? What kinds of surfaces, textures, objects are in the room? When using descriptive passages, it is essential not to get carried away. Keep it simple, but essential–pithy.
  • Atmosphere: This relates to description, but is not specifically not what you describe but how you describe it. What is the mood you wish to set? What are the emotions you want to provoke? You can control these elements through the kind and sounds of words you use, and how you present them on the page. This is an area where your personal style truly manifests.
  • Revelation: This is a combination of pacing, suspense, and surprise, and structure. It concerns the information you show and when you show it.

All of these elements tie into each other and overlap to produce the final effect of the written screenplay on the page. To show the interplay of these different elements in use, following are several examples of different screenplays and how they accomplish their aims.

Alien
[Screenplay by Walter Hill, David Giler, and Dan O’ Bannon, revised final draft, June 1978.]

Time and again I return to this script as a touchstone of great storytelling and smart, efficient screenwriting. The script is not only a brilliant update of the mythological tale of the dragon-slayer, but is a masterpiece of hard-bitten, hardboiled economy.

Here is a passage that illustrates how screenwriters Walter Hill, David Giler, and Dan O’ Bannon create the famously horrific scene wherein the alien baby bursts from Kane’s chest.

                 LAMBERT
      What's the matter.

                 KANE 
      I don't know... I'm getting cramps. 

The others stare at him in alarm. 

Suddenly he makes a loud groaning noise. 

Clutches the edge of the table with his hands. 

Knuckles whitening. 

                 ASH 
      Breathe deeply. 

Kane screams. 

                 KANE 
      Oh God, it hurts so bad. It hurts. It
      hurts. 
           (stands up) 
      Ooooooh. 

                 BRETT
      What is it. What hurts. 

Kane's face screws into a mask of agony. 

He falls back into his chair. 

                 KANE 
      Ohmygooaaaahh. 

A red stain. 

Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest. 

The fabric of his shirt is ripped apart. 

A small head the size of a man's fist pushes out. 

The crew shouts in panic. 

Leap back from the table. 

The cat spits, bolts away. 

The tiny head lunges forward. 

Comes spurting out of Kane's chest trailing a thick 
body. 

Splatters fluids and blood in its wake. 

Lands in the middle of the dishes and food. 

Wriggles away while the crew scatters. 

Then the Alien being disappears from sight. 

Kane lies slumped in his chair. 

Very dead. 

A huge hole in his chest. 

The dishes are scattered. 

Food covered with blood. 

                 LAMBERT 
      No, no, no, no, no.

You immediately notice that not a single line of description is longer than one line, and most of the sentences are from five to seven words in length. This particular style makes the script is a fast read, and this allows the reader to be carried along as the script builds quickly to its explosive moments of action. In Alien, like in all good scripts, these moments of activity are always bracketed by long moments of quiet and calm.

But what if your script is not about action, motion, or jarring surprise? Straightforward drama, for example, often requires an entirely different approach.

The Shawshank Redemption
[Screenplay by Frank Darabont, Final Draft, 2/22/93.]

It is my belief that this screenplay, adapted by writer/director Frank Darabont from a Stephen King novella, is one of the best scripts written in the last 20 years. It has everything a great drama needs; incisive, revealing characters, eloquent dialogue that doesn’t sound stagy, and wrenching dramatic situations, all built around the core of an incredibly engaging and revelatory tale with universal appeal. Where Shawshank excels, and what makes it greater than the sum of its parts, is in its presentation of its theme, which is an intimate exploration of how the human spirit remains unbroken even under the direst circumstances.

The following scene is a perfect example of this theme. Herein, tone, style, and rhythm all work in symphony to grab the reader’s heart and mind. This scene takes place in a guard’s office, as the protagonist, prisoner Andy Dufresne, opens a box of record albums donated by the state Senate, which he has finally received as part of his ongoing campaign to start a prison library. Inside the box, he finds a copy of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Wiley, the duty guard, uses the nearby restroom, and has left Andy alone.

INT - GUARD STATION/OUTER OFFICE - DAY (1955)

Andy wrestles the phonograph player onto the guards' 
desk, sweeping things onto the floor in his haste. 
He plugs the machine in. A red light warms up. The 
platter starts spinning.

He slides the Mozart album from its sleeve, lays it on 
the platter, and lowers the tone arm to his favorite 
cut. The needle HISSES in the groove...and the music 
begins, lilting and gorgeous. Andy sinks into Wiley's 
chair, overcome by beauty. It is "Deutino: Che soave 
zeffiretto," a duet sung by Susanna and the Contessa.

INT - BATHROOM - DAY (1955)

Wiley pauses reading, puzzled. He thinks he hears music.
    
                 WILEY
      Andy? You hear that?

INT - GUARD STATION/OUTER OFFICE - DAY (1955)

Andy shoots a look at the bathroom...and smiles. Go for 
broke. He lunges to his feet and barricades the front 
door, then the bathroom. He returns to the desk and 
positions the P.A. microphone. He works up his courage, 
then flicks all the toggles to "on." A SQUEAL OF FEEDBACK
echoes briefly...

INT/EXT - VARIOUS P.A. SPEAKERS - DAY (1955)

...and the Mozart is suddenly broadcast all
over the prison.

INT - BATHROOM - DAY

Wiley lunges to his feet, pants dangling around his 
ankles.

INT/EXT - SHAWSHANK PRISON - VARIOUS LOCATIONS - DAY

Cons all over the prison stop whatever they're doing, 
freezing in mid-step to listen, gazing up at the speakers.

The stamping machines in the plate shop are shut down...

The laundry line goes silent, grinding to a halt...

The wood shop machines are turned off, buzzing to a stop...

The motor pool...the kitchen...the loading dock...the 
exercise yard...the numbing routine of prison life 
itself...all grinds to a stuttering halt. Nobody moves, 
nobody speaks. Everybody just stands in place, listening 
to the MUSIC, hypnotized.

INT - GUARD STATION - DAY (1955)

Andy is reclined in the chair, transported, arms flung 
fluidly conducting the music. Ecstasy and rapture. 
Shawshank no longer exists. It has been banished from 
the mind of men.

Darabont’s simple yet incredibly effective prose inexorably sucks us into the universe in which the story takes place. Just in the way Andy reacts to the music, we are transported by Darabont’s description.

The scene goes on a little longer, and shows the reaction of Red (played by Morgan Freeman in the film), Andy’s best friend, in narration. Shawshank has an interesting structure in that Red is the main character, as the story is told from his point of view. Andy, on the other hand, is the protagonist, meaning that he drives the story forward. This format differs from films in which the main character and protagonist are the same person–the typical “hero.”

The Silence of the Lambs
[Screenplay by Ted Tally based on the novel by Thomas Harris, Revised Draft, 1/15/1990.]

An excellent example of how to create atmosphere and simultaneously build tension can be found in this script. Ted Tally’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris book is a creepy, freakish, and frightening descent into the minds of two deadly madmen as seen through the eyes of FBI agent Clarice Starling.

In this scene, the psychotic genius Dr. Hannibal Lecter gives hints to Starling about how to track down the serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill. “Bill” is really a man named Gumb, who first kidnaps his female victims, then holds them prisoner. He then fattens his victims up in order to stretch out their skin, so he can flay them and use their hides for an ongoing project. Lecter’s voiceover is used as cold, clinical counterpoint to the grim reality of Gumb’s underground lair, where Gumb holds his current captive, Catherine.

INT. MR. GUMB'S CELLAR - DAY

VERY CLOSE ON a cocoon, split along its back, as a 
living Death's-head Moth wriggles torturously 
free. Trembling and damp, the new creature clings 
to a sprig of nightshade.

                 DR. LECTER (V.O.)
      You should try to obtain a list of
      males rejected from all three gender
      reassignment centers...

PULLING BACK -

we see a big wire cage, holding several of the 
moths. They crawl over the humus floor or feed at 
honeycombs, wings pumping lazily. In the distant 
b.g., the incongruous SOUND of show music.
    
                 DR. LECTER (contd., V.O.)
      Check first the ones rejected for
      lying about criminal records...

CONTINUOUS MOVING ANGLE -

at about knee level, as we leave the cage, and 
begin to TRAVEL through this eerie, dimly-lit 
warren of a cellar. As we go - occasionally 
TURNING corners, or skirting the dark openings of 
unexplored passages - various objects loom 
briefly INTO VIEW, overhead - a stainless-steel 
work table... a big sink... jars of chemicals... 
neat racks of gleaming knives...
    
                 DR. LECTER (contd., V.O.)
      Among those who tried to conceal their
      past, look for severe childhood distur-
      bances, associated with violence...
      Possibly you'll find a childhood incar-
      ceration... Then go to their personality
      tests...

We pass a row of female mannequins, some nude, 
some wearing colorful leather jackets, designer 
knockoffs, in various stages of completion... 
then a huge maroon armoire, in Chinese lacquer; 
its double doors are slightly ajar... The jaunty 
b.g. MUSIC is growing even louder: Fats Waller 
singing "Bye Bye Baby." And now we hear something 
else, too - the rapid CLICKING of a sewing 
machine...
    
                 DR. LECTER (contd., V.O.)
      Study their drawings, especially. Billy's
      house drawings will show no happy future
      ...No baby carriage, out in the yard. No
      pets, no toys, no flowers, no sun...

We TURN another corner, and there is Mr. Gumb 
himself. As we APPROACH, his wide back is to us; 
he's hunched over an old-fashioned sewing 
machine, humming cheerfully, and working a piece 
of material that we mercifully cannot see. A 
female wig rests near him on a head form. He 
wears a hairnet and a beautiful kimono, and pumps
the treadle with his bare feet.
    
                 DR. LECTER (contd., V.O.)
      His females will be more crudely sketched
      than his males - but he'll compensate by
      adding exaggerated adornments... jewelry,
      big breasts... And his tree drawings -
      oh, his trees will be frightful...

Next to Mr. Gumb is an antique phonograph - 
source of the MUSIC. His little dog, Precious, 
perches by his plump ankles.

As we PASS Mr. Gumb, Precious scurries away from 
him, panting happily, and we FOLLOW the little 
dog down another corridor, the music starting to
fade behind us...    
    
                 DR. LECTER (contd., V.O.)
      Billy hates his own identity, he always
      has - and he thinks that makes him a
      transsexual. But his pathology is a
      thousand times more savage... He wants to
      be reborn, Clarice. He will be reborn...

At the end of this final corridor, the cellar 
widens into a low-ceilinged chamber, with two 
additional doorways, and in the center of this is
 the gaping circle of the oubliette. Precious 
sniffs her way over to the edge - excited, tail 
wagging - than BARKS happily as we hear a hoarse, 
ghostly moan from below.
    
                 CATHERINE (O.S.)
      Pleeeeeeeease.....!

Not only is this scene emotionally engaging and startling, but it also excels from a technical standpoint. By providing several layers of information at once, the scene fulfills multiple duties. This kind of multi-functional scene both saves space in the script, and also makes the work deeply resonant because so much information is packed into a such a small space. Ideally, most screenplay scenes should be as rich in emotional and informational content.

Screenwriting is as legitimate and difficult a vehicle for creative expression as any other media. It takes concentration, skill, and competence of execution to effectively engage a reader of your work. Yet the demands of screenwriting, attached as they are to commerce, are unusual. You’re not simply trying to entertain your readers–you want them to commit time, energy, and possibly tens of millions of dollars to see your vision to fruition as a feature film.

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