As a script consultant, I read a lot of scripts by people I have never met. When a script arrives, I usually have no idea what the writer's background might be. He or she might be a practicing or former plumber or professor, barrista or banker. S/he might even be an award-winning writer. But there is one kind of script where I am fairly certain I know what the writer's day job is - a script written by a director.
Now, don't get me wrong; the ability to think like a director is one of the greatest assets a screenwriter can have, enabling one to replace pages of tedious exposition with a single compelling image, to see where dialogue can be trimmed in favor of action, and to ensure the pace is cinematic, not sedentary. In short, thinking like a director helps keep the story moving at pace. It's no accident that outstanding directors like Preston Sturges, John Huston, Francis Coppola, Anthony Minghella and Tony Gilroy started out as writers, while still others, like Kimberley Pierce, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, John Waters, Joel and Ethan Coen and, of course, Orson Welles, have always written their own films (we will draw a veil over those writers who have turned their hand to directing with unfortunate results.) Creatively speaking, they are as at home on paper as on film, as comfortable using words as images.
The kind of scripts I'm talking about are written by directors whose eyes remain overly-fixed on their ultimate goal - directing the film - and who consequently never take off their director hat long enough to think like a writer. If you want to see the difference, go to an online script bank and compare early drafts (untouched by the director) with a shooting script or late draft (full of directors' input.) Directors don't want to recognize that for purposes of the first draft they are only the humble writer and must write the script as if someone else were going to direct it (it could happen), someone who will ignore all their little directorial touches.
So, what are these giveaways that mark a script as being written by a director getting over the hurdle of not having a story to direct as opposed to being by a writer or a writer-director?
· RESIST THE URGE TO SPECIFY CAMERA ANGLES - the obvious one. If you must, use sparingly. You can call the camera's attention to a significant detail that might be overlooked in the larger scene, e.g. "CLOSE ON: Angela's dropped glove, lying behind the radiator" but don't overload the script with Close Ups, Long Shots, Cross Fades, etc., etc. Let's put it this way - if you, as a director, got a script from a writer who was trying to do your job for you, would you pay any attention to their helpful suggestions on how to shoot the scene? No, I thought not.
· Similarly, AVOID PARENTHETICALS. Used to giving actors direction, the director's script is full of parentheticals telling the actor how to say a line or what their expression should be. You can use a parenthetical if the character's reaction is not what we would expect from the line and the context, e.g. "ANGELA (smiling broadly): I was so sorry to hear of Bill's death." Otherwise, write the scene so we can guess what the characters would be feeling and trust the director (who is not you) and the actors to get on with their jobs.
· NO BLOCKING. Assessing the difference between significant action that reveals character or gives essential story information and insignificant action that is just moving people around is one of the trickiest things for a new screenwriter to get to grips with. This applies even more to directors, part of whose usual job is just to move people around. So, you can have "Angela picks up Sam's photo from the bedside table, looks at it for a moment, then places it face down on the table before getting into bed" or "Angela walks across the room to the bed, takes off her robe and drapes it over a chair, picks up Sam's photo from the bedside table, looks at it for a couple of beats, puts in back face down in the centre of the table, turns down the sheet and gets into bed." Avoid entering and exiting (two words directors use a lot when blocking scenes but which are dull on the page), turning, approaching, leaving, etc. unless absolutely necessary. Basically, you don't want to get bogged down in wordy action paragraphs that are just logistics. Which brings me to…
· NO BEATS. Only put in if absolutely necessary. But pacing the scene by means of significant pauses is the director's job. If you're the writer, write the scene so we know where the beats should be.
· WATCH DETAIL OVERLOAD. By definition, directors think visually, and on the whole this is a good thing. However, you can have too much of a good thing. I remember vividly a script I read that went on for half a page about what the protagonist's car looked like (the paint color, the detailing, the seats, the dashboard style…it was like a list of options) and then devoted another half page to the appearance of the leading lady's breasts under her wet shirt. Your job as the writer is to create believable characters and emotionally involving stories structured so as to capture and hold the audience's attention.
· ACTION PARAGRAPHS ARE NOT MEMOS. Too often the action paragraphs in director's scripts are workmanlike to a degree. They are more like notes the director is making to him or herself than writing that's going to help convey the story to a reader. For example, "The meeting has ended. The group starts to collect their belongings. Angela leaves. Sam is talking to another young man." Nothing wrong with it, but a bit cut-and-dried. Where's the atmosphere? Instead you could have "as the meeting ends, the group wearily retrieves their bags and backpacks from the sea of empty Styrofoam coffee cups on the floor. Angela scurries out as unobtrusively as possible. Sam, who is absorbed in a conversation with an enervated man in his 20s, doesn't see her leave." That said, some readers prefer the businesslike approach. Just make sure the language isn't repetitive to avoid one action paragraph sounding much like another.
· NO LOOKS, NO LOOKING. Really a continuation of the above point. When working up a scene with actors, a director will often issue instructions like "OK, now before you exit, look at him, then look away quickly." Consequently, director's scripts are littered with things like "looking", "exchanging looks" "gives him a look" "glancing" "noticing" "watching" "staring" and similar, which are usually highly insignificant and disposable. Generally, if it involves eye movements, think about if you could substitute a stronger, more revealing action or omit. As well, avoid "a concerned look crosses his face" or "he is at the door, looking impatient". Don't tell us how your characters are feeling, write the scene so we know.
As noted above, not only can directors be good writers, they often make the best writers. Their challenge is to pretend they're writing the script for someone else to direct while still visualizing it as if they were going to. If they have the imaginative resources to make this leap, creating a compelling script should be a piece of cake. And, of course, all this applies equally to scripts written by people who are not, nor have they ever been, directors.
Ellin Stein is a script consultant with Solid Script Services. A former story analyst for companies including Miramax, New Line, and Zoetrope, she has developed feature projects that were subsequently picked up by Propaganda Films, DNA Films, and Zoetrope. Her own shorts have won awards from the Toronto, Chicago, and Hiroshima film festivals, and from the American Film Institute. In addition, she has written on films and the film industry for publications including The New York Times, The Times (London), The Daily Telegraph (London), The Independent (London), the Village Voice, and Variety, and currently teaches screenwriting at Roehampton University in London.