More On Screenplay Language

In an essay called "The Language of Screenwriting," the playwright and scriptwriter Ronald Harwood writes, "A screenplay cannot be judged by form and technique, or by the abandonment of either. In his attempt to realize in its initial form a story that is, in the end, to be told in pictures, the writer must discover or invent a language that is both personal and effective, and that, above all, stimulates the mind's eye."5

The following description by Harwood is the first sequence in the screenplay for the film One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is somewhat more "literary" in its choice of words than many fine screenplays—perhaps because it is adapted from a famous novel—but it is wonderfully visual all the same. He evokes for us both the formidably grim gulag, which is itself a major character in the script, and the nature of Denisovich's own day-to-day situation. (This script, from a very late draft, uses the master-scene format referred to previously with somewhat more camera instructions than usual, and it appears to have been compressed for publication.)

FADE IN:

1. EXT. THE CAMP—HIGH ANGLE (HELICOPTER SHOT) BEFORE DAWN

From a distance the camp looks like a solitary star in the cosmos: it glows a sickly yellow; its circles of light are no more than a luminous blur. Beyond the star, as far as the eye can see, is snow. It seems like the middle of the night. It is intensely cold.

THE CAMERA MOVES IN VERY SLOWLY. SUPERIMPOSE MAIN CREDITS AND TITLES. Gradually it becomes possible to distinguish more of the area of the camp: two powerful searchlights sweeping from watchtowers on the perimeter; a circle of border lights marks the barbed wire fences; other lights are dotted about the camp. Now, slowly, the shapes of the huts and other buildings become discernible: the gates, the near watchtowers with their guards and machine guns, the prison block, the mess hall, the staff quarters.

END CREDITS AND TITLES.

A Russian SOLDIER, wearing the regulation long winter overcoat and fur cap, emerges from the staff quarters, pierced by the cold. He makes his way to where a length of frosted rail hangs.

THE SOLDIER takes up a hammer in his gloved hands and beats on the rail: a grating, clanging sound—

CUT TO:

2. INT. HUT 9 BEFORE DAWN

Under a blanket and coat lies IVAN DENISOVICH, bathed in sweat ...6

If the setting in which a hero finds him or herself is to serve as antagonist, it is essential that its features be described in a way that evokes it vividly. When the setting is not key to the story or would be familiar to us from life (or other movies), the architect Mies Van der Rohe's statement that "less is more" is the advice to follow. The following graduated series of exercises and assignments has been worked out with the idea of helping you to discover—or invent, if necessary—the screenwriting language that will best serve the kind of short script that you want to write. It is essential that the exercises be done in order, and with an open mind.

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