Not long ago, I read Cinematic Storytelling, which was written by the great Jennifer Van Sijll, and I just LOVED IT. This should be in the library of every aspiring screenwriter on the planet and every single technique should be memorized backwards and forwards. Period. This book is exactly what the screenwriting community needs right now.
If you’ve read every book under the sun about storytelling and how to write a screenplay, then Jennifer's your girl. She will take you to the next level, because her book is about how to render your story cinematically. Jennifer offers you 100 non-dialogue techniques to convey ideas in film. It's great. On the left page, she’ll give the technique, and on the right page, she’ll give screencaps and show you how it was written in the script. Writers are filmmakers, too, ya know, and this is quite literally an encyclopedia of “show, don’t tell.”
And yes, Jennifer’s qualified to write this book. She teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State. She has an MFA from USC's Department of Cinema-Television. She’s worked as a script analyst for Universal Pictures (Hey, Billy, Jenn’s a cutie. Can you hook me up? Hehehe…). She’s also been an analyst for independent producers and pay television. In 1994, she won the Panavision New Filmmaker Award. In 1995, she was named honorary Gilliland Chair at San Jose State for teaching excellence. She’s taught intensive weekend scriptwriting courses for UC Berkeley for six years.
Get this - Section 1 (the first 16 pages of her book) are available for free in .pdf form right here. (There are about 250 pages in all.)
Have you downloaded her sample chapter yet?
Turn to page 4 (page 7 of the .pdf document).
You will notice that this first free section talks about SPACE: 2-D & 3-D SCREEN DIRECTION. She explains things that should be common knowledge for every screenwriter - 2-D Space: the X-Axis (horizontal line), the Y-Axis (vertical line), and 3-D space: the Z-Axis (foreground to background).
Now consider this video:
From page 4 to page 7, she covers this opening sequence in Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train. First, this sequence is just plain fun. I love it. Consider how much information we learn about these two characters just by looking at their shoes and pants. One is a bit of a dandy with his two-tone shoes and fancy pants and the other has an every-man quality to him with his conservative lace-ups. Also, notice how the protagonist walks from left-to-right on the screen and the antagonist walks from right-to-left. To quote Jennifer:
As Westerners we read left-to-right. If you rented fifty studio-made movies, there’s a good chance that the “good guy” will enter screen left every time. When the “good guy” moves left-to-right our eyes moves comfortably. Subconsciously, we begin to make positive inferences.
Conversely, the antagonist usually enters from the right. Since our eyes aren’t used to moving from right-to-left, the antagonist’s entrance makes us uncomfortable. The screenwriter exploits this by transferring our learned discomfort to the character. The subtle irritant directs the audiences to see the character negatively. In the same way, we code a black hat as a negative symbol, we can also code screen direction negatively.
Now watching these two characters walk toward each other on the screen along the X-Axis like this implies an impending collision, and indeed, when they finally sit down, one shoe knocks the other one. As Jennifer says, “Visually, their meeting has already implied collision. This makes us lean in all the more as we suspect it is all going to be bad – very bad.”
So what’s been accomplished here? What’s the “Dramatic Value?” “By using screen direction to graphically suggest a pending collision, the film has set up conflict and character, and peaked our fears – all in under sixty seconds.”
There’s another shot in this clip I’d like to point out. At :58 seconds we are shown a variety of train tracks along the Y-Axis, which is covered on page 6 of her book. To quote Jennifer:
“After already graphically suggesting that the meeting of the men will result in collision, Hitchcock cuts to an exterior shot. Hitchcock takes us to the train tracks upon which their train is traveling. At first, we see only clean linear lines of the track. The train is “on course.” It moves smoothly with a fixed speed and an unobstructed route ahead. Now we come upon an exchange of tracks. The lines are a mess of competing directions. Then – suddenly the train veers off. It heads toward the right side of the frame. This is the same side previously occupied by the antagonist. The graphics suggest that the protagonist has abandoned his true course and moved to the world of the antagonist.”
What’s the “Dramatic Value” of this shot? “By using the Y-Axis to set up a linear established route, one that represents safety and normalcy, Hitchcock could also establish its opposite – the dangerous detour. The metaphor is also a succinct synopsis of the plot: What happens to a good man when his path is suddenly diverted?”
I love it.
This really helps aspiring screenwriters to think more visually and consider what information certain visuals conveys to the audience and empowers them to exploit that effectively. Every writer should have these techniques in the back of his/her mind when he/she writes in order to avoid excessive dialogue and verbal exposition.
My only complaint about this book (beyond the few minor grammatical errors I noticed) would be the screenplay insertions, because so many examples are very dated format techniques. We know from Dave Trottier, author of the Screenwriter's Bible, that contemporary specs cannot have camera angles or big, overwritten blocks of action lines as we see in so many of those examples. (This book was, in part, what inspired the Psycho Shower Scene post.) But I look at those techniques and feel inspired and wonder how we would write those techniques today and how I can incorporate those examples into my own stories and well, that should make Jennifer very happy.
Her book also reminded me again how Citizen Kane is so masterful in terms of cinematic techniques. You should turn to page 10 (page 13 of the .pdf document) where Kane paces along the Z-Axis and walks from the foreground to the background and back to the foreground again. Without a word of dialogue, Orson Welles communicates to the audience that Kane has returned to a state of boyhood.