Titles, log-lines, synopsis, scenes, action, close-ups and flash backs. Those who write screenplays have heard these words. But most do not really know where this ‘slang’ has come from and what it really denotes.
I’m of an opinion that if one knows what stands behind the use of language, one will succeed easily in screenwriting. Ignorance never helped achieve anything. However, ‘ignorance’ in regards to the vocabulary and format of the modern screenplay is not entirely screenwriters’ fault. For, there is lots of information about writing ‘technique’ and rules of how stories for the screen should be written, yet such vital information as ‘screenplay vocabulary’ is hard to come by.
Perhaps, the reason for that lies in not paying enough attention to the dawn of the film making – the silent era – and placing too much emphasis on sound and its influence on the development of movie industry. Although, the sound has its important place in movie making, it does not really help cinematographic storytellers tell their stories. For, this art in the first instance still relies on a written word.
By going back to the times when stories were told without the help of sound and dialogues, one can learn a lot about how to create a really comprehensive and cohesive story that would be easy to turn into a movie.
The material presented below is based on the research done using articles in cinematographic publications, in particular the Photoplay magazine of 1914-1920s.
1900 - 1910
Photoplays of this period were from one to fifteen minutes long. Most of them were ad hoc documentaries filmed on the streets, depicting ordinary people or objects of everyday life. The length of pictures was determined by the size of reels. Narrative filming also existed and was pioneered by such film directors as Alice Guy Blanche (1873-1968) of Gamount company in Paris, France. As narrative filming became more popular among the audiences, a need for story ideas had emerged.
Story ideas of 1910s is what log-lines are to the modern screenwriter. Back in the infancy of cinematographic art, story ideas were sourced out from stage plays, published novels, and fan magazines contests advertised by production companies. A story idea usually consisted of one or two sentences, sometimes a paragraph, and can be written by anyone from a tram conductor to an aristocrat and sent to a production company. Best story ideas were rewarded with cash prices.
Supplied or sourced story idea was taken by a film director and visualised on set as it fitted him or her, as no scenarios were available yet. Storytelling for the screen was very much about visions and personal preferences of film directors.
Story ideas contests came to us in the form of log-line competitions that are run by some screenplay competition organisers and online screenwriting platforms such as FilmFreeway, Script Pipeline, the Script Lab, Stage 32, and others. Personally, I do not believe a log-line is useful, for many contemporary story ideas are complex and sophisticated, and one sentence cannot really reflect on that.
1910 - 1915
Due to reels' length increase, photoplays became longer. Most of them were from 20 to 40 minutes long or 2-5 reels long. As a result, story ideas had grown into synopsises. Production companies started to employ synopsis editors and writers. Usually, they came from publishing – newspapers, magazines, or books - or were aspiring talented writers, working as free-lancers from home.
Photoplay synopsis of this period could be up to eight paragraphs long. They elaborated on a story idea as well as provided a story line to be followed by film directors and actors. The synopsis included a title of the story, number of reels and whether it was an original or adapted story idea, as well as the names of characters and their relations to each other, and the plot development. Even in this improved format, the synopsis still was rather basic storytelling but, nonetheless, the one that introduced some structure and a certain discipline into the movie making process. Although, few directors adhered to the original synopsis, introducing ‘the business’ as they called it, and changing plot line as they went along with shooting on set. This was a rather annoying habit, since such impromptu changes could influence the popularity of a photoplay, resulting in money losses for a film studio.
Synopsis came to us in the form of short and long movie descriptions used on such database and streaming platforms as Wikipedia, IMDb, Netflix. Wikipedia normally displays long synopsis – up to a page of printed A4 format or even more, and IMDb – an online database related to films and television programmes – has both short and long synopsis. The short ones are a paragraph long and the long ones are one or more pages long.
What for aspiring screenwriters of today, the synopsis of the silent era can be of great aid to them, as it forms the foundation of any story. Some writers have the synopsis of their story clear in their mind and do not need to write it down. But some really need to first write it down as synopsis of several paragraphs and then work on each paragraph, breaking it into scenes, and then translate the scenes into short, concise and action lead sentences. And that is exactly what the silent era storytellers did next. They created a scenario – a synopsis broken into scenes.
Photoplay scenarios of mid-teens introduced cast of characters, numbered scenes, mention of locations, actions, and guidance for the film director in the form of referrals to close-ups in certain scenes that required attention of the viewer.
Cast of characters was a list of characters’ names and their relations to each other. Scenes were short and concise and started from the mention of location then action of a character or actions of several characters. If the scene was an important one in understanding the story then a close-up mark was inserted. One must not forget that at the time of silent era scenes were very short – one or maximum two minutes long and the speed with which they were performed counted. For, everything depended on the length of a reel and on how many reels were used to film a particular photoplay. Faster acting meant longer stories in a shorter period of time.
Unfortunately, in modern screenwriting much attention is paid to lengthy dialogues out of context – meaning settings and locations. While dialogues are great and add an extra angle to the art of storytelling, one cannot really base the whole movie simply on characters dialoguing with each other. Thus, learning to tell a story in action-lead scenes without any dialogues inserted into them can help those screenwriters who struggle with contexts, settings, and locations in their screenplays.
Interestingly enough, although the silent era film directors did not have yet the sound to aid them, it did not mean scenarios were void of any speech at all. Speech expressed itself in replicas either written in by a film director on set to help actors act out some particularly difficult scenes that required a display of emotions, or were already provided in a scenario to clarify some action or provide extra guidance. However, it is later that written speech made its entrance into a scenario. And it did it in the form of sub-titles and spoken titles.
Photoplays of this period increased in length from forty minutes to an hour. As a consequence, came a wish of film studios and film directors to have more elaborate and complex stories with comprehensive and fluid continuity. This period sees two major developments in scenario writing – introduction of subtitles and spoken titles, and creation of continuity scenarios.
A ‘sub-title’ or ‘title’ consisted of a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph shown on the screen between scenes to indicate a lapse of time, a change of locale, or a description of action which took place ‘off the screen’.
‘The Next Morning’ is an example of the first type of subtitle, denoting a lapse of time. ‘At the Home of Senator Johnson’ illustrates the second type, indicating a change of locale. ‘After Many Thrilling Adventures in Which He Outwits the Agents of Black Boris, Alex Arrives in Vulgaria, Where He is Acclaimed by His Loyal Subjects’ is an example of third type of subtitle, describing action which is supposed to take place between two scenes, and which, for any one of various reasons, it does not seem wise or expedient to visualize. – ‘Photoplay Writing’ article by Anita Loos and John Emerson (Photoplay magazine, July 1918)
Subtitling attempted to merge literature style ‘speech’ with images on the screen creating a better works of the cinematographic art.
‘Speech’ was presented on screen as sub-titles in quotation marks and referred to a specific character. Spoken sub-titles was believed to give a ‘voice’ to a photoplay and to open up topics in the fields of poetic and psychological drama, fantasy and satire which previously were not possible to tackle. In this matter, European producers were ahead of the American ones. In Italy, Gabrielle D’Anunzio was the first writer to use the poetic sub-titles in the motion picture, ‘Cabiria’ (1914).
Writing spoken sub-titles was a new skill which writers of the period did not have. They mastered it on the go by making mistakes. Sometimes, spoken titles did not quite go with a photoplay characters and instead of creating harmonious effect they created a comical one.
‘We believe as much care should be taken in writing the titles as in producing the picture itself, and that the ideal picture will be one in which the titles are so in harmony with the pictorial scenes that they flow into each other with so much ease and facility that the impression given is of a perfect, co-ordinated structure.’ - ‘Photoplay Writing’ article by Anita Loos and John Emerson (Photoplay magazine, July 1918)
Sub-titles and spoken sub-titles came to us in the form of subtitles in foreign movies, as well as a translation of a foreign speech of a character in a movie. In some instances, subtitles are used to denote a place and a time, if a movie has scenes developing at the same time in many locations. Poetic sub-titles such as quotations from poems are really rare. Perhaps, one of the most notable transformation of spoken-titles is the text of messages such as emails, chats texts, documents and information displayed on screens of characters’ computers, iPads, and smartphones. The audience reads these digital ‘subtitles’ to understand the story's twists and turns.
Back in 1910s by continuity script was understood ‘placing of the many scenes that go to make up the photoplay in a logical sequence so that the photoplay may run perfectly smoothly, without breaks and jumps which, otherwise, would have to be covered by wordy and explanatory subtitles.’ (Photoplay magazine, April, 1917)
Although, the sub-titles were useful, many film makers tried to avoid having too many of them as they believed that people come to movies to see ‘pictures’ not to read ‘texts.’ In this sense, continuity scenario was a tool that helped film directors stick with the logical development of a story. As a rule, they were not allowed to deviate from the sequence presented in continuity scenarios.
‘Breaks and jumps’ not always were the fault of a scenario writer. They were also the consequence of film directors changing things on set as they fit them. One of the features of continuity scenario were ‘flash-backs’. They were used to refer to a parallel action in the story or to a scene that was previously interrupted by an introduction of a new action development. In present day, 'flash-back's are used in screenplays to refer to past events or character's memories.
Continuity scenarios added the following to the scenario – film director, cast and actors, locations, detailed mis-en-scene, subtitle and spoken title placement, shooting schedule, budget and distribution plan.
In the screenwriting of today such elements as locations and characters are weaved into the body of a screenplay, instead of being stated before the sequence of scenes. Subtitles that used to describe locales are now mentioned in scene headings. And scenarios are divided into specs scripts and shooting scripts. Specs scripts are non-commissioned screenplays and are considered to be speculative scenarios written in the hope to be optioned. And shooting scripts are written and used during the production of a movie.
Personally, I believe that such division is arrogant and does not help aspiring writers outside of major studios. During the silent era, writers could easily get templates and samples of scenarios from film studios and base their writings on them. They were actually encouraged to do so. In addition, there was lots of professional advice from leading screenwriters of the time in fan magazines like Photoplay. Screenwriters were encouraged, guided, and nurtured, for film studios were interested in receiving good screenplays from outside of studios. It would really help if big Hollywood studios of present day took an example of the studios of the silent era and be more open minded. The least they can do is to provide up-to-date model screenplay samples and templates of each genre on their websites for screenwriters to consult with and download. This will eliminate second guessing that prevails among screenwriters outside of big studios. Unfortunately, there are too many badly written screenplays floating around online. A screenplay authored by a 'star' does not automatically become a model one to learn from. For 'stars' assume that they can be sloppy and careless in writing as they are insiders of the industry. Perhaps so. But for the ones outside of it, such sloppiness is only confusing and misleading.
Often, some solutions can be found simply by looking back and checking the foundation, rather than constantly surging forward in confusion with a distorted view in mind.