In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer says of his romance with Diane Keaton’s titular love interest: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
Whatever your opinion of Woody Allen, the line’s an iconic one, and one, too, that can be applied to the screenplay – because a screenplay has to constantly move forward or it will become that dead shark. No matter the genre, if narrative momentum – that propulsive forward motion of the dramatic action – ebbs rather than flows, then you’ve lost the reader.
More often than not, that reader is, at best, a professional Story Analyst racing to finish your script and write coverage for agents or execs. Or, at worst, an assistant who, having worked a ten-hour day rolling calls, falls into bed bleary-eyed and pulls your script up on the iPad…The bottom line is: your script will be speed-read.
And as much as screenplay formatting has evolved over time, the strategic deployment of white space and typography – capitalization, bold and italics – is more than just the style of the day.
Screenplay formatting has become uniquely adapted not just to be speed-read – but to be speed-read on a screen.
When I started work as a Story Analyst at a major agency in the mid-2000s, scripts were printed physically, bound with brads and distributed in-office or sent via courier to freelance readers – as they had been for decades, more or less since the beginning of the film industry.
The changeover to PDF, and now new platforms like ScriptHop’s “Packet,” has seen a near eradication of the screenplay as a physical, printed medium. And the way in which we read has changed accordingly.
We read at the speed at which we swipe across a screen. And so the script must direct our eye to the vital details of the story or risk them getting lost, and losing the reader along the way.
But there are ways of building out the page, by strategically utilizing white space and typography, to generate a fluid reading experience that drives the eye down the screen. These days, such manipulation of the shape of the page is necessary – the velocity of the read depends upon it. Like the farmer speeds-the-plow, the screenwriter must speed-the-read.
The evolving stylistics of the screenplay over the years are as much a symptom of changing attention spans as they are of advancing technology. Scripts used to be more novelistic. Prose was densely packed, paragraphs enormous, white space minimal.
Revisit the script for Citizen Kane and you do battle with a bulwark of text on the first page – two massive paragraphs (twelve and fifteen lines, respectively). The action description orients us in Xanadu on the cusp of Kane’s death, but it’s a mountain of prose to climb.
Move ahead to the 1970s, the height of the New Hollywood, Taxi Driver lumbers out of the gate with a wall of text, a ten-line paragraph that paints a vivid portrait of protagonist Travis Bickle. Meanwhile, John Milius’s scripts for the likes of Apocalypse Now and The Wind and the Lion read like Russian tomes with slug lines.
Apart from a few outliers, like Walter Hill with his minimalist, staccato style – best seen in The Driver and Alien – the screenplay continues to read like a sort of hybrid novel.
Leap forward to Back to the Future in 1985, and we start to see the paragraphs of action description leaned down to two or three lines. We also see the strategic weaponization of capitalization to emphasize essential details, all of it elevated to a wildly efficient art form.
Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale says that he first hit on the idea of writing “short, spaced sentences in intercut action sequences” when writing the second draft of 1941 in 1975.
“I had not seen this technique used exactly this way before. This was absolutely for readability.”
Gale took the innovation a step further by eliminating slug lines altogether in 1941 in the “THE BIG ACTION CLIMAX SEQUENCE” in which “each line of description was basically a different shot.” See pg. 143:
“By this time in the script, the reader knew who was who and where they were,” says Gale. “And I wanted to convey the frantic pace of the sequence and put images in the head of the reader. I used a lot of exclamation points too. Also, eliminating slug lines reduced the page count – always important! This was the draft Spielberg read that made him want to make the picture.”
Gale’s propulsive language keeps the action and comedy at a fever pitch, always surging forward. At the bottom of pg. 143, top of 144:
Through the barrage of short sentences, strategic capitalization and underlining, and comic intensity of exclamation points, we feel the booms from the big guns, the dizzying spin of the Ferris Wheel, all of it building, intensifying, speeding to the moment when the Ferris Wheel’s loosed from its moorings and rockets “straight down the pier to the edge, and then off: it falls into the Pacific Ocean!!”
Gale’s innovations aren’t without precedent. He cites William Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the first script that took real liberties with screenwriting style.
“Goldman didn’t use slug lines at all, but broke up the action with the use of “CUT TO”…almost always as the end of a thought,” which yields an “unconventional (but very readable) style.”
Although it’s Gale’s technique of employing short burst sentences with each line equating to a different shot that has become the accepted style while “CUT TO” has been virtually eliminated from contemporary screenwriting, both are undeniably influential.
Just look to Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan’s script for The Dark Night or Damien Chazelle’s script for Whiplash. The action description is in constant, surging forward motion – always readable, always speed-readable.
In The Dark Knight, the opening bank robbery sequence toggles between characters (in clown masks and named accordingly) and locations effortlessly, allowing the reader to track the action by employing capitalization and, perhaps most importantly, injecting dashes and ellipses to emulate the propulsive forward motion of the what’s playing out.
Take, for example, pages 2-3:
Short, two-to-three sentence paragraphs and capitalization drive our eye from “SHOOTS” to “SLUMPS” to “FORCES,” “SLAMS” and “VAULTS,” while the ellipses keep the action constantly speeding forward. Sentences do not come to an end with a proper period until there’s a rest in the forward motion.
The writing emulates the experience of a fast-paced bank robbery sequence, allowing the reader to not just visualize the scene in their mind’s eye, but to feel it.
In Whiplash, Damien Chazelle further manipulates the typography, employing bold text and underlining to provide an even more pronounced map for the eye.
On page 31, we see a recreation of the climactic moment from Chazelle’s short film of the same name, in which newbie piano student Andrew faces off against intense teacher Fletcher:
As in The Dark Knight, Chazelle employs ellipses and dashes to generate momentum, to rocket the eye down the page. What’s more, he utilizes sentence fragments – shards of vivid detail – along with bold text and underlining to ensnare the reader’s eye.
Even swiping from page to page at speed, the reader can’t miss this moment because the page is built to ensure it will be seen and read.
Each page of a screenplay requires this kind precision engineering on the part of the writer but it must also feel fluid, natural, propulsive – and always in motion – to the reader.
Bob Gale says, “You're writing for producers, studio execs, agents and money people who don't have a lot of time for reading because they've got a stack of two dozen more scripts to go through.”
“Having a lot of white space on the page is far less intimidating than seeing a wall of text. Too much unnecessary description is a real killer, so you have to be brutal with your own writing.”
The process of writing and building out the pages of a screenplay will continue to evolve as the ways in which we read continue to change. ScriptHop’s new “Packet,” for example, paves the way for the first genuinely interactive script.
But at the end of the day, we’re telling stories. Stories that will hopefully be made into movies. But stories that will be read – speed-read – first. And the most important thing, says Gale, is “to make it readable.”
Capture the reader, drive the eye – and speed-the-read!