Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Pictorial Element

December 16th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: The Pictorial Element [P. 88]:

Most tableaus, of course, have been done many times. It is up to you to think up new and unique ways of combining beauty with drama in one great moment which will lift the scene from the commonplace.

When you come to a big crisis in your plot, think out a beautiful and dramatic scene. There should come a moment, or many moments, in which you can hold your action while the audience is subconsciously affected by the artistic value of the picture.

Have you watched many silent films? Teaching a course on the History of American Screenwriting has afforded me a great excuse to dip into the treasure trove of countless movies from that era. And if there is one takeaway above all others a writer can glean from those movies it’s this: Film is primarily a visual medium.

Motion. Pictures. Both of those words speak to the visual nature of movies.

I am reminded of this every time I fly on an airplane and choose not to listen to the onboard movie, but see if I can track the story just with the visuals, in effect watching a silent movie. Films which rely on action and visuals work. Films which rely on talking heads and dialogue, not so much.

Back 90 years ago, Loos and Emerson were already saying, “Most tableaus… have been done many times.” How to come up with unusual and visual scenes after the tens of thousands of movies that have produced? That is a central part of our challenge as screenwriters. Imagination meets visual sensibilities.

Here is a video in which Martin Scorcese talks about the importance of visual literacy.

Bottom line, each of us should do whatever we can to up the visual power of our scripts.

Next week: More screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

One thought on “Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Pictorial Element

  1. blknwite says:

    great Scorcese interview…

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