4 Ways To Use Image In Your Screenplay

Written by Arik Cohen on .

When a Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

Picture worth a thousand wordsWhen you think of the greatest screenplays you probably think of films with witty banter or complex plot structure, what you probably don’t think about is image. Don’t underestimate the power of a single image on your audience. It’s a vibrant color on your palette, and here are a few ways to paint with it:

1) Have a Great Opening Image

The menacing ocean from Jaws, the small rebel ship being pursued by the large evil ship from Star Wars, the slow zoom on a Gotham high-rise in The Dark Knight: These are all examples of fantastic opening images that say more with an image then they could with dialogue. And more importantly: They’re all written in the script.

Hooking your reader with a fantastic line of dialogue might be tempting, but consider hooking them with an image that not only conveys a story hook, but a thematic and tonal hook as well.

The opening of Star Wars conveys how big the empire is (and how small the rebellion is), all while showcasing the space-adventure tone. The Dark Knight’s opening shot shows a vibrant city, interrupted by window-shattering crime, telling us that this is a beautiful city with something terrible about to burst out. A wonderful opening image is the most efficient way to tell those reading your first page what to expect from the following 119.

2) Reveal Information Organically

Let’s say an employee is going to see the big boss. How do you convey this power dynamic to the reader? Sure you can write some dialogue, maybe have the employee say “Hi Jenkins, my boss, how are you?” But perhaps it would be more interesting to use image to sell this idea: You can describe the boss’s big and extravagant office or how the boss’s chair is comically high up. You might not need a single line of dialogue to give information about their relationship. When you’re trying to get your epic story to fit into 120 pages, it’s always great when you can replace a few page-sucking lines of dialogue with a single sentence.

3) Withhold Information When Needed

On the flip side of the same coin, a fun way to use image is to withhold information so the image you put in the reader’s head is actually less complex than it could be. One such way is to replace a slugline with something more distinct. We’re so programmed to include sluglines for every scene that we forget that sometimes you can forgo this ritual in order to reveal information to your audience at your own pace.

For example, let’s say you want to show a baseball fan screaming obscenities at a baseball game, only to reveal that he’s actually at a little league game and instead of being surrounded by like-minded fans, he’s surrounded by parents giving him death stares. You might be tempted to write “EXT. LITTLE LEAGUE GAME – DAY” at the top, but this would give away your joke. So to make sure the reader gets the cinematic experience, you can begin the scene by sculpting the image, using a simple slug such as “CLOSE UP – SWEATY, PASSIONATE BASEBALL FAN”, then only after you give him profanity-laden dialogue, you can pull back and reveal the location with a standard slug.

4) Pace the Action Description to Match Screen Time

“She gets up, closes the bathroom door, and grabs juice from the fridge” might sound like a fine (if overly simple) description of action a character might perform, but there’s something wrong with it: Timing. When writing the visual representation of an action it’s best to try to have the experience of reading the visual image take as much time as it would take to see it on the screen. Maybe you’re going for a quick, jump-cut filled edit of your film, but if not, then it will probably take more than 3 seconds to watch a woman close the door to one room, then go to the fridge, open the fridge, then grab juice. So to allow the image to read on the page as long as it would be shown on screen, maybe some more details should be added. Paint the image for as long as it would take to paint it on screen!

These are just a few ways to use image in your script. Image is important, as film is a show-me medium. Keep this in mind and your visually-arousing story will certainly stand out over a bunch of dialogue-dependent talk-heavy screenplays!