4 Examples of Good Visual Writing in a Movie ScriptDiscover the power of visual descriptions, and unlock their potential in your own screenwriting.
“Your screenwriting should make the movie leap off the page.”
There’s a hard truth out there known by even the most successful screenwriters – the ones with the Oscars and high-powered agents and six-figure deals. It’s a sneaky little notion that can seem upsetting and make the hard work you pour into your screenwriting feel futile.
Do you want to know what it is? Brace yourself:
Most people will never read your screenplay.
It’s true. Relative to how many people will watch the finished film, hardly anyone reads the script.
And yet, many industry professionals argue that the screenplay is the most important tool in a filmmaker’s toolbox (along with the camera). Generally speaking, a film production without a screenplay is a film production without a plan. The director has nothing to interpret, the actors have no one to play, and the story… Well, there is no story. As Alfred Hitchcock quipped:
“To make a great film you need three things: the script, the script and the script.”
There’s nothing quite like the magic of a stellar screenplay. And I’m not just speaking as a fan, here. I’ve had a few jobs that have resulted in piles and piles of scripts on my desk, and in those jobs, I lived for the moments when I’d come across a good – no, great – screenplay.
I was a reader for two national screenplay competitions. I was an assistant to the president of a talent management company, where I read screenplays that were submitted for consideration for Oscar and Emmy-nominated actors as well as Oscar-nominated producers. I’ve provided script coverage for television networks. And last but certainly not least, I’ve read a myriad of student scripts in my role as Lights Film School’s screenwriting teacher!
In other words, I’ve been reading scripts professionally for the better part of ten years. Over the decade, only ten, maybe twenty scripts still stand out in my mind.
Why? What set those scripts apart?
Answer: Evocative, engaging, eloquent visual writing. Sure, dialogue is great – but it must be grounded. Dialogue must exist in a world so real that it has its own beating heart, capturing the reader.
And you create that world with powerful visual writing.
The 4 Parts of Visual Writing
Just to ensure that we’re on the same page, let’s borrow a bit from our initial investigation and review the four main components of visual writing. Basically, visual writing in a screenplay is everything that’s a part of your script that’s not dialogue – in other words, visual descriptions.
- Scene action: What’s happening in the scene? Did a train just whiz by? Did a horse gallop past a window? What’s happening around your characters?
- Character appearance: What does your character look like? Are they clean-cut? Sloppy? Bright-eyed? Tired? What are they wearing? A UPS uniform? A wedding dress? A sweater and slacks? The visual details you choose will tell us about your character as a person and what they’re experiencing in the moment.
- Location appearance: What does the space in which your scene takes place look and feel like? Share details that are unique to that space. Don’t tell me a kitchen has a stove and refrigerator (most do!) – instead, tell me what makes that kitchen different from another kitchen. Is it small and cramped? Vast and sterile? Warm and cozy? Be specific.
- Character action: What is your character doing? How do they act and react? Someone just said “I love you” to your character – did they look down and start to cry, jump for joy, run away? Their physical responses can communicate what they’re feeling – don’t ignore them.
Simply put, any description that’s intended to paint a picture in the mind of the viewer is considered visual writing.
Since publishing our first piece on visual writing a few weeks ago, we’ve received an overwhelming number of comments and questions from our students and readers across all channels, which has been awesome to see and is the reason we’re creating this companion piece!
People are especially curious to study concrete examples of visual writing in established, produced screenplays. So, we’ve rounded up four such examples here, in order to better illustrate each of the four components of visual writing.
Scene action, character appearance, location appearance, character action. Let’s figure out what they all look like on the page!
I. Scene Action: Whiplash by Damien Chazelle (2014)
The screenplay for Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash crackles with energy. It’s full of action descriptions that build pacing, mood, and a strong sense of tension by highlighting specific moments in a scene.
For example, consider this excerpt from early in the story:
Short, kinetic sentences foreground specific images: the metronome, Andrew’s blistering hands, the drumsticks. The scene is about “Andrew practicing like mad” until “CRAAACK”, his right drumstick “SNAPS IN HALF.” You can hear that sound, right? The capitalization helps us imagine it, as does the run-on structure of the preceding line – “struggling, sweating, hands blistering” – contrasting with that single, percussive syllable that stops us short: CRAAACK.
Thanks to Chazelle’s specific imagery, we’re right there with Andrew. We feel his focus and obsessive energy right up to the accident, which releases tension, literally slowing us down with three sentences: “He stops. Spent. Looks at his hand, sweating and throbbing from the blisters.” The structure and images work together to sweep us up in the scene action.
II. Character Appearance: Good Will Hunting by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (1997)
You can grab a reader’s attention with compelling characters. Of course, onscreen, actors will bring these characters to life, but on the page, it’s up to the screenwriter to humanize them. It’s wise to get started right away, as soon as a character is introduced, by including a description of that character’s appearance and demeanor.
Consider the opening scene from Good Will Hunting. Will Hunting is the protagonist, but the people he surrounds himself with provide context and come into their own over the course of the story. We meet many of the major players right on the first page:
Damon and Affleck could have written something like “A group of YOUNG MEN sit around a table with WILL HUNTING, 20.” Instead, the screenwriters take the time to paint a picture of each character, differentiating them from the start and suggesting how each character will contribute to the action ahead.
So we have Chuckie, “a loud, boisterous, born entertainer”; Billy McBride, “heavy, quiet, someone you definitely wouldn’t want to tangle with”; and Morgan O’Mally, wiry and anxious. It’s easy to keep track of these characters, right? They’re introduced with unique appearances and traits.
III. Location Appearance: Toy Story by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow (1995)
Where the action unfolds can inform the action itself. It’s the screenwriter’s job to cast a vision for each place, highlighting key objects and setting the mood and feel.
The action of Pixar’s Toy Story is a classic example, unfolding in familiar places but told from a new perspective: toys! Two of the places we visit are bedrooms, but they’re very different from each other. The first is the bedroom of Andy, the owner of the toys, and it’s a happy, safe place. The second is the bedroom of Sid, a troublemaker who ends up with Buzz and Woody after a series of unfortunate events, and it’s a dark, scary place for a toy to land.
Let’s look at the screenwriters’ descriptions of each setting. Here’s Andy’s bedroom, from page 1:
And then there’s Sid’s room, which Buzz and Woody first see from “the safety of Sid’s backpack”:
The evocative description of Sid’s bedroom as “Hell… toy Hell” brings a smile to the reader’s face, but we understand the effect it has on our spooked heroes! “We are gonna die,” Woody frets, going so far as to brandish a pencil like a weapon. The description of Sid’s bedroom recalls a classic horror setting, and the reader can relate to the very human feeling of being in a strange place, afraid of everything.
Thanks to the writing, Andy’s and Sid’s bedrooms come off as polar opposites, inspiring different actions and feelings in our characters. Woody’s not freaked out in Andy’s sunny bedroom, but Sid’s is effectively a toy graveyard, inspiring a very different response!
IV. Character Action: Birdman by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo (2014)
Sometimes there’s no need to describe every move a character makes, but other times, in order for a scene to play on the page, the writer must get very specific about what’s happening to a character and how they’re reacting physically.
One of the most memorable scenes in Birdman finds our protagonist, Riggan, parading through the streets of New York City nearly naked in order to get back into the theatre and onto stage. It’s a dynamic scene onscreen, and the writers needed to capture the tension and emotional complexity on the page. From pages 82-83:
We’re with Riggan the whole time, experiencing his helplessness, anxiety, and humiliation, all the way through his entrance into the theatre, where he’s “haggard and covered with perspiration.”
The writers get really specific with the scene descriptions and character action because they need us to identify with the protagonist, here. “A fluorescent light buzzes above his head. Taxis honk their horns. The sound of pedestrians yelling at one another”… It’s as if we’re seeing and hearing the intrusions of New York City from Riggan’s perspective, and they fuel not only his but our agitation, right? The writing sort of collapses the space between the reader and the character, a feeling of closeness that Iñárritu translated to the screen by shooting the film in one perceived shot.
This scene is a good reminder that character action is not strictly the domain of the director and actor. As Birdman demonstrates, many times, what a character does and how they do it is central to moving the story forward, which is the writer’s job.
John Patrick Shanley, screenwriter of Congo, Moonstruck, and Joe Versus the Volcano (which he also directed), says it well:
“If you put someone in a room with no script to direct, they’re just going to sit there. Writing scripts is the execution for a show. Then the director takes that, and hires people. It’s like trying to build a house without any bricks. You need the script. I could build the house, but I have to know how.”
When you embrace visual writing as a screenwriter, it’s like you’re taking up a paintbrush, splashing colors onto a canvas and creating – with words – what we’ll see onscreen once the film gets produced. Strong, evocative visual descriptions can inspire a film crew and even convince people to say “yes” to making a film in the first place.
Not everyone will read your screenplay, true enough, but the people who do read it may use it to make a movie. Do your best to make it impossible for them to deny you the greenlight. Your screenwriting should make the movie leap off the page.
Have you read a screenplay lately with a particularly compelling example of visual writing? Or have you written some awesome visual descriptions yourself? Go ahead and share them in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
Want to learn more about how to write a good film script?
Then join our online film school, complete with a comprehensive filmmaking course. It’s everything you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.
MORE FROM US: