How a Great Script Paints a Whole Picture

How a Great Script Paints a Whole Picture

The director generally gets most of the credit for a successful film. Even if one is not exactly an auteur, the calibration of the performances, the storyboarding of the shots, and the final sound mix are almost always governed by the person at the helm. Still, even the greatest filmmakers start with a script in hand, a veritable blueprint for all the directions to be given. Why do you think so many directors want to shoot their own scripts?

The page is king.

Such power is why it behooves a screenwriter to consider every word that they put down in a script. It’s why David Fincher sat down with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for a week to pore over every sentence when he agreed to shoot The Social Network. Sorkin had never been challenged to justify his words like that before, but he ultimately thanked Fincher for it as it helped them both understand the exact intent of every scene, each stage direction, and every single line of dialogue that Sorkin wrote.

All the details had to make sense to Fincher before he could make all of them come to life when the cameras started rolling.

The words one chooses for their script are crucial as they not only paint the specifics of the story, but they set the tone of the piece as well. A comedy script should use verbiage that itself has humor in it. If you’ve ever read a script by Mel Brooks or Judd Apatow, you’d see that they write funny stage direction as well as funny one-liners. And if you think Wes Anderson’s eccentricity is only found in his visualizing his films, you should read how quirky his descriptions of his characters and locations are in his scripting. You can see the film Anderson has written just by reviewing his pages. It’s that vivid.

Robert Redford made an auspicious directing debut with Ordinary People in 1980, capturing an emotional intelligence and sensitivity in the story of the Jarrett family in Lake Forest, IL, and the fallout from losing their teen son Buck to a freak boating accident. Each shot Redford put up on the screen was crafted with care, isolating various characters from others for dramatic purposes, weaving in searing flashbacks of shocking family events, and often lingering on characters long after they stopped talking.

But you know what? All of that is in the script that Alvin Sargent wrote for Redford in his adaptation of Judith Guest’s bestselling novel.

Again, the page rules.

One only needs to read the first pages of Sargent’s script to see just how expertly he laid out the blueprint for Redford’s sharp direction. Son Conrad (Timothy Hutton), the brother who tried to commit suicide over his survivor’s guilt, is introduced singing lyrics in a school choir’s version of Pachebel’s Canon in D. The lyrics mention being “free of fear and all anxiety,” but the script/film transitions to a smash cut of Conrad bolting awake in a cold sweat. The teen may try to talk the talk, er sing the song (?), but it just isn’t taking. Fear and anxiety consume him.

Then Sargent introduces Conrad’s parents Beth and Calvin (played in the movie by Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland). They’re shown watching a community play where a character onstage tells his wife he’s never been out of love with her in 24 years of marriage. A mere two pages in, and Sargent cleverly but discreetly introduces the stakes for Beth and Calvin. After all their time together, and with their recent ordeals, can their love survive?

It’s a subtle bit of foreshadowing, yet audacious in its way.

Sargent even had the confidence to leave out loads of information. He doesn’t tell us why the uptight Beth just can’t love her remaining son. Sargent doesn’t belabor flashbacks, relegating them to mere glimpses. Heck, his script doesn’t even show the tragic boating accident until the third act, and it’s done so deftly and succinctly it occupies less than a minute of screen time.

Most screenwriters today would start their scripts with that scene, especially since it’s the inciting incident, but not Sargent. He holds back because he wants the audience to put the pieces together. That’s not only unorthodox screenwriting, but it forces us to relate even more to the family trying to put the pieces together themselves.  

The Ordinary People script also tells us as much about the characters in between their lines. When Conrad sees his new therapist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) to smooth out the edges, little of their conversation is dramatic. Instead, the averageness of much of what’s discussed showcases Conrad’s comeback. Being able to chat about masturbation habits, his dislike for the school swim coach, or thoughts on the family’s cleaning lady indicate Conrad’s growing comfort with his own thoughts and feelings. It’s his way of becoming ordinary again and Sargent’s extraordinary way of highlighting the breakthroughs in the boy’s therapy sessions.

Great screenwriting strongly guides actors how to play their roles, clearly informs cinematographers where to aim their cameras, and descriptively instructs costumers and designers how to dress the cast and the set.

But can all that be done in a mere three lines of stage instruction per paragraph? Such brevity is all but demanded in scripts today, all the better to help readers breeze through the script, right?

Yet, if you’ve ever read a Coen Brothers script, they go out of their way to make their screenwriting more “writerly.” A script shouldn’t waste words, but sometimes greater descriptions add a lot, and the Coens like a little excess in their verbiage. Sometimes their scripts read more like a good novel, a story to be savored, not necessarily devoured. If you reach the success level of these two filmmakers, I suppose you could type in rainbow-colored ink, but suffice it to say, your screenwriting should probably try to be nimbler.

How clever can you be in three lines, that’s the challenge.

Whatever you do, don’t ever surrender the power you have on the page. It’s your story, your choices, your words. Write what you feel and temper the rules of Hollywood as rules are meant to be broken. Or at least bent.  And if you want to be Quentin Tarantino and write pages and pages of provocative or profane dialogue in long stretches, go for it. Just ensure that what your characters are saying is worth the time. If you want to write more like Alvin Sargent, preferring to hold back as much as what you put forth, that can work, too. In fact, it might be refreshing as too much screenwriting these days tends to be on-the-nose.

But no matter what you do, ask yourself if your writing could pass the David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin test. Can every word you’ve placed on the page pass muster?

If you can justify your final draft, then you’ve proven that what’s on the page will work on the screen. And every director, actor, and crew member will thank you for it.

*Feature Image: Ordinary People by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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