The screenplay is an anomaly in the art of the written word. It is a finished product that is never really finished.
Unlike a novel or poetry, screenplays are a means to an end. They’re documents created to become something far bigger, with financiers and collaborators helping to bring them to life in movie form.
In ways, the screenplay has more in common with sheet music and librettos than anything else; even stage plays are read and circulated more widely as stand-alone pieces of art than most screenplays. Will English students one day be reading Charlie Kaufman instead of Shakespeare?
But if a screenplay is merely a blueprint for a movie, does that mean it can’t still read like a beautifully written novel or section of prose? Let’s explore the balance between the two, and ultimately the artistic and pragmatic qualities of your script.
A novel is written for the mind’s eye: there are no budgetary constraints on what a novelist can spark in the reader’s imagination. The screenplay is ultimately written for the camera’s eye. But. Until the cameras start rolling, it is still a written story that must excite and conjure up an imaginary film in the mind of the reader. Keep this in mind if your script calls for set pieces or extraordinary images that you want to stay with the reader.
A great example of this can be found in the way Barry Jenkins describes the final shot in the screenplay for Moonlight:
Those waves heard crashing moments earlier are on full display, rushing ashore at a frothy run. Dark out, extremely dark save for the lights of beach bars a ways down the ocean front. The undulating rhythms of the Atlantic catch the moon, glint it all over.
As we observe this movement of water and dance of light, shoulders appear, bare, gaunt: LITTLE. Calmly, methodically, Little moves across the sand, approaching the water. A beat more of Little easing up to the surf, then… he looks back. His dark skin moistened in the ocean spray, moon catching him same as its catching the surface of the Atlantic.
Compare that with the way Paul Thomas Anderson describes the opening shot in his much sparser screenplay for Phantom Thread:
CAMERA begins on a close-up of ALMA, sitting by a fire.
Characters and Inner Voice
Unless you intend on using voiceover, one of the biggest differences between a novel and screenplay is the absence of the inner monologue and the eternal third-person perspective. A film can be subjective, it can be highly personal and highly distorted via the main character’s perspective. But ultimately, cinema is an objective medium. We do not get the run-on inner monologue, we get what is unfolding in front of our eyes. In the absence of dialogue, we get action. Descriptions of what the characters do and how, what, where and when they do it.
If you want to bump up the emotional resonance and provide a window into what a character is feeling, try brief descriptions of expressions, or perhaps a character hesitating. Body language is crucial. Even if it will ultimately depend on how the performer or director will execute it on set.
Here is a brief but excellent visual description of a key inner moment in Whiplash by Damien Chazelle:
He pulls out his phone. Hesitates. Nervous — but excited now. He dials. We hear ringing, he feels his heart thumping, he nods to himself, starts walking forward, breathes in, and then, after a few seconds…
Scale and Runtime
Sometimes a film will expand far past the size and scale of a script. The screenplays for Phantom Thread and Dunkirk are both 80 pages long, almost half the runtime of each finished film. This is due to their “blueprint” nature: lists of actions and vignettes that may linger far longer on screen than the sentences on the page. Screenplays like The Social Network (164 pages) and Lady Bird (116 pages) eclipse their eventual runtime, due to rapid-fire dialogue and descriptive paragraphs.
This in itself should remind us that the minute/page ratio is not always correct. A screenplay can ebb and flow between being a barebones roadmap for production and a fully realized work of detailed writing.
Ultimately, how you approach your script is totally reliant on your end goal! Is this a script you are writing for yourself and actors you know will bring the magic in person? Or are you writing with the intent of strangers with money and talent taking a chance on making it?
If it’s the former, maybe the barebones blueprint approach will work better. If it’s the latter: don’t think of the screenplay as simply a means to an end. Truthfully, it may take years before that end, and in the meantime, your screenplay is the movie.