SCREAMPLAYS! WRITING THE HORROR FILM – PART 2
By Lisa Morton
Last month I talked about the nuts and bolts of writing horror screenplays; this time we move on to the power tools. Get those chainsaws revved!
Screenplays (and, perhaps, all other forms of creative writing) are made up of two basic components: Description and dialogue. However, there are some pretty big difference between how you use these basic elements in screenplays and how you use them in novels (or short stories).
First off, let’s look at description. You know what that is, right? It’s all the stuff in a novel that would set the scene; it’s where the author might really go nuts with similes and metaphors, just reveling in her/his own voice. You, as the author, will probably want to involve your reader as thoroughly as possible and may describe not just sights and sounds but smells, tastes, sensations, and historic background. Maybe you'll show off a little here, employing use of poetic language and letting a description go on over numerous paragraphs or even pages.
Do that in a screenplay and you’re dead.
Bear in mind that a screenplay is a written blueprint for a movie; movies are meant to be seen and heard, not read. Craftsmanship in screenwriting consists in finding the visual equivalent to similes and metaphors.
For example: Let’s say you’ve got a scene set in a graveyard. The dead will soon be rising in this particular necropolis, but you want to evoke some mood before that happens. In a novel, you might wax lyrical and describe the cemetery as “colder than the dead heart of the lover who just left”, along with several more paragraphs of prize-winning prose.
Pretty, perhaps…but it won’t translate to screen. In a screenplay, you might opt instead for a visual metaphor: A dead animal discovered near a grave, or a deceased tree that’s rotted and split open, all described in a few brief, succinct lines.
“But,” I hear you saying, “why can’t I do both? Why can’t I include visual metaphors for the eventual audience, but make it a great read for the people who might be considering whether to buy this script or not?”
If you’re lucky enough to get your screenplay to someone who can seriously advance it – a producer, an agent, even a script analyst – then you need to be aware of several things: 1) Quite frankly, Hollywood people don’t like to read; the first time they see so much as a simple metaphor in your scene description, their eyes are likely to glaze over in incomprehension and they’ll slap your front cover down with a definitive “Nope”; 2) the producer or analyst will probably be looking at your script to see how it breaks down in terms of budget and time, and will skip over large chunks of your description on first reading anyway; 3) since you’ve written a horror script, said reader may just flip through to the first death or scare; and 4) did I mention that Hollywood people don't like to read?
Let’s talk example here. See if you can recognize this excerpt, taken from the final draft of the screenplay for a phenomenally successful 1979 horror/science fiction film:
Dallas senses a movement…
Looks toward the Alien…
Comes to a large junction.
(From Walter Hill and David Giler’s June, 1978 draft of ALIEN)
No finely detailed prose there, right? No breathtaking metaphors, no poetry. Just get-the-job-done bare bones description.
While I don’t completely advocate making your description quite that terse, I think it does serve well to illustrate how stripped down action should be in your script.
Speaking of action…let’s say you’re writing a big fist fight scene, or a car chase, or a werewolf transformation. How much description should you include in a scene like that? How much will your special effects wizard need to know, or your stunt choreographer?
You’re probably best off erring on the side of under-describing. If it’s important to your plot later on that the hero threw a right jab, then note that; if the antagonist’s car crashes during the chase, certainly you’ll mention that. But you don’t need to describe every swing, kick, turn or wiggling whisker. You may even run the risk of describing something that’s incredibly expensive (unbeknownst to you). Keeping it simpler is less risky.
Now, here’s a perpetually tricky one: What about camera movement? Should you include none, some, or tons?
Most screenwriting gurus will tell you absolutely none…but my own experience has been that most producers actually will want you to put some in (they may even give you very concrete suggestions for a second draft). So my answer is this: Indicate camera movements sparingly, just enough to show that you know what they are. You’re probably safe writing in a tracking movement, or a pull-back-to-reveal; but don’t indicate very complex camera movements, and don’t do it on every page. The only exception to this, of course, would be if you’re also directing the script yourself (in which case I highly recommend that you look at any early screenplay by George Romero – they may run 300 pages for a two-hour film, but they break down every shot on paper!).
Dialogue in a screenplay is probably easier for a fiction writer than description, because dialogue is actually fairly similar in novels and screenplays. If you can write decent dialogue in prose form, you can probably do pretty well in a screenplay. Chances are you haven’t given a character in your book a two-page monologue, and you’re not going to do that in a script, either. Just as in a novel, you probably shouldn’t overdo things like dialect or spelling out accents.
Explaining your plot through dialogue can become trickier in a screenplay than in a novel. In a book, you might reveal key clues through scene description or a character’s interior monologue; however, in a screenplay you don’t have the luxury of the printed page (and see the David Lynch screenplay of DUNE for an example of why interior dialogue doesn’t always work on film!). It’s easy to end up with some of those awful “Here’s what’s happening” expository dialogue passages if you’re not careful. If your plot is very complex, you’ll need to either simplify it for film, or find some way to convey information visually. One of the best examples of visual information is found in Ted Tally’s magnificent adaptation of Thomas Harris’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: In the book, Clarice has a long interior monologue as she examines Frederica Bimmel’s room and slowly pieces together the dead girl’s connection with Buffalo Bill. With the option for interior monologue removed, the screenwriter could have given us a lengthy conversation between Clarice and Frederica’s father…but instead he opted for a quick, silent scene in which Clarice found photographs of the poor victim apparently modeling for her killer. It was faster and more visually interesting than a dialogue sequence would have been.
The last thing to know about dialogue and description is how to mix and match in a screenplay. Nothing will get a producer to throw a script into the “Pass” pile faster than flipping through it and seeing two or more solid pages of description or dialogue. One good rule of thumb is to simply never have an individual scene that goes longer than two or so pages; an ideal screenplay would probably have no scene that’s longer than one page, and even scenes that are only a few lines of description are fine. I once had a script with a dialogue passage between several characters that went on for three pages; I thought all the dialogue was necessary, so I actually faked cutting up the scene by simply having the characters moving through various rooms while they conversed (and each room constituted a new scene description). A cheat, but it worked.
Now you know how to use the power tools on those nuts and bolts – you studied some scripts, you’ve bought the software, you’ve got some idea of how to make dialogue and description work, and you’re ready to start writing…or are you?
In the next article we’ll talk about scenes, length, and a few of the other things you need to know to become the next William Peter Blatty. Because goodness knows we could use a few more of those, couldn’t we?
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