Why You Shouldn't Reference the Camera in your Screenplay
As a script consultant, I see tons of well-constructed and interesting screenplays that simply cannot help but indulge in the cinematic appeal of camera direction. Screenwriters tend to think visually: that's often why we choose our medium over other forms of writing.
We know what information ought be highlighted or downplayed, what associative ties viewers need, what makes the most striking image thematically or aesthetically, etc.
Maybe, somewhere in the back of our minds, we all wish we were directors too.
And when a pedant with a pen comes along and writes "DON'T CALL OUT SHOTS!" in red all over our carefully measure action lines, we feel like our art is being attacked.
I know, it seems like an arbitrary rule. And I get it. This is your piece and you want your vision to be realized as clearly as possible.
But what if I told you that calling the shots actually makes your vision weaker? Harder to attain?
Here's a few reasons why referring to non-diegetic elements always weighs down a good screenplay.
Shots are a matter of style - and a writer detests style.
While the work of directors may seem ageless, direction is a matter of style. A Trip to the Moon might have been cutting edge filmmaking in its time, you don't see many people adopting a Méliès approach to direction these days.
Granted: screenplays involve style in their own right. Soliloquys can be a fantastic way of exploring character motivation and themes, not to mention a beautiful form of writing in and of themselves. Even in film, they have been used to exposit information expediently and to draw viewers into a character's perspective.
And yet, many screenwriters today would not dream of writing a soliloquy, unless the conspicuousness of the soliloquy itself was one of their goals.
It doesn't matter if the Bard himself used this tool; a screenwriter who uses it to it's greatest intended effect today would be accused of a stagnant narrative and of "showing, not telling."
While a screenwriter is savvy to what has become unstylish in the literary world, a director will have a completely different set of skills and interests that keep them abreast of current filmmaking trends.
A few months ago, I was reading a fascinating and visually ambitious screenplay for a consultation. The main character was plagued with vivid nightmares and waking hallucinations that were torturously engaging to read.
However, this screenplay fell into the trap of trying to control its visuals from a non-diegetic standpoint. During one of the dream scenes, the reader was commanded to imagine that the dream was occurring while visually overlapping with the image of the sleeping protagonist.
Now, I am far from a professional director. But I know that when I imagined that scene playing out as specified, it looked outdated and cheap. I could be totally wrong here, but this seemed like the kind of direction that might have been fashionable on the Twilight Zone. A modern director who keeps up with the times would probably know a far better way to communicate the effect the writer was going for.
Unfortunately, that wasn't really possible, because...
Controlling non-diegetic elements distract the reader... and the writer
Writing a screenplay is about more than just setting up a pre-transcript (prescript? prescription?) of what the film will look like. The words behind a film are not a stagnant frame for the film to rest on: it is a working mechanism.
While "spelling things out" for the reader of a screenplay is not always the best move, explaining motives and emotionality through your writing is actually more substantive and less lazy than simply telling the reader what they ought to be seeing in their minds as they read. While a more passive approach to indicating important elements of the script might seem to entail a clear, step-by-step explanation of what a viewer will see, this is far from the truth.
For instance, if you are laying a visual hint that a knife in the background may play a role in a murder that has not taken place yet, you don't want your reader to catch on too quickly:
John puts the KNIFE on the coffee table. [This is the knife that will be used to
kill him in Act 2].
That spoils the fun for the reader, who might be your script consultant and therefore needs to be able to judge whether or not the narrative works on screen.
However, this mistake can only be exacerbated by "passively" noting what the camera ought to *wink* be looking at:
We zoom in on John's hand as he places the KNIFE on the table. The dies irae begins playing
over the scene.
Do you see how that isn't exactly passive?
And what's worse is that without the motivation for John doing what he does in the scene being clear, the director may struggle to interpret the intention of the scene, or more likely ignore it all together and do whatever they want with your work.
I doubt that anyone is in danger of misinterpreting the example that I provided, but this problem gets worse when more abstract motivations are at work.
Take the aforementioned example of the screenplay I consulted on: the screenwriter was unable communicate the effect of the dream scene because they were too busy describing what they wanted the reader/viewer to see. Why exactly did we need to see her face while we observed her dreams? Was it simply to demonstrate that she was, in fact, dreaming? Or am I missing something, here?
It's important to keep your goals for your screenplay in mind above your ambitions for the film. Yes, if all goes well, people will line up around the block to see your movie on open night. But right now, you have a job to do. And a writer's job is to tell a story.
Frankly, it's unprofessional
Someone had to say it.
I'm sorry, everybody. I truly am.
No one wants to consider that their art might be a tool for playing professional politics. But the truth is that when most people working for a production company read through screenplays, they are looking for any reason to put your screenplay down early so they can move on to the next one.
You don't want to give any reader an excuse to stop reading early: you wouldn't misspell the name of your non-profit on a grant proposal; you wouldn't call the Roman Empire 'based af' on a history essay; you wouldn't let a single error in grammar or spelling get in the way of you winning a screenwriting contest.
So, why let something like calling out shots and other non-diegetic elements ruin your chances of being taken seriously and given a chance?
A writer creates story, while a director displays that story
A director is a lens (pun intended) through which an audience experiences a screenplay. Your job as a screenwriter is, while not entirely divorced, decidedly distinct from theirs.
Even if you intend to direct their own screenplay, that's a job for later; when you're done with the screenplay, you'll change hats and devise a shot list.
You'll take different things into account as a director. How you are going to imply emphasis, how you are going to make motivations clear.
But for now, your job is to get all that good stuff on paper.
Now, if you're anything like me you, have a particular love of television. Perhaps even more than film. And if you know anything about TV, it's that writers basically are the directors.
In film, all you hear about are directors. In television, all you hear about are writers.
Showrunners are writers. Producers are often writers. Writers insert themselves as actors in their own pieces.
And if you've ever seen a screenplay for a television show, you know that they call out on non-diegetic elements and shots. Because chances are, the writers are going to be involved with this later anyway.
Frankly, I don't like it. If you want to write for television, then you have a little more leeway to describe how scenes ought to look and I can't really stop you. (Not that I can stop you if you write for film, either).
But consider what we talked about. Calling out shots, camera angles, the score, etc. are crutches that you do not want to become reliant on. You are a writer: you know how to use words to create story. You do that. And if you want to keep honing your craft, I recommend that you retract the bumpers and learn how to bowl like a pro.
To the foolishly kind-hearted individuals reading this, I want you're screenplay to succeed. I love nothing more than a story that just works. And I love helping people achieving the closest thing to perfection in art that human beings are capable of. That's why I'm a script consultant.
If I write "DON'T CALL OUT SHOTS!" in big, obnoxious red letters all over your screenplay, I want you to know that I don't call out these problems because I am one of the many readers out there looking for something bad to say about your work. I know how much you care about your art, and that makes me care too. I call out these problems because I know that you can do better.
And I want to see that.