How to Write Shot Composition Into Your Script
Guest Post by E.M. Welsh
Screenwriters, unlike other types of writers, are forced to do something very difficult. They are supposed to tell a story with images, using only words. Sometimes as screenwriters, we forget that we are tasked with this difficult yet magical feat, and as a result start to forget about the camera that will shoot our project and make it come to life.
However, thinking about the camera is difficult as a writer when you have nothing but your pen or your computer. Because of this, aspects of the film industry, like shot composition, can easily slip by us. We forget that we have the power as screenwriters to tell a story with images, so we stick to a straightforward story with a simple setting, some dialogue, and the right beats.
While those aspects can make an astounding script sound well-crafted, one of my big beliefs over at E.M. Welsh is the idea that when you write a story in a certain medium – in this case, that medium being film or television – you need to write it in a way that uses the medium to its advantage. For novels, that means using language and playing with it. For the theater, that means considering the live performance and the actors on stage. In film and television, that means thinking about the camera and how that camera frames the subjects of the story.
How to Write Shot Composition
To put it more simply, if you want to tell a story that uses the screenwriting medium well, you’ll want to focus on how you can make your story visual even when it’s still on the page, and that means learning how to imply shot composition without directly saying it.
You might be thinking about your place as a screenwriter in the film industry and how your story will be changed and altered into something else completely, especially as a new writer.
So, what’s the point?
Well, even though in the long run, screenwriters have no say about the shot composition of our scripts, I have found that really great screenwriters imply and convey their shots so well that it doesn’t matter whether or not they get to direct their final product. Their words create such a strong blueprint that the directors, producers, and everyone else envision the film exactly as it should be. So, if you want to write a film that people can visualize as they read it and therefore increase the odds that the story will become the film you’ve envisioned, you’ve got to tap into how to imply shot composition.
How to Hint
While every screenwriter will have a different approach to how they hint at shot composition, I’ve come up with a list of the ways I believe you can imply said composition in an efficient way. This comes from my own experience reading scripts from a variety of writers and directors, but also from my own obsession with learning how to write in a specific way for each medium.
Luckily, I’ve made remembering all the ways to discuss shot composition incredibly easy for you with my free cheatsheet, which you can download HERE. Not only is it a great way to refresh yourself on what you’ll learn in this post, but it also has some bonus shots in there that you don’t want to miss!
Composing Your Shot
The long shot, or wide shot, depending on what you prefer, is usually a shot focused on the backdrop and setting of a place. Often the most common places you’ll see this type of shot implied is in an exterior shot right before an interior scene, but you can potentially see it used in other ways. As a result, when you are writing and wish to hint at a long shot, especially when you are not changing locations or going from interior to exterior, focus on words like “background” and other attributes that serve a bigger picture. Avoid any small details, like someone’s watch for instance, in the same paragraph, keeping only to the landscape and the atmosphere.
A good example to look to is Wes Anderson and his later scripts. To many writers, he’s breaking a lot of rules. But if you watch his films, you’ll notice many of the shots are long shots and that’s because he puts so much emphasis on the background in his scripts.
A medium shot establishes a perfect balance between the character and the world they are occupying. While the degree to which the character fills the frame can vary, that shouldn’t be your main focus. Instead, when describing scenes you’re envisioning as a medium shot, focus on balancing description of the world with the characters at first, then transition to only focusing on the character once the scene starts to gain momentum.
One of the best ways to focus on the medium shot is to focus on your character’s overall behavior and demeanor. Are they slouching? Waving their arms? Jumping up and down? All of these movements are movements that can really only be seen if your character is in a medium shot. So, if you think a medium shot is the ideal visual composition for a certain scene or moment, avoid describing facial expressions too much, or complement those types of reactions with body movements.
However, to make things easier for you, I’ve made a simple, printer friendly cheatsheet that will help you remember all the shot composition techniques I’ve listed, plus a few extras. You can find them HERE.
Close-ups take the focus away from the world and place it all on the character in the frame. This is because the close-up is the place to dig into the internal world of your characters emotions and thoughts without them having to express said emotions and thoughts.
Because of this focus, if you want to suggest a close-up, avoid describing the world and the demeanor of your character, and instead only describe the emotional changes related to your character’s face. Focus on details such as their eyes or mouth, occasionally discussing other aspects of their behavior if you feel it is necessary to conveying the close-up as best as possible.
If you are envisioning an extreme close-up, take things to the next level by really describing details such as someone’s nostrils or eyelashes but in a way that seems natural, which admittedly is not easy. If you cannot, try to write around the phrase “extreme close-up” by saying something like “Leo sees nothing but her face,” or “Luisa steps in front of him, blocking out everything in sight,” or something like that, using the perspective of a character to describe what we are seeing. Again, this does not guarantee that this is how it will be translated to film, but it will paint a very clear picture in the reader’s mind and perhaps inspire them to keep that image.
As you write more and more films and practice incorporating shot composition, you’ll also learn how to seamlessly suggest a medium shot that transitions into a close-up or a wide shot that jumps to an insert of an object, but don’t expect to do this right away. Ideally the best way to separate shots for your own sanity – at first – is to introduce each new shot as a new paragraph. As you gain more experience implying shot composition, you’ll learn how to introduce various implied shots in the same paragraph, but in the meantime, don’t stress out too much if you can’t perfectly envision your script. That is what the production team is there for, after all!
With these new ways to write shot composition fresh on your mind, I urge you to go put them into practice, perhaps even by storyboarding your project if you get stuck, which is something I have my students do in my free short film writing course, Speedy Screenwriting. As I mentioned earlier, I also have this simple cheatsheet I made exclusively for Any Possibility that covers all the techniques we discussed today, plus introduces a few new ones. You can find it HERE!
Because whenever you write a screenplay, it’s important to remember you are writing a blueprint. Instead of seeing this as a loss of control, see it as an opportunity to paint out very clear guidelines as to what would work best for your film, implying the shot composition in a way that creates a visual story, and you’ll begin to write more and more screenplays that really utilize and express your voice from the script to the scene.
E.M. Welsh is a born and raised Texan who doesn’t say “y’all” but does love tacos. She loves writing stories in all forms and has written short stories, novels, plays, screenplays and even a video game quest.
She believes every writer should challenge themselves by writing in different storytelling mediums. You can learn more about her storytelling system and unique approach to narrative over at emwelsh.com.