Screenwriting: A Visual Art?

The closest I ever came to having a nervous breakdown was during “Intro to Design 1” at the Illinois Institute of Art.  All because of a damn pen…

Foundations of Visual Design

“Intro to Design 1” focused on the 4 visual building blocks that make up everything in the physical world:

  • Point – marks a position in space.
  • Line – an infinite series of points.
  • Plane – a flat surface extending in height and width.
  • Negative Space – the space around and between the above elements (sometimes referred to as White Space).

    Line Study

To ingrain these foundational principles that define space, for each project we were required to use a Rapidiograph — a drafting pen with a needle-like tip used by engineers, architects, and designers.  Well… used by them until CAD and disposable nylon tip technology began to replace this ulcer-inducing device.

With the right technique (which I hadn’t quite mastered yet while doing projects like the one on the right), the Rapidiograph creates a crisp, consistent line.  But used incorrectly, or lose focus for just a moment, and hours of work are trashed in the blink of an eye with a straying line or a blob of ink.  Needless to say, I had to pull several all-nighters to completely redo projects from scratch.

But after all the stress, flurries of expletives, and what felt like a borderline nervous breakdown, only in hindsight do I see the value of this method of learning because…

Achieving visual balance is a permanent part of my creative self.

What a heartwarming story, but what the hell does that have to do with screenwriting?

A lot, actually.

Following is a comment from a coverage report for one of my scripts:

“From a pure readability standpoint, this script is a well-oiled machine.  Pages nearly always reflect the concept of white space and the writer has an excellent understanding of how to guide a reader logically through a scene lingering only on those details or moments that are salient to this particular story.”

“The concept of white space.”  What a marvelous paradox of screenwriting:

In a practice that’s about putting words on paper, the white space (negative space) is as important as what is written (points and lines).

This concept did not come easy to me, however.  Sure, I “got it” in my head, but without that real gut-level connection, I could only see my words as the most important things on the page.

Then, while reading William Akers’ book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great, a connection was made.  In the “Format” section, I came across examples from well-known scripts like Alien and The 40 Year Old Virgin where, like the framed art image above, Akers uses lines instead of actual words to show how text should fill out a page (or NOT fill out a page, as the case my be).

This bridge between screenwriting and design was a real eye-opener.  No longer was I just trying to distill my writing because I knew I was supposed to, but began to feel how a page should look, just like when creating an artistic work.  The effect on my writing was tremendous.

Now some of you might be thinking…

“But if my…

…concept is original and my story is good and my characters are interesting and the dialogue is crisp and the twists are clever and the plot is… and… and… and… why does any of that matter?”

Good question.

The Hollywood Reader
Readers expect (demand) that scripts have lots of white space.  Sometimes readers and industry professionals will flip through a script and immediately decide if the author is a good or bad writer.  That’s because they’re looking for white space above all else.  And if my script doesn’t have it, the reader will often assume the script is a “PASS” even before reading the first page.

I’m a big fan of story structure.  If my script is bloated with unnecessary action description and dialogue, it throws the beat structure out of whack, which throws the pace out of whack, which throws the story out of whack, which throws the… well, you get the picture.

The Purpose of a Screenplay
This is strictly my personal approach. Even as I’m trying to write the most vibrant, interesting content, I still view the script as a blank canvas or as raw material to be used to fuel someone else’s vision.  Although a screenplay should only contain what is seen and heard, I don’t like to write HOW something is seen or heard unless it directly affects the story and/or plot. This typically saves me from letting unnecessary content make its way into later drafts.

Finding the Story
Oftentimes, by eliminating unnecessary text to achieve visual balance, I’m led to hidden aspects of the story or the true essence of a scene.  It also helps me see when a chunk of the script is completely unnecessary.  While it can be painful to “kill my darlings,” the personal reward is so much sweeter in the long run.  I knew I was becoming a better writer when I was just as excited about deleting content as I was creating it.


This connection between writing and visual art also served to further enhance my belief that each and every visual and audible artistic endeavor is just a different paint job (no pun intended) on the same thing: the soul, the Universe, God, the collective unconscious, a Higher Power, whatever you want to call it.  If anyone should understand this, it’s we screenwriters since what we do is directly connected to almost every other category of artistic medium.

Tip: While I’m writing, I often print to a .pdf to review because it looks different than in Final Draft (almost as good as actually printing the script).  Then, while the .pdf is open, I’ll sometimes shrink the window to where the text is illegible to see how the content fills out the page.

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