Translating Visions

At one time or another, all of us, have been told by those wiser that we should “write visually” as screenwriters.

It’s good advice and frankly no self-respecting screenwriter should ever stop thinking visually.

But, what exactly does it mean?

I have seen some inexperienced screenwriters take this instruction to heart and after reviewing some of the online screenplays (production drafts) they being to infiltrate their writing with camera angles: POV, CLOSE-UP, ect.

This, alas, is not what is meant by “writing visually.” It’s really more about “thinking visually.”

Every scene should be thought out by the screenwriter before it is written. You should be able to “see” the scene in your mind. Where it takes place, who’s in it, what’s in it, and how these things interact.

But from here I’ve seen inexperienced writers take this too much to heart and litter their prose with needless exposition and details that only serve to slow the story down.

It’s really more about “thinking visually.”

Remember, ultimately you have to use words to express what you’re seeing in your own mind. The reader is only going to “see” your scene proportionate to the ability of your writing (descriptions, exposition).

Use as few words as possible, use descriptive words and words of action.

So remember to think visually, but be ready to master the art of translating those thoughts into words as ultimately that is your medium of communication to the reader. Use as few words as possible, use descriptive words and words of action (avoid using words that end in “ing”).

Be ready to master the art of translating those thoughts into words as ultimately that is your medium of communication to the reader.

Whenever I need to show my students an example of some good visual writing, I show them the opening scenes from Joe Eszterhas screenplay BASIC INSTINCT.

Note how few words are needed to create a very visual scene. Eszterhas has a unique style that also shines through and adds some dimension to the writing.

His prose here is excellent and a fine example for how to do it:


It is dark; we don’t see clearly.

A man and woman make love on a brass bed. There are mirrors on the walls and ceiling. On a side table, atop a small mirror, lines of cocaine. A tape deck PLAYS the Stones: “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Atop him... she straddles his chest... her breasts in his face. He cups her breasts. She leans down, kisses him...

JOHNNY BOZ is in his late 40’s, slim, good-looking. We don’t see the woman’s face. She has long blonde hair. The CAMERA STAYS BEHIND and to the side of them. She leans close over his face, her tongue in his mouth... she kisses him... she moves her hands up, holds both of his arms above his head.

She moves higher atop him... she reaches to the side of the bed... a white silk scarf is in her hand... her hips above his face now, moving... slightly, oh-so slightly... his face strains towards her.

The scarf in her hand... she ties his hands with it... gently... to the brass bed... his eyes are closed... tighter... lowering hips into his face... lower... over his chest... his navel. The SONG plays.

He is inside her... his head arches back... his throat white.

She arches her back... her hips grind... her breasts are high... Her back arches back... back... her head tilts back... she extends her arms... the right arm comes down suddenly... the steel flashes... his throat is white...

He bucks, writhes, bucks, convulses... It flashes up... it flashes down... and up... and down... and up... and...


Winter in San Francisco: cold, foggy. Cop cars everywhere. The lights play through the thick fog. Two Homicide detectives get out of the car, walk into the house.

2. NICK CURRAN is 42. Trim, good-looking, a nice suit: a face urban, edged, shadowed. GUS MORAN is 64. Crew-cut, silver beard, a suit rumpled and shiny, a hat out of the 50’s: a face worn and ruined: the face of a backwoods philosopher.


There’s money here -- deco, clean, hip -- That looks like a Picasso on the wall. They check it out.


Who was this fuckin’ guy?


Rock and roll, Gus. Johnny Boz.


I never heard of him.



Before your time, pop. (a beat) Mid-sixties. Five or six hits. He’s got a club down in the Fillmore now.


Not now he don’t.

Past the uniformed guys... nods... waves... past the forensic men... past the coroner’s investigators... they get to the bedroom.

Chris Wehner is a professional writer and author who teaches screenwriting at the 4 Screenwriters Institute.

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