Many beginning screenwriters (or even experienced ones, for that matter) have made the mistake of inserting camera instructions in their scripts. At various points, they have included directions to ZOOM IN, ZOOM OUT, ANGLE ON, PAN TO, TRACK, EXTREME CLOSE UP, or TILT, or have even tried to dictate where the camera should be placed. Though there might be some exceptions, directors generally despise this. In fact Ken Russell, in his book Directing Film: From Pitch to Premiere, discusses how he uses his “five-page test” when it comes to considering screenplays: “One of my rules is that if there are more than five directorial instructions in the first five pages then the writer is trying to do my job” (33). When this happened, he’d throw the screenplay away and move to the next one.
It’s important to note that a screenplay and a shooting script are two entirely different things. The ideal screenplay simply tells the story elements—the actions and dialogue that occur from beginning to end. When a studio buys or options a screenplay, the studio will hire a director who will read it several times and figure out how to shoot each scene. Very often this will involve developing storyboards and composing notes for the production crew. The director will then re-write the script, or insert notes in the margins along with camera instructions for themselves. Even though the screenwriter may have visualized many of the scenes while writing them, a screenwriter must understand that once their script is in a director’s hands, it is now the director’s film.
After that point, the shooting script, which has a scene-by-scene breakdown with notes about camera placement, cinematography, and staging, is drafted. The shooting script is essentially the blueprint for the production of the film. And in most cases the screenwriter is left out of this process. A screenwriter may find this fact disappointing, but they need to understand that they are the writer of the story but not necessarily of the finished film.
Screenwriters Don’t Play Other Roles, Either
Equally important to remember is that the screenwriter is not also the director of photography, the sound editor, or the composer. Don’t, for example, describe certain scenes as being shot low-key, having deep focus, or including music. In fact, even when writers try to include popular songs in their scenes, there are often copyright issues involved in acquiring them. Remember, the studio will not be very anxious to increase the budget by purchasing the rights to songs just because the writer calls for them.
The same goes for editing. While many screenwriting programs (such as Final Cut Pro) include default scene transitions such as CUT TO, DISSOLVE TO, or FADE TO, try to avoid doing much else besides the conventional CUT TO, as well as the “slug line.” The slug line is the scene heading that simply indicates whether the scene takes place inside (interior/INT.) or outside (exterior/EXT.), the location of the scene, and the time of the scene. INT. or EXT., the location, and a hyphen separate the location and time. For example: “INT. OFFICE – DAY.” But aside from the slug line and CUT TO, avoid indicating anything else. If the director feels that a certain transition needs to be a fade as opposed to a cut, they will make this determination. It is not the screenwriter’s decision to make. Just as camera instructions will annoy the director, editing instructions such as SMASH CUT TO or JUMP CUT TO will perturb both the director and the editor.
In addition to frustrating people, camera and editing instruction make a screenplay more difficult to read. Ideally, readers should be able to follow the plot as they read, not imagine in their head how the writer visualizes it. In fact the first reader, after an agent, is almost always going to be someone who’s not the director. It could be an actor or a producer. The director only comes along after the script is approved and picked up by a studio. Thus, make sure first and foremost that the script tells the events and intricacies of the story itself. Anything beyond that usually adds unnecessary clutter to a story and should be avoided.
Some screenwriters, especially independent writers, end up directing their own scripts. They can write scenes and transitions knowing that they won’t be changed. But most writers will end up writing “spec” scripts for others. “Spec” is short for “On Speculation,” meaning that it is written without any contract and may be optioned or sold to an interested party. Even if a filmmaker writes a screenplay that they intend on directing, the studio will often deny that filmmaker this privilege and hire an experienced director instead.
Screenwriters Don’t Pattern Their Scripts After Hollywood Scripts
The reason why many amateur writers make the mistake of including directing, editing, cinematography, and music instructions is because they look at actual Hollywood scripts, which are readily available on many websites and in libraries and are laced with directorial instructions. The novice writer will look at them and say, “If they did it this way, then I must do it that way too.” But there are two fundamental problems that the novice writer doesn’t realize: 1.) Most of those scripts are final versions, not first drafts that subsequently go through a number of rewrites and changes; and/or 2.) Many screenplays with such instructions are written by people who are very established in the industry, whose directions will usually carry a lot of weight (the director will be less likely to make changes). For the vast majority of those who are looking to break into the industry by selling a spec script, however, it’s best to simply focus on the story. Ken Russell’s quote above—about the importance of avoiding camera instructions–is reflective of how nearly all directors feel when they get handed a script for the first time.
So, the general rule for screenwriters is that, other than the FADE IN and FADE OUT directions that bookend a script, avoid the use of extraneous instructions. Not doing so will only add distraction to the story, reveal the screenwriter to be an annoyance to any potential director, and make a screenplay more difficult to read. An aspiring writer’s main concern should be to develop a strong plot, complex characters, realistic dialogue, and a compelling theme.
Russell, Ken. Directing Film: From Pitch to Premiere. London: Batsford, 2000. Print.