Friday, January 02, 2009

Five Minutes of Your Time?

Hello shiny, happy people.  I do hope the new year has started well for you already.

I have been doing loads of research and reading a lot of stuff over the festive period and I have a question for you all out there - yes, you! Whoever you are: a pro, semi-pro or a beginner, it doesn't matter where you are in the world, whether you have written one or ten thousand screenplays for film or TV, I would really appreciate as many answers as possible. Here goes:

Q: When you are writing screenplays, to what extent do you visualize the scenes before, during and after the writing process? 

As the specific camera angles, colour palettes, music, location/set info, lighting, sound etc would never be written into the body of the text unless, for instance, they were crucial aspects of the story (i.e. music), I would be interested to hear "what you see" when writing - if anything, of course!  

Perhaps you just 'feel' the characters, their environment, dialogue and drama and would never even consider what a particular scene would look like on screen?  Perhaps you visualize the opening sequence and that then sets the tone for the whole piece?  Or maybe you tick every box on an imaginary pre-production list as you write?

Answers in the comments section please - and just remember there is no right or wrong answer here, just your preference.

I look forward to hearing from you all, as this will be really interesting for me.  Thanks in advance!
The answers I have received so far are brilliant so I'll keep this post open until early next week to allow as many contributions as possible.  Thank you! x


  1. I see and hear the entire scene as I'm writing it, each character saying the lines I'm giving them.

    I also feel a character's emotions very strongly - there's no difficulty switching between characters as I write, but I think I need to feel the emotion in the character before I can write the dialogue properly. (Otherwise it isn't real.)

    I do see in camera angles, I do see the movement of the characters within the scene, but I don't write those - just hint at them by the way I write the action.

    I don't see/hear any of the other stuff (whether I was going to write it or not), I have very little interest in directing. and absolutely no training in it.

    I usually have the opening scene in my head well before I start writing. I do usually plan thoroughly which means I do have an idea of all the scenes that I'll be writing but I don't imagine them in any detail until I'm writing. (I might also have a good idea of the climactic scene but not always.)

    Once I've finished writing - really finished - I don't even think about the scenes because it's finished.

    Happy New Year.

  2. Thanks, Adaddinsane! Brilliant stuff! Happy New Year to you, too! x

  3. When I start building a scene, I think in terms of story first. What happens in this scene? Then I build up the setting, visuals, etc around that, hopefully lighting on metaphors or ironic motifs for characters' unconscious desires, or to compliment the dialogue or imagine some aspect of the theme.

    I also find the concept of arena, that is using the setting as a character in its own right, really helpful. Careful observational research on the setting can lead to surprising, apt imagery; thinking in terms of arena makes the setting dynamic. Writing about a place you know can give your descriptions a convincing feel.

    Finally, I try to be aware, especially when writing for TV, of potential visual and story hooks to bring people in and stop them changing over.

  4. yes I also tend to see, feel and hear whole sequences in my head - before I hit the keyboard....

  5. I see it all and feel it, not necessarily consciously. I certainly don't sit around and think about camera angles etc while or before writing. that comes after the script has been written. but how it's been written usually guides your camera angles.

    just got up, hope that makes sense!

    why do you ask, are you writing something new?

  6. Lara, first I must say that both Adaddinsane, and Andy Phillips, offer great insight and have really well stated the process of writing a screenplay well.

    I have written a couple of short screenplays (1) (2) and one full length screenplay, and each time I have "seen" the action played out like a film reel inside my head. The dialog comes later as I try to rationalize the role each character plays in the film.

    My screenplays take much longer to format in my mind then my novels do. Actually, I visualized my full length screenplay for many years before committing it to paper. I recently did a "Guest Blogging" post about how the process of writing a screenplay works for me called, "Writing Inside the Box." If you get a chance you can visit the links provided.

  7. I visualise approximate camera angles, and set locations, but not in any detail - just enough to ensure it's practical and could be shot. If I thought I knew how these worlds smelt, felt and looked I'd write novels.

  8. While I'm writing, I think of story above everything else. Yes, it's necessary to try to visualize what you're writing, but for me it's more important that the scene get the story across as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    I feel like picturing EXACTLY what you want to see and hear is futile, because in the rare case that your film actually gets made, it will require the collaboration of many people who will have their own opinions on how the script should be seen and heard. And if the notions in your head are too specific, it'll ultimately be disappointing to see something that wasn't your original vision.

    But as long as the story is intact, everything else is just frosting.

    P.S. I've added your blog to my blog buddies list - Looking forward to reading more of your work!

  9. I write the whole sequence as if it's a movie in my head only I can see - but I also see bits rewinding and pause so I can rewrite. I visualise my brain as a VCR. I don't ever fast forward tho - I always write until I hit a blank spot. then I stop, go away, do something boring like ironing... And the pictures start again.

  10. Wow, wow, wow - thanks everyone! These answers are all great. Just a couple of direct answers for now:

    Potsy - no, I'm not...well, I am, but this has nothing to do with it! This has to do with my research for SE stuff.

    Marty - I promised faithfully I would take a gander at your stuff, so can you email docs direct to me as it would be an easier format to read?

    Jason S - Welcome to Tenacious Towers! It's always good to have a new voice on the block. Stay tuned!

  11. I'm definitely in the movie camp. I then just write what I see in my head. However this can cause me to overwrite so I then have to cut chunks out.

    As to dialogue, I don't write it for a scene until it has been completely acted out in my head. Unfortunately this is usually just as I am dropping off to sleep and I have to keep a pad by the bed to scribble it down.

  12. Oh I see! I just remembered I got assigned a mentor for my first dv short. You should ask SE to set you up with one!


  13. My quick 2p-worth: I strongly visualise scenes, sometimes in great detail. Usually before I write them, often during and often in readback. A script becomes 'real' when I have a whole sequence of strongly visualised scenes stitched together. No visuals in a scene means it ain't finished.

  14. As a director I visualise scenes all the time anyway - so it makes sense to work like this when I am writing.

    However I think we all use selective visualisation. By that I mean we picture only some elements and the mind is happy to leave some bits vague and grey.

    That is why the scenes never turn out as good in real life - you didnt visualise all the other stuff, just the key elements.

  15. I think Timbo put what I was going to say better - selective visualisation. I think it depends.

    Sometimes - most times - I just fill in the bare bones, especially in early drafts, just get something down and fill it in later. But sometimes - not often enough. Not nearly often enough - the whole scene flows out, I just have to write it down.

    Mostly when this happens it is a case of feeling the characters rather than seeing the scene - acting it out if you like. (method writing?) Tho occasionally I'll get an image. I'm not actually a very visual person, so it'll probably be more a concept of an image

    I do try when rewriting the wall test - look up at a blank wall, and try to imagine what the film will be.

    Good Question!

  16. This is really interesting - cool question, Lara.

    Paul commented about not knowing how worlds smelt, felt and looked - in my case I can't write until I do know those things. (That might be because I mainly write SF and Fantasy.)

    It's interesting how visual most of us are (though I suppose that's not really a surprise) we only differ in the details.

    If I re-read then yes, I do see the whole thing playing in my head.

  17. Adaddinsane - yes, this is becoming extremely interesting indeed! I appreciate we all write 'visually' - I wouldn't have expected us not too - but it's the variations in the details I am finding very interesting!

    And yes, I also thought Paul's post was fascinating stuff, as I too smell, see, feel, hear and sometimes taste as I write - mind you, the taste is usually a packet of cookies...

    Keep the comments coming, guys! x

  18. Before I start writing, I definitely picture key scenes in full detail (full colour, too - I can't remember who I was talking to about this, but some people apparently imagine stuff in black and white, which strikes me as a shame). A key opening scene perhaps, and almost certainly the climactic scene.

    Then when I'm writing, I have a lovely TV/cinema screen in my head, framing each shot and picturing it completely. Of course, I then tone all that angle-type detail down, so that I don't start directing from the page... at least not too much.

    More and more these days, I also picture how the dialogue will sound when spoken. I hardly ever actually say it aloud - I just imagine the characters speaking, in order to see if it feels right and works.

  19. I can almost mirror Lord Arnopp word for word. I'm a jolly visual sort of chap and I see the entire thing in my head - characters, clothing, colours, lighting, props, the lot. I sometimes sketch the characters and scenes (because I can) and even imagine the soundtrack and put on an appropriate piece of music that 'feels' like I imagine the final soundtrack would be. Then I just go with it. The words get more finely honed during the rewrites. As an aside, I was recently criticised for the copious nature of my stage directions. I need to allow the director some leeway apparently ...

    Fascinating post.

  20. I 'see' the scenes but it's more like a memory of actually being there than like watching a film in my head. Sometimes it is very vivid and other times it is a bit hazy like a very old memory - that's when I know I'm not ready to write it down yet.

  21. Ooh, this IS interesting...

    I'm like Mr Arnopp, I spend a lot of time thinking about key scenes in the planning stages. I watch the opening over and over in my mind, and the end scene, and the climax, and gradually the key scenes in between. As I watch them they join together into sequences until, by the time I start writing, the only bits I haven't watched are the small fillers and establishings in between.

    When I'm writing I don't think about music (although I didn't realise that until I just thought about it) or lighting or costume or camera angles. I've never written a camera angle in my life - mostly because I wouldn't have the first clue what a wide shot or a dolly shot looked like anyway! I don't even know if they're the correct terms! I have no interest in directing though so that's fine with me. And there are other ways of describing what you mean without doing that.

    When it's going well I hear the characters speak and just type down what they say. I see them move about a lot and I see their facial expressions in quite vivd detail, right down to the look in their eyes. Most of it doesn't go on the page but if I'm in danger of stepping on anyone's toes it's the actors, not the director's...

  22. woops, that was a bit long... sorry!

  23. Hi Lara, I trained and honed all my skill into camera technique and directing for seven years as my dream was (and still is) to direct a feature. Writing was a bi-product in order to make my films (at college, uni etc). It was only when people started to say my scripts were good that I actually started to take a real interest in writing. Now it is my life.

    But to answer your question I write in two ways. Sometimes they over lap other times I do one then in a rewrite my take the other approach. The two style are this.

    Objectively - that is to say I write out the action and dialogue with my minds eye creating how it would look on screen. This way I think like a director, taking into account mis-en-scene, moods, lighting, sounds and angles etc. That isn't to say I put them into the script but it allows me to see how it would actually work as a filmed piece.

    the second being I guess Subjectively - I am just in the story - A main character for example I write from a POV I guess. and feel this is the best way to get good dialogue.

    I see my film in the first draft then the script in the second.

  24. Gals & Guys - thank you so much to all of you who have answered so far! I think you'll agree this has become extremely fascinating!

    Jonny - Welcome - it's always good to have a new face on the block - and thank you for your post! Interesting stuff!

    Michelle - no post is ever too long, my dear! x

  25. I tend to visualise the scene as if I'm watching it in a film. It's a very vague visualisation though - I never really picture camera angles or cuts and if you asked me to describe anything in detail like people's faces I wouldn't be able to. I know some people mentally cast a film in their head when writing, but I've never been able to do that - even when working on a script in which some of the parts have already been cast I find it difficult to picture those people in the scenes.

    Interesting question - made me think!

  26. I dream it in different ways then start to write it down, like a film in my head.

  27. I generally have a premise and a few stock characters that get me excited. Then I 'spitball' ideas, write in my notebook, take pictures, drive around aimlessly, drink in pubs...all the while writing in my notebook. Then I outline, outline, re-outline with more detail. I rinse and repeat this process until a world exists in my mellon. Now that it has gestated in my noggin' for a while, I have a full picture when I hit the page and produce a first draft. Once the sloppy first draft is done, I re-edit and add more visual detail (but not too much)...really it's about clarity. Ultimately you want to show not tell, so I keep dialogue stripped down. I hate camera angles in a script. you don't need them, even if you are directing the thing. We all know you'll change your mind on the day anyway. If you MUST put camera angles in, use because it's necessary that the audience see something specific that is relevant to the plot.

  28. Sometimes, I know what a scene is about, or what the beats are, but I don't know how I'm going to dramatise it or what the characters are going to say, until I'm actually writing the script. I let instinct take over, and I see the action play out in my head.

    Also, I might get ideas for dialogue or a moment within a scene, and will get excited, but when I actually write the scene, I haven't used any of the ideas or I've gone in a different direction!

  29. Right, I've finally got five minutes spare ... am I in time?

    I sort of visualise the location - not in massive amounts of detail but just a general overview of what's where - and from my notes I already know who's going to be there and what they have to do. I might already have a few bits of dialogue and I usually have the beginning and end points but not always exactly what that means in terms of dialogue or action - if that makes sense?

    More a vague feel of what the scene is about, why it's there and who needs to be in it.

    When I start writing the scene I just let the characters talk for the first pass and then rein them in for the second. If the scene's vital to the plot and makes sense emotionally for the characters then they will say exactly what I need them to say. If there's an issue then it drifts way off target and needs a rethink.

    Sometimes I finish the scene and delete it straight away.

    So it's not a movie playing in my head before I start writing - more one I set design(ish) and populate and then transcribe as I'm watching it.

    Even that's not strictly true and sometimes I have to go and have a lie down while I try to work out what the hell's going on and why no one is doing what they're told.

    Christ, this is going on a bit. One thing I do visualise is the flow line - a kind of emotional character arc tied into the plot which should move smoothly from the first scene to the last. If a scene isn't on that line (which is a silvery red for some reason) then it either doesn't belong in the film or is in the wrong place.