Screen Tricks and Chill – by Sarah Callow

Sarah discusses how watching screenplays can teach us how to effectively write stories, even across other forms of creative writing.

A locked down Valentine’s Day has just passed and many of us may have spent the evening in front of the TV, with or without that special someone. The latest figures from Ofcom show a 40% rise in viewing time. After all, the real love affair of the past few months has been with our screens.  

Writers can, however, indulge guilt free in quality time with the box, for screenwriting contains unique insights on the craft that can translate into other mediums. Increasingly, the series format offers audiences complex characters and deep plots to challenge the prestige of the movie industry. With streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime invested in putting out their own original boxsets there’s also a wide array to choose from.  

Below are three tips from modern small screen writing to enhance any form. 

1. Saying it with Dialogue 

Screenwriters have nowhere to hide when it comes to dialogue. TV shows stand and fall by the quality of every conversational quip, cutting riposte or meaningful monologue. Dialogue can, however, say much more than just what your characters are thinking. If used carefully, it can signal themes and focus.  

The Wire (2002 – 2008) was perhaps the first series to take realistic dialogue to the extreme. The show was almost an inversion of the movie Romeo + Juliet (1996), where Shakespeare’s original script was spoken over a modern background complete with guns. The movie made comment on the universality of beautifully crafted language, The Wire focused on social divides signaled by the spoken word. By having select characters talk in a vernacular, so true to the real people they were drawn from that it baffled UK audiences who were lucky if they understood every third word, the series signaled two things without needing to say them explicitly; that these characters were part of a distinct world, and that this was, in essence, a docudrama, intent on realistic portrayal of a controversial issue. 

For a more recent example on the versatile use of dialogue, look no further than Netflix’s drama series Bridgerton (2020-21). Language consistent with Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813) is deployed with precision in order to wryly undercut British period drama tropes. The humour in Bridgeton mingles effortlessly with what is also a compelling study of social issues common to Britain then and now. It is easy to see how careful deployment of language made this show a smash hit, becoming the most watched show on Netflix. 

2. Empathy as the Product of Fear 

Characters are established by conflict. This oft-repeated piece of advice is at the heart of every screenplay. Many scripts open with two beats, the first setting up the story world and the rules within it, the second introducing the main character at a moment they are in conflict with one of those rules. 

Breaking Bad (2008 -2013) achieved this classic set up before the opening titles rolled on episode one. Initially, the audience watches a hardened criminal as police close in. The show then flips this all around, by having him inform the audience that he is a family man. Just before the titles play, the nature of the conflict is made explicit. In this story world police are good guys and catch criminals, who are bad guys. Simple. The protagonist however is already established as a complex person, challenging that rule with shades of grey. 

Understanding why conflict works this way in storytelling is a complex question of psychology which Project Narrative at The Ohio State University, USA is now attempting to unravel. Their findings, which make interesting reading for any writer, suggest that it’s all about fear. How characters act in moments of conflict reveal what they fear at a deep level and when human beings understand another person’s fears we feel like we know what they want and so we trust them, even if they are unlikeable.  

This is the formula that makes antiheroes so successful. Consider character Tyrion Lannister from the series Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019). This character often pokes fun at his own shortcomings, which at once make him appear erudite yet modest within the story world and gives the audience a glimpse of his thinking, letting us know the deep fears he hides behind eloquent quips. 

Recent edgy crime thriller Lupin (2021), shot in French and dubbed in English, follows the conflict + fears = empathy formula to deliver an interesting antihero. It is a prime example of how to use these techniques without the outcome feeling prescriptive. A contemporary interpretation of Leblanc’s 1905 character, Lupin, the show follows a master thief as he pursues his adversaries by underhanded means, attempting to right an old wrong. 

3. Silent Tones 

Every story has a narrator, whether explicit or implied. TV shows often fool an audience into thinking of the camera as an impartial observer, reporting events as they happen. In truth the camera lens is the narrator and can subtly and silently communicate with the audience. Every change in focus, each screen wipe between scenes, is a narrative choice designed to evoke an overall feeling in the viewer and establish the tone, whether serious or jovial. 

The Office (2001 – 2003) made conscious use of the camera-narrator by having characters converse directly with it and by extension the audience, as if part of a real documentary. By choosing what and how to focus on while workplace hijinks ensue around it, the camera was in control of how the audience would feel about the characters. In some moments an office prank was the focus and the tone therefore comedic. In others, the camera focused on a character looking in on the action and the audience could respond differently.  

In the world of movies, beginning with Paranormal Activity (2007), a supernatural thriller, the same techniques established a very different tone. Through camerawork, deliberately reminiscent of a home movie, the film created an atmosphere of enclosure and intimacy, allowing a gradual build up of audience suspense, in anticipation of the final climax. This is a technique that has since been replicated dozens of times. 

Tone is a question of perspective, which is a choice every writer, whether in screen, literary prose or another medium, has to make. By selecting what to focus on and how to present it, wryly ironic, sentimentally or (apparently) objectively, to name a few options, a writer can influence the emotion with which the work is received. 

Shifts in perspective can also make for exceptional reveals and dramatic reinterpretation, even in long running shows. In the sixth and final season of House of Cards (2013 – 2018), a US adaptation of a British 1990 series, the wife of the prior series’ main character takes over the trademark direct address to the camera, offering a poignant reflection on power and empowerment. 

Spanish-English crime drama White Lines (2020) builds on all these earlier shows and combines camerawork and indirect narration to set the tone. The opening sequence of the show establishes one character, ostensibly addressing the audience as narrator, but has the camera usurp the role as it moves away from her, to tell a more complex visual story. Character narration remains a recurrent aspect in the series however, and succeeds in communicating subtle changes of tone. The tone can differ in interesting ways when characters and camera are in concert and when they are conflict. 

All this is just the beginning. Many tips for innovation in other mediums are to be found in these productions. While we remain cooped up, we have a great opportunity to look deeper and identify these unique aspects of writing that the screen brings to life. 

New screenwriters interested in learning more about the form might want to read Yorke’s Into the Woods (2014). For those who prefer listening, lecture series Screenwriting 101 (2017) with professor Fletcher of The Ohio State University offers an interesting take and is available through Audible and The Great Courses Plus. 

All series mentioned above are currently available to stream for UK viewers on Amazon Prime and Netflix. 

About the Author – Sarah Callow:

Despite studying Law, graduating in 2014, going on to take the New York Bar examinations, I developed an all-consuming passion for video games and overwhelming desire to pen fan fiction. I have subsequently been on a journey that has led to my undertaking the MA in Creative Writing at Surrey. I am looking forward to learning all about games writing in the fascinating new module in 2021. Some of my favourite authors are Terry Pratchett, George RR Martin and Jorge Luis Borges. Next on my reading list is Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline.

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