Images and Sound
More than dialogue, a movie is about images created from sound and pictures. The narrative is how a writer describes what the reader would be seeing and hearing were s/he watching the filmed movie of his or her script.
Like everything else in a script, narrative needs to show the reader not tell the reader. It should convey to the reader what s/he is seeing and should strive to create within the reader the experience of watching the film.
Narrative is Crucial
Often one of the most overlooked aspects of screenwriting, narrative is essential as film is a visual narrative. As writers we want to focus on dialogue. But it’s the narrative that conveys the plot, pacing and information that informs the story.
Narrative is what the reader sees in his or her head.
When writing narrative it’s helpful to read it aloud to hear it for yourself. Does it flow? Does it seem clear? Does it convey the information and mood you’re striving for? When you have someone read your script for you, ask for feedback on the narrative. Is it clear? Is it easily understood? Is it compelling? If your reader has questions or seems confused, you will need to go back to your script and rewrite those scenes.
Keep it simple.
In good narrative, each idea is like a edit cut of the film. And like the visual cuts of a movie, the narrative needs to be efficient and effective. It needs to be brief and clear so that it can be easily understood by a reader without them having to stop and ponder what they are supposed to be seeing in their mind’s eye.
The narrative should contain the salient information in such a way that the reader can instantaneously grasp the location, the characters and the tone or mood of the moment.
The most efficient way to achieve that effect is keep sentences declarative, active and in the present tense; distill complex ideas and images into easily grasped descriptions; and limit information to only what is relevant, necessary and can be seen. Anything that is not absolutely essential only serves to distract the reader away from the visual information that s/he should be focused on in that moment.
Tone and Style Count
In all good scripts, the narrative has a consistent tone and style to it. This creates your “voice” as a writer. It is the way that you convey the telling of your movie. That tone can be familiar, it can formal. Sometimes it is intentionally sparse and schematic, other times it is more flowery.
In “Lethal Weapon,” the screenwriter Shane Black uses some amusing asides written in his voice directly to the reader. At the time, this was novel and amusing and very effective. Now, it’s been done to death and feels hackneyed.
In “Basic Instinct,” Joe Esterhaus used almost no description whatsoever. In interrogation scenes this became an incredibly effective way to keep the reader turning pages.
Find Your Voice
Your script will have a certain tone and pace created by the style of narrative you choose to employ. Regardless of the tone and style you choose, it should remain consistent. Of course, it will vary for effect when trying to convey different emotional moments.
Like prose used in literature, finding your own style takes time and practice. But unlike literature you are describing action that people are watching – that is all. You are not telling the reader information for them to contemplate and consider outside of what is occurring on screen.
The best way to find your own voice as a screenwriter is to read. Read scripts. See how other writers convey their ideas. Read books. See how authors convey their ideas. And read graphic novels. Some of the most interesting narrative description being conveyed today is found in graphic novels.
Where do you get your narrative ideas? Where do you find clever turns of a phrase? What inspires you to craft that perfect visual image?