Welcome to the Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay

Welcome to the Visual Mindscape of Screenwriting.

Like attempting to create a logline out of a full screenplay, deciding what to write about in my first column out of all the topics I want to share with you can be a little daunting.

So let me begin by explaining the whole concept the the Visual Mindscape. Actually it is one of the most basic and fundamental truths about cinema and that is

Film is first and foremost a visual medium

But that said, does it not make sense that the screenplay which is the spine, heart and soul of a film should also be a visual experience? Should we not as screenwriters exploit the visual aspects of our story to enhance the overall storytelling experience?

If in Citizen Kane you were ‘told’ the meaning of the word ‘rosebud’, would it have had the same impact as it did when you saw the sleigh being tossed into the furnace?  Of course not!

Rosebud

The real magic of film is in the images that it embeds in our emotional memories; so powerful that they on occasion remain with us for the rest of our lives.

One of the greatest examples of the Visual Mindscape is in the amazing montage scene of Carl’s and Elie’s life together in Up.

Up

Francois Truffaut once said about his films that they offer the viewer an opportunity to experience, in the safety of a darkened theatre, emotions that they rarely get to fully experience in the real world.

Think about it. It is very possible that the last time you really laughed or cried or experienced an adrenaline rush may well have taken place in a movie theater.

Novels, Stage Plays, and Screenplays

A novelist expresses their story by using a form of internal dialogue through the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and memories of its characters.

A stage play primarily articulates its story through the verbal interaction of the characters.

A fully realized screenplay tells its story through images; through a “Visual Mindscape” told within the dramatic structure.

Of course, dialogue is vital to the screenplay. I am not saying otherwise. And, of course, the set design is of significant importance in a stage play. But when you go to see a stage play, no matter how extraordinary the staging is, you are predetermined to ‘listen’ to the play.  When you walk into a movie theater, you are predetermined to ‘watch’ the movie.

Show rather than Tell

Now there are many screenwriters who use a playwright’s approach in writing their screenplays. They ‘tell’ their story rather than ‘show’ it and there are a number of reasons for this.

  • Often simply telling the story is sufficient enough to get the story across.
  • It offers more ‘white’ to the page which writers are being constantly told is necessary for them to get the screenplays read. I will go into this idiocy in more detail later.
  • And finally, it’s just plain easier to tell a story than to seek out the visual interpretations and external symbols of the story.

It takes more time, more thought and more craftsmanship to find the visual implications of the screenplay because it is often not readily available to us.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a classic film and arguably the greatest western ever made. It runs almost three hours and has only fifteen pages of dialogue.

I suggest to you that when you do not seek the Visual Mindscape of your story, it will never rise to its full potential.

It can’t. You have set limits to it.

You have deprived your screenplay and your reader/viewer of the real magic of what a screenplay can offer.

That is the magic of discovery.

I don’t like to deal with absolutes, but here is one that I have no reservations in stating.

“Whether you choose to ignore it or not, there is always an image on the screen.” 

Even when you choose to tell rather than show your story, the visual aspect still remains. It doesn’t disappear.

It may be two talking heads standing in front of a blank wall.  It may be boring, cold and empty, but one absolute is that there is always an image even if you have chosen to overlook it.

So, if a movie audience is predetermined to watch rather than listen, isn’t telling the story rather than showing it counter-productive?

I believe that a fully realized screenplay exploits the visual potential of each scene making use of what I call the “Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay”.

This is done by exploring:

  • The visual composition of the story within the narrative
  • The visual expression and interpretation of the character’s ‘inner journey’
  • The visual stimuli of the story to create a visceral experience within the reader.

Let’s go back to Citizen Kane for a moment. At no point in the film are you told what ‘rosebud’ means, but when you see the sled thrown into the furnace you put the pieces together. You recognize the implications of his childhood and discover a certain surprising truth about Charles Foster Kane.

The important point here is that you discover this truth and thus you own it.

Let’s say I tell you about a car crash I just witnessed.

I describe to you the details of what I saw. I tell you how one car tried to beat the light and the other car pulled out too soon. I tell you all the details of the accident as I saw it.

Now let’s say, rather than my telling you about the accident, you saw it firsthand. Which is going to be the more powerful experience? My telling you about the accident or you witnessing it?

Of course, witnessing the accident is far more powerful than my telling you about it.

This is the difference between telling and showing.

Now let’s up the ante.

What if you weren’t just a witness to the accident but were actually involved in it? What if you were one of the victims?

How much more powerful an experience is that? What is changing here?

What changes is the degree of the visceral experience . . . the degree of the emotional impact this accident has on you.

As a screenwriter, creating the visceral experience in the reader is your ultimate objective and in order to achieve it, you must do so through the Visual Mindscape.

The Visual Mindscape is the gateway to the Visceral Experience.

If a character in my screenplay is involved in a serious accident, and I want the shock and horror to viscerally translate to the reader, then I will write the scene with the following elements in mind.

  • The scene will describe only what is seen in the moment
  • The pace of the narrative will match the pace of the action
  • It will all take place in the absolute present tense.

The scene would read something like this.

Tires SCREECH. Steel SCREAMS against Steel. The driver’s door BUCKLES. His head SMASHES HARD against the steering wheel. TEETH FLY OFF in all directions. The WINDSHIELD IMPLODES. SHARDS of METAL RIP through fabric and skin.

Now this style of writing may fly in the face of the white on the page dictum that is being bandied around these days, but I am not a big proponent of white on the page just for the sake of white space.

White On The Page

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what is meant by white on the page, it is the notion that professional readers who need to read and prepare coverage for several scripts a day would prefer screenwriters trim their narrative to the bare bones thus making for a shorter read.

But it is in the narrative where the storytelling really exists. To strip it of its full dramatic impact creates exactly what readers really hate; a boring, superficial screenplay.

 The Haiku of Screenwriting

That said, I do want to be very clear that part of the art of screenwriting is the ability to tell the story in a succinct near haiku style. This form of brevity allows the story to flow and it allows the writer to remain in the absolute present tense of the story. But this should never go beyond the point where it strips the narrative of its creative purpose.

I actually believe that white on the page is another form of devaluing the writer’s role in the film making process. I question when and why white on the page became more important than what is on the page?

Our job as screenwriters is to write in such a way as to engage the reader in the visceral experience of our story and allow them to participate in the adventure. This is far more important (or at least it should be) to the professional reader than a script’s word count.

This reminds me of something my mentor once said about the relationship between the writer and the reader. W.O. Mitchell was a Canadian novelist and revered in that country as deeply as Mark Twain is in the United States. Bill believed that the writer and the reader were in fact collaborators in the creative process.  Let it be his words that conclude this article. As a constant reminder I have these words framed and on my desk.

I look forward over the weeks ahead to continue to share with you the Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay.

I am also giving a lecture on the Visual Mindscape and book signing at;

The Writers Store
3510 West Magnolia Blvd. Burbank CA, 91505
March 30th 2pm to 4pm

The Creative Partnership

“The art experience is not private: it is a bridging, or at least the illusion of bridging, between two creative partners; the artist and his reader. If the artist has found fragments out of his past life, and then, built an illusion in which every single bit is the truth, and the whole thing is a more dramatic, more meaningful lie, there will be triggered off for his partner explosions of recognition, which the reader mistakenly attributes solely to the artist. Actually, the recognition belongs to both of them, and the readers contribution comes out of his own subconscious notebook during the art experience. It is quite possibly the most intimate relationship between two humans, barring none.”

W.O. Mitchell

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3 thoughts on “Welcome to the Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay

  1. Nikki

    *She lets out the breath she didn’t know she was holding” I love when something appears just at the right time (doesn’t just happen in movies). This article came to me at the right time as I embark on a journey as a script reader. As a writer I struggle with the “right” amount of visual description…how much I “force” the reader to feel. Now I don’t feel some bad when I force the reader to feel uncomfortable and angry and guilty for being a voyuer. Thanks Bill.

  2. Patrick Mahon

    At last, defence of emotive description. Like you say, you’ve gotta be brief but how else can you communicate the symbolic subtext of the story? Always interested in the concrete means to move the viewer/reader. More, more, more, please!

  3. Rachel

    Thanks for “giving permission” to explore visual descriptions! I agree, I want to SEE the movie when I read a script – and would hope others (my evaluators) would too. As a newbie, I’ve been frustrated by the constant admonition to leave white space on the page. I understand the that the skill of the director, visual effects, DP, etc will fill in a lot of those blanks, but I view my job as the scriptor (ha) to provide a game plan of what could be possible (and my intentions as the world-creator). Anyway, nice to read a different view on the subject, and I’m looking forward to future articles.

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