By: Ben Larned
One of the biggest screenwriting challenges is figuring out how to distinguish your work from the hundreds of others waiting in the slush pile. When so many stories have already been told, how can a writer hope to create something truly original? Faced with this quandary, it’s vital to remember the very things that draw us to our favorite films. Not only are story, character and theme important – often it’s the world and atmosphere that truly enchant us, and bring us back for repeat viewings.
The rub? Screenplays are more like blueprints, meant only to communicate action and dialogue – so how can you infuse tone into your script without weighing it down? The answer is tricky. Conveying “tone” and “atmosphere” in a screenplay isn’t an exact science, but there are ways to establish your story’s look and feel without resorting to flowery, overwrought description
EXPLORE PROSE – FIND YOUR VOICE
Of course, screenplays are not novels, and writing one with this intent is a mistake. That doesn’t mean that screenwriters can’t learn lessons from master prose stylists. Look at authors who create atmosphere through their writing. Flannery O’Connor is a genius craftsman of seedy, grotesque Southern Gothic environments; Shirley Jackson creates wickedly humorous suspense through her understated, sometimes gossipy style. Raymond Carver evokes blue collar misery through his conversational, succinct and precise focus on character’s voices. Ray Bradbury shows us awe through his own wide-eyed description. Toni Morrison creates incredibly involving worlds through her precise character names, personifying descriptions of environment and almost Biblical sense of symbolism.
But screenplays don’t have the luxury of page-long descriptions – they have to move. Poetry, though rarely narrative in form, can also provide important lessons due to its limited length. Explore poets who work in tangible atmospheres – Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg come to mind, with their grotesque but grounded imagery – and see how they use concise language to communicate their vision. These authors can’t act as formats for your script, of course, but allowing them to influence your descriptions can display your voice.
Predetermined genres are one of the most recognizable templates for tone. Film noir is existential, moody and full of shadows and chiaroscuro lighting. Horror evokes dread and often features an otherworldly atmosphere. Epics are, well, sweeping and cathartic. But simply choosing a genre doesn’t mean your script will embody it.
Examine some of the best genre films and look beyond their cinematic styles – what do their screenplays have in common? Dialogue, setting and character choice will often feature similarities. Film noir is often composed of hard-edged dialogue and morally ambiguous characters, set in sleazy urban locations. Epics will span multiple locations and decades, with expansive set pieces and theatrical speeches. Horror takes normal locations and people, and introduces something uncanny or otherworldly. Of course, these examples are broad, and not all genre films evoke a specific tone. One must go deeper.
ENVIRONMENT THROUGH DIALOGUE
It’s hard to explain color schemes, lighting and texture in a screenplay – and it’s not recommended to do so. That doesn’t mean your words, or your characters’ words, can’t give depth to their world. Narration can be tricky, but Sunset Boulevard uses it perfectly; the dead protagonist begins the film by conversationally describing a Hollywood full of decayed dreams and bloodthirsty reporters. Clueless gets inside Cher’s quirky mind through her simplistic but uniquely insightful introductions to her life.
Conversations can accomplish the same work. The Coen Brothers consistently display tonal brilliance in their back-and-forth dialogues, often Kafkaesque in their nihilistic absurdity. Vertigo becomes more than a sleuth story through its surrealistic speeches about the afterlife. Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight gains much from its cinematography and performances, but the dialogue is just as understated, with clever callbacks and quiet poeticisms that make exchanges feel like dreams. Its silent moments also speak volumes through specific character movements and action in the prose. Dialogue is difficult to get right, but calibrating it so that it communicates more than simple information will make your script stand out.
PAINT YOUR STORY IN DETAILS
When every house on the block looks the same, how do you distinguish one from the other? Through its details – the doormat, the car parked in front, the decor on the front porch. It’s a broad metaphor, but the same applies for screenplays. If you’re telling a revenge story, or spinning a murder mystery, fill your script with specificities and nuances that give it a lived-in quality. As stated above, it’s not the script’s job to describe every costume or a room’s furniture, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set your environment through the important things that characters notice or interact with.
Think of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a seedy crime thriller made brilliant by its details – the severed ear, or a clueless wife laughing at “her show” as her husband collapses. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night becomes far more than a vampire story with its skateboarding undead and mimes dancing with balloons, all essential quirks. The Third Man – penned by an already-brilliant author, Graham Greene – gives allowances for its wild cinematography through its side characters, such as the little boy crying “Murder!” and the terrifying confrontation on a ferris wheel. Val Lewton’s Cat People, penned by DeWitt Bodeen, makes its potentially campy concept frightening through its specific, isolated set pieces – an echoing pool room, a dark bus lane, and a nighttime zoo. Know your world, and let it speak through your screenplay – give us sound, population, and architecture of the environment.
It’s almost impossible to come up with a plot that hasn’t been explored before, and it isn’t necessary either. Make your script stand out through its atmosphere, mood and environment. Frame your story within a genre, where atmosphere is almost a requirement. Fill it with dialogue that gives the characters personality and the world flavor. Bring out unusual details. But all this must be done within the confines of your story – the above-mentioned tonal accomplishments are just examples. In the end, the mood must be your own. Initiate us into your world it through your voice.