Posts Tagged writing

Film terms and movie speak

It is almost as if there is a whole other language when it comes to the film and movie business. There are an awful lot of film terms and film terminology that seem designed to keep out all but the most persistent cine-phile and wannabe artist who dreams of someday directing a film themselves.

Granted, there are many industries who operate under the own arcane gobbledegook. ‘Management speak’ is often touted as an example of language gone loopy. Movies, however, are a very public affair and if you have the slightest interest in getting under that glossy and glamorous sheen to see how they are really made, then you will soon come across some very mystical incantations which will befuddle your brain and murk your mind. Reading like something out of “The Lord of the Rings” are words, phrases, job titles and techniques from “Gaffers to gobos, dollies to doughnuts, apple-boxes and Auteurs.” Were you aware that if you are at all interested in looking through the camera then, one day, you may have to put your face against a “teddy bear’s asshole”? I’ll leave you to find that one out for yourself.

Anyone getting to grips with film terms and movie terminology should be rewarded with a certificate of achievement and a badge. If you have ambitions to study film technique, make films yourself or just appreciate the art and craft of movie making, then at some point you will begin to encounter these obscure and esoteric nuggets of mouthery that are found nowhere else. They are mysterious and strange and, like some ancient Masonic code, designed to act as a barrier to those who are merely curious and of the fair-weather variety.

To the committed seeker though, they represent the first layer of initiation into the movie world. They are the first test of worthiness which you must conquer before those who have travelled before you will even consider looking down upon you and letting you fetch them a cup of coffee.

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How to write a screenplay: Start with the picture in your head

How do you go about starting to write that great movie in you head? How do you write a screenplay if you haven’t done it before? When I start thinking about a story I want to develop, I usually have an image or series of images in my mind. These are the ‘seeds’ of my script. As I am a very visual person I tend to think in pictures. So when I have an idea for a story my unconscious normally uses an image to communicate it to the other relevant parts of my brain.

Start with that picture in your mind

That’s how I begin writing; I have a picture that inspires me. It could be something like ‘three Knights on horseback on a hill overlooking a village’ or an ‘alien sitting in a restaurant looking at his watch as it countdowns to something.’ The point is, in the beginning there is very little to go on except this image but once I have it and it excites me enough I can start to ask questions about it.

Start asking questions

Questions are great for opening up the little material you have and expanding on it without you having to just think of stuff out of the blue.

Take the alien example above. I can ask questions such as:

  • How did he get there?
  • What’s his watch counting down to; is it the destruction of the earth?
  • Does anyone recognise him?
  • Where does he go after this?
  • Is anyone chasing him?
  • Meat or fish?

You get it anyway. What happens when I start asking these questions is that more images and ideas develop in my mind, some good, some not so good but a whole load of material will start to come together. It’s exciting at this point to think of the possibilities of the story; you can take it anywhere you want.
Follow the leads

Some of these new leads will inspire me again and form the basis of other scenes. At this point nothing should be discarded as it is too soon to decide or make judgements about what is relevant and not and what might be good in the long term. Later, much of this material may be discarded but for now every idea should be kept for possible eventual use.

Name the scenes

Now at this point I will separate what feels like different scenes and give them a short, one line description. Often they will not seem to link together in any feasible way but this again too early to question. If you try too hard to link scenes together before they are ready, you will only end up with a dull and ordinary script; due to the fact you are only using only remembered knowledge of how to write stories from what you’ve read, seen or done before. Your deeper mind will link your story together in far more interesting ways if you let it.

Don’t forget to start writing

The most important part of writing a screenplay is actually starting it! You have to follow an idea that excites you and that you feel you want to write about. It’s time to take that picture or line or whatever it is in your head and get it down onto paper. Don’t worry about a beginning, middle or an end just start with those images that inspire you and the rest will follow.

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Scriptwriting: Part 4 by ‘Michael Robert Johnson’

You need to really learn how your characters speak, because there’s nothing worse than reading a script where everyone speaks the same, where every line could be exchanged between all the characters. Find different rhythms in your head for the way they talk, if you can do that it will translate onto the page. Work out if your character takes a beat before he speaks, making his speech much more measured, or if he simply blurts things out without thinking about them.

Again, dialogue is as much about what you omit as what you put in. It’s important to remember that in real life, very, very few people vocalise their thoughts word-for-word. Speech is a contraction of a thought process, often designed to evoke a response as much as it is to impart information; often speech is about disguising a thought process, diverting people away from what we think we may have given away with our eyes.

Which leads me to another point about being economical with dialogue: you need to LEAVE SPACE FOR THE ACTORS. Most writers are compelled to put every bit of information into the dialogue because they think in terms of the action having to be complete on paper, but this is simply not true. Think about the following:

Say two characters – who know each other well – are waiting for an important piece of plot to telephone them (another script-writing mistake, but we’ll come to that). When the phone finally rings, there’ll usually be a bit of dialogue along the lines of. “That’s our boy”, or something as one of them approaches the phone. It’s simply redundant (and stupid). All you need to indicate is that the characters exchange a look. If the actors are any good, the audience will know exactly what that look is communicating.

It maybe an old cliche, an actor saying he wants to cut a chunk of dialogue because he can say the same thing simply with his face, but like most cliches it’s actually true, a good actor really can impart a line or two’s worth of information with just a look – and doing it visually is always the better way; it is, after all, a visual medium. Now that may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many scripts don’t appear to reflect this.

And another cliche about dialogue is you should speak it out loud. This cannot be emphasised enough, because it’s the only way to work out if it has the correct rhythm to it. After all, if the writer can’t speak his own words comfortably, how the hell can he expect the actors to?

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