Reader Question: What does “literary style” mean in terms of writing a screenplay?

Over time, screenplays have become less ‘scripty’ and more ‘literary’.

A page from the script for ‘Psycho’

Question from Erik Rolfsen:

Scott: I’d be interested in reading an elaboration on something you posted recently:

“…the shift the last two decades has been away from using directing / editing lingo in screenplays toward more of what may be called a literary approach to style,…”

Or do you have a previous blog post on this you could point me toward?

Keep up the great work!

Let me preface my comments by making a distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. A shooting script is a production draft and style considerations pretty much go out the window. A selling script is any script we write, whether on spec or assignment, in which the goal is to set up the project initially or get the project green lit. For a selling script, there is one golden rule in terms of style:

Write the story in the best, most entertaining fashion possible.

Screenplays are evolving into a more ‘literary’ style

In terms of a selling script when I say literary approach, you can see it quite clearly by comparing older scripts to newer ones. For example, here is a Scene Description Spotlight post I did with an excerpt from the 1951 movie The African Queen:

EXT. A NATIVE VILLAGE IN A CLEARING BETWEEN THE JUNGLE AND
THE RIVER. LATE MORNING

LONG SHOT — A CHAPEL

Intense light and heat, a stifling silence. Then the SOUND
of a reedy organ, of two voices which make the words distinct,
and of miscellaneous shy, muffled, dragging voices, beginning
a hymn:

VOICES
(singing)
“Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah…”

INT. CHAPEL — LONG SHOT — THE LENGTH OF THE BLEAK CHAPEL

PAST THE CONGREGATION, ON BROTHER, AT THE LECTERN, AND ROSE,
AT THE ORGAN

BROTHER, a missionary, faces CAMERA near center; ROSE, his
sister, is at side, her face averted. Everybody is singing.

“Pilgrim through this barren land…”

MEDIUM SHOT — BROTHER:

middle-aged, rock-featured, bald, sweating painfully, very
much in earnest. He is very watchful of his flock. He sings
as loud as he can, rather nasally, and tries to drive the
meaning of each word home as if it were a nail. He is beating
with his hand, and trying hard to whip up the dragging tempo:

“I am weak, but Thou art mighty…”

CLOSER SHOT — ROSE

early thirties, tight-featured and tight-haired, very hot
but sweating less than Brother.

She is pumping the pedals vigorously, spreading with her
knees the wings of wood which control the loudness, utilizing
various stops for expressiveness of special phrases, and
rather desperately studying the open hymnal, just managing
to play the right notes — a very busy woman. She, too, is
singing her best and loudest, an innocent, arid, reedy
soprano; and she, too, is very attentive to the meanings of
words:

“Hold me with Thy powerful hand.”

INSERT — HALF-WAY THROUGH THE FOREGOING LINE, AN EXOTIC AND
HORRIBLE CENTIPEDE-LIKE CREATURE SLITHERS INTO VIEW BETWEEN
TWO OF THE ORGAN KEYS. WITHOUT INTERRUPTING HER PLAYING, AS
METHODICALLY AS SHE WOULD PULL OUT A NEW STOP, ROSE SWIPES
IT AWAY.

Compare that to this excerpt from The Matrix (1999):

INT. HALL

She bursts out of the room as Agent Brown enters the hall,
leading another unit of police. Trinity races to the
opposite end, exiting through a broken window onto the
fire escape.

EXT. FIRE ESCAPE

In the alley below, Trinity sees Agent Smith staring at
her. She can only go up.

EXT. ROOF

On the roof, Trinity is running as Agent Brown rises over
the parapet, leading the cops in pursuit.

Trinity begins to jump from one roof to the next, her
movements so clean, gliding in and out of each jump,
contrasted to the wild jumps of the cops.

Agent Brown, however, has the same unnatural grace.

The metal SCREAM of an elevated TRAIN is heard and Trinity
turns to it, racing for the back of the building.

The edge falls away into a wide back alley. The next
building is over 40 feet away but Trinity’s face is
perfectly calm, staring at some point beyond the other
roof.

The cops slow, realizing they are about to see something
ugly as Trinity drives at the edge, launching herself into
the air.

From above, the ground seems to flow beneath her as she
hangs in flight —

Then hitting, somersaulting up, still running hard.

COP
Mutherfucker — that’s impossible!

They stare, slack-jawed, as Agent Brown duplicates the
move exactly, landing, rolling over a shoulder up onto one
knee.

What can we learn from such a comparison:

  • Contemporary selling scripts do not include camera shots anymore, so gone are the days of LONG SHOT, MEDIUM SHOT, CLOSE UP.
  • Contemporary selling scripts don’t have long blocks of scene description, but rather break them up into smaller paragraphs (2–4 lines).
  • Contemporary selling scripts don’t have primary slug lines that extend over one line.
  • Contemporary selling scripts don’t include directing jargon.

In fact, we can see screenwriting style change even since the time of The Matrix. Check out the opening scene from The Black Swan (2010):

INT. DARK STAGE — NIGHT

A SPOTLIGHT slices black space.

In its beam, a DANCER in a white dress materializes. She is
fair-skinned. Beautiful and pure.

She twirls on pointe, a smile on her face, light as air and
carefree.

Suddenly, her face grows worried. Sensing someone watching.

Scared, she peers into the darkness.

She moves now, looking, growing more frantic.

But she can’t see anything. She pauses, relaxes. Convincing
herself it was just her imagination…

Then, a SINISTER MAN emerges out of the darkness behind her.
She stumbles backwards, frightened.

She tries to escape, twirling away, but he pursues.

He flings his open hand towards her, casting the spell.

She wants to scream, but nothing comes out. She looks at her
body, sensing something happening to her. Something
terrifying.

She spins, panicking, clawing at her body with her hands,
trying to stop it. But it’s too late.

As she turns, she morphs into the WHITE SWAN, the iconic
protagonist of SWAN LAKE.

See how much white space there is? How much easier on the eyes that is? How each line suggests a camera shot? To me it reads more like a story than something you use to produce a movie. And that’s what I mean by literary where the emphasis on style is about story, not script.

My theory is this is a natural evolution as screenplays become their own literary form. There are companies such as Newmarket Press who publish screenplays in book form. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of that in the future where people will sit down to read a screenplay with a similar expectation as they do with a book — to read a story.

What does that mean for us practically as screenwriters?

First read screenplays of movies that are being released this year so you can track style trends.

But most important we have to think about how we approach screenwriting style because it is a reflection of our writer’s voice — and when you’re in competition with a zillion other scripts, if you have a distinctive voice and an appealing writing style, that can make the difference between a sale or no sale, representation or no representation.

Gee, if there was only someone who taught a course on screenwriting style. Something online so it was easy to take. A class that went beyond format and really talked about how to develop one’s sense of style as part of their writer’s voice.

Wait. There is a course like that? Oh yeah, right here.

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