I used to write a monthly column on screenwriting that was published to a subscriber base of about 16,000 writers. The vast majority of the writers were novelists or magazine columnists with an interest in writing screenplays. Some sent me samples of their work, which always amazed me. But, I found it ironic that they couldn’t write a screenplay of any value.
Here is one example that might read better as a novel, but it died as a screenplay:
“An ominous and foreboding spirit filled the eyes of those standing over the cold body. The disheveled little boy bent down and nudged the stiff once more. He was sure the man was dead and purposely emptied his pockets in hopes of buying a doughnut at the end of the day.”
Screenplays need to be visualized for the camera or the director’s eye. Using the word “cold” in reference to the body can’t play on film, but “blue” or “deathly gray” can. The same goes for the ominous and foreboding spirit. Unless you are prepared for special effects, those words just eat up precious screenplay space and don’t belong. The same holds true for nudging something, “once more”, especially if we didn’t see the first nudge.
Depending on the screenwriting coach, some may accept words like “purposely” emptied his pockets, while others wouldn’t. Some feel its good to hint to the actor that they need to be purposeful in their action of removing the coins. Others feel that the actors are capable of determining their own motivation for reaching into the pocket of a dead person.
But, both types of teachers would agree that you can’t show, “in hopes of buying a doughnut at the end of the day.” Without dialog or a set-up scene, there is no way for the audience to suddenly think, “Oh, good, now he can buy a doughnut.”
A reader’s script might be written as follows:
The little boy’s eyes widen. His feet stand next to a corpse. He glances at his ragged clothes and rubs his belly. One of his friends nods toward the body. The boy bends down and nudges the bluish skin. Nothing moves. He puts his hand into the deceased’s pants pocket. His eyes widen as he pulls out a fist of coins. The boys cheer. The little boy steps back, turns and runs. The boys chase after him screaming for the money.
Here is the scene written for a shooting script:
CLOSE ON: A little boy’s EYES stare at:
A LIFELESS CORPSE
wearing a fine suit.
glances at his ragged clothes. His hand moves over his belly.
as they close.
A GROUP OF BOYS
watch him closely.
THE LITTLE BOY’S EYES
nods toward the body.
THE LITTLE BOY
bends down and nudges the bluish skin. Nothing moves.
ANGLE ON PANTS POCKET
He runs his hand into the deceased’s pants pocket.
as he pulls his hand out.
as his hand opens revealing coins.
A GROUP OF BOYS
ANGLE ON BOY’S FEET
ON THE BOY
as he turns and runs.
A GROUP OF BOYS
chase after him screaming for the money.
All three are the same story with varying levels of visualization. It is critical for the screenwriter to paint a picture according to the type of script he is writing. However, the more visual language used to describe the action the easier it is to translate the story from paper to the screen.