Common Screenwriting Sayings And What They Mean

Get familiar with some well-known and some commonly used screenwriting terms.

Let’s kick it back to some screenwriting basics. There are some common screenwriting phrases and sayings that writers should be familiar with. 

1. “Show, Don’t Tell”

So, this phrase basically tells the writer how to explain a scene to the audience and show them what’s happening in the screenplay structure. 

When reading a script format line-by-line, the audience is supposed to be watching the movie. Now, this doesn’t mean inserting mid-scene that Joe, for example, stands in front of the bar. It means to use active language to explain what is happening in the scene in real-time. Writers need to find a way to unfold it through active description. So, for example, in the line;

“Interior Mary’s House – Foyer – Day
Mary (45) is a neurotic and timid housewife who hasn’t left the house in years. She thinks about exiting the front door but decides it’s a bad idea. She walks away to the kitchen.”

Now, this example is not at all visual. This line doesn’t allow the reader to see that as it is just stating facts. It will not elicit any vision or allow the mind to conjure up a picture. What the readers see in this line is just a woman, Mary, standing there. Basically, she is just thinking so, the reader can’t actually see anything. 

Considering that these facts are vital to the plot, there must be a way to explain this to the audience with a more visualizing quality. 

So, let’s rephrase that line and try to communicate it a little bit better in the screenplay structure. 

“Interior Mary’s House – Foyer – Day
Mary (45) wears an oversized fur coat as she limps to the door with the support of her metal cane. 
She peeks out the peephole of the front door. 
POV Mary: There’s nobody there.
MARY
Who’s there!?
She backs away from the door, retracting to the kitchen.”

What’s different about this line is that it contains action. It’s not spelling out everything but the reader can guess a sense of nervousness from Mary from the script format. The readers can visualize the scene with the physical shots. Now that she is put into action, her personality comes out more. 

The first example is a poor craft of screenwriting and is not suitable for a screenplay structure. It can be good for a novel, however, for screenwriting, the writer’s aim should be to make the scene very visual. This gives more flow to the script and allows the reader to feel that character’s emotions. 

2. “Start A Scene Late And End A Scene Early”

This phrase is to address what Mike refers to as Lazy Writing. Imagine a movie scene where the character wakes up and wears his pajamas in the morning. He walks into the kitchen to get some coffee and then goes to the living room, and so on. It’s after all these somewhat useless scenes that the character has a conversation with someone and gets into conflict. These scenes don’t give much information about that character and take about 20 seconds of screen time to get to the point of conflict. 

Writers may use the Paul Thomas Anderson movies like Boogie Nights for reference however, it doesn’t usually work for all filmmakers. This kind of pacing can work for slower dramas that have slow introductions into a scene. The point of this statement is to not deter writers from writing slow introductions. Rather it shows a way to improve the craft and then, the writer can do whatever they think is good for the story. However, if you opt for a slow start, keep in mind that more often than not, the audience is going to get bored. 

When the audience is watching someone doing actions that don’t contribute to the narrative or push the story forward, they lose interest. Nobody wants to see someone walking into a room unless it makes sense in the context of suspense. 

What Does It Mean To Start The Scene Late?

So, for example, if the audience knows that there is a bomb in the room, then they would not want the character to go into the room. What this does is that it keeps them engaged in the scene and adds emotion to it. But in a circumstance where there’s no emotion tied to the action, just start the scene later.

Get into the scene from the point that will move the narrative forward. So, when it says to start the scene late, it means to start when the conflict is beginning. Don’t include a long lead up unless it attaches an entertainment value to the scene. The introductory moments of people walking in and giving pleasantries messes with the pacing of the scene. 

A screenplay is very musical in that it flows like a song. So, if there’s a scene where everything is going very fast and a break needs to be taken. This is when it’s okay to show the character walking down the hallway into the room. In general, make sure to enter the scene as late as possible meaning when the conflict begins. 

Leaving The Scene Early

As important as it is to start the scene late, it is equally as important to end the scene early. One a scene level, when there is a complication and then, the character has some kind of a resolution that takes the audience to the next scene. 

For example, if the character is locked in a room and decides to climb through the attic to get out. There is no need to show how the character gets ready for that move like wearing gloves, or boots, etc. Directly move onto the next scene where they are going into the attic. These scenes are a heated topic in developments where people argue about whether they need to show why the audience has a particular object in the next scene.

Just to reiterate, come in as late as possible and get out as late as possible. Start out by getting to the meat of the conflict in the scene and get out as fast as possible to the next scene with the resolution. 

3. “Draw The Eye Down The Page And Not Across”

Let’s understand this phrase with the help of the first example about the character Mary in a box-like script format. 

“Interior Mary’s House – Foyer – Day
Mary (45) is a neurotic and timid housewife who hasn’t left the house in years. She thinks about exiting the front door but decides it’s a bad idea. She walks away to the kitchen.”

The above is just a big block of text. The reader is going to respond much better to reading something that is more spaced out. For example;

“Interior Mary’s House – Foyer – Day
Mary (45) wears an oversized fur coat as she limps to the door with the support of her metal cane. 
She peeks out the peephole of the front door. 
POV Mary: There’s nobody there.
MARY
Who’s there!?
She backs away from the door, retracting to the kitchen.”

In this example, there are a multitude of shots in a spaced-out context. This helps in guiding the reader’s vision and makes it easier for them to understand the plot in the script format. So, whenever the writer wants to add a new shot, just take a line. 

This works as a paragraph change in a novel. If the writer writes in this style where they are always being visual and take a new line per shot, the byproduct of that is going to be white on the page. Then, the reader’s eyes are going to go down the page and not across. In this example, the reader is looking at shot after dialogue after shot. This makes it a lot more streamlined and a lot easier to read than the block style writing. In the block style, the scene bakes multiple shots into paragraphs which are literary dense. What happens, in this case, is that the reader actually has to do double-takes as they read. Once this starts happening, the script loses the audience. 

This is why in screenwriting courses, SAN teaches writers how to use action description in a fashion that will not bore the reader. The spaced-out writing style is very effective for screenplays and draws in the reader. Writers who can write good action descriptions are rare but they tend to score much better because their writing is visual. This is why knowing how to write action descriptions is one of the most important skills that writers can learn. 

The Bottom Line

These common phrases determine whether the readers or the producers will have a good impression of the script or not. The first thing that they notice after the title is the action description. If the action description is not distracting and the flow of the script is good, then the readers will be able to fully focus on the story. 

If you are a writer who wants to learn how to write action descriptions really well, then join the script development masterclass or any other screenwriting courses at SAN. You can also join the mentorship program that we offer as it will teach you how to do this properly. 

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