It's been a fairly dour stretch here at the blog recently -- discussions of dense Russian movies and how to reduce, recycle and reuse tough and/or poor criticism. Let's lighten the mood a tad.
Many relatively new screenwriters have a couple tendencies in common. They see their material as straightforward drama. And they underutilize visuals. Often by the time they get to me they've hit a wall and writing's no fun anymore.
While these seem like disparate issues, in a way they have a root cause: not understanding how the audience interprets your material. Getting a new writer to realize how this stuff works together is like showing a new driver how to shift out of first gear. Suddenly writing is fun again, and you can't wait to get the car out on the freeway again now that you know how to avoid stalling on the onramp.
Let's try a little game. From your own work, find a scene you are really, really sick of. Something that just won't work. The one that makes you check your email three times before you can tackle it again. Say your scene is two cops on a stake out outside a club.
What does the audience see:
The people on the street.
And whatever else. Sounds like an action flick, right? Now CHANGE THE VISUALS, like a Madlib, and see how you can automatically change the meaning.
Take the two cops. Make them undercover. They're African-American. They're dressed to kill. Sitting in a BMW.
They're looking at a hopping hip-hop joint, complete with limos full of hoochie mamas, long lines, and a bouncer in a red fedora.
First thing the audience thinks? These guys are going to the club. That's a strong visual cue, and laying the "cop" information on top of that says a very particular thing to the audience.
Change it up. Now see this movie in your head:
The two cops are old-school, Irish, tough guys. An assault rifle sits in the rack between them. They don't say a word.
The club is a the same hip hop club. But now you're sending a very, very different message.
Change it again.
One cop is female, gorgeous, Latino. The other is a fresh-faced Matt Damon type. They're eating take out sushi and laughing.
The club is a bowling alley. Kids play out front on bikes. A pick up drives up and the kids scatter.
There's a very different movie.
How about this one:
Two cops in uniform. One's pudgy, short and white. The other's an African-American lady's man. They stare intensely at a deal we can't see going down. They talk about pick ups and drop offs.
Then we show the club, which is a bingo hall with a traffic jam full of minivans dropping off grandma for her big night of the week.
Starts to look like a comedy, right?
Do this with your hated scene. Let it be fun again. Change the genre. Nobody's gonna know. Keep swapping in new visuals, and you'll start to understand just how essential they are to telling your story. Beyond that, you'll start to understand what a cool tool you have at your disposal.
We're writing movies. Get that visual down on the page. Every set up has the power to communicate almost infinite different messages. Don't assume the reader knows what you mean.