Screenplays and Visual Aids

There’s been a significant amount of talk in the last year or so about screenplays that include visual aids: fancy cover designs, pictures in the script, posters to ignite interest, and even original artwork in an accompanying pitch packet. But is this a good choice for the emerging professional screenwriter?

Storytelling with Pictures or Words? 

There are many ways to tell a story with pictures: comic books, graphic novels, photography exhibits, a series of huge billboards along the highway, and most obviously… movies! There are also many ways to tell stories with words: short stories, novels, novellas, newspapers, magazines, and in recent times… tweets.

However, nowhere on either list did I mention the screenplay. Why? Well screenplays fall into the strange in-between world of picture storytelling with words. Screenplays are an intermediate step between a written story and the motion picture movies we see at the cineplex. Traditionally, screenplays do not have any sort of visual aids in them — no photos or drawings or diagrams — just words.

Should screenplays have visual aids in them? Maybe. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to insert artwork and pictures into my screenplay, but some people feel that they will help sell the script. As an emerging writer, one of my main goals is to sell my writing, my scripts, my stories.

But I’m not a visual artist or photographer — I’m a writer. Words are my medium, and for me that’s a key reason to not indulge in the use of visual aids.

I’m also concerned with creating the expectation to include visuals in a screenplay. If the buyers, the producers and studios who make movies, come to expect visuals in a script, that requires the writer, those like myself, to include these additional elements. And yet these elements will never be part of the final product — the movie. Any visual aids in a script will likely be tossed out by the director or even the producer, who expected to see them. Why? Because those other people will bring their own visions to the movie.

Adding visual aids to a screenplay, or to an accompanying pitch packet, are a waste of time, effort, and potentially money. It’s an unnecessary intermediate step. But if these visual aids are unnecessary to the final movie product, isn’t the entire screenplay an unnecessary step? The answer is a resounding no. The screenplay establishes the story, and the story is one of the major key elements to each and every movie.

Plus, if anyone wanted to use the visuals in your screenplay, the producer would likely have to acquire the rights to them, creating an additional expense. How will the producer pay for this extra expense? It could very well come out of the writer’s fee — after all you did include them in your script. You might as well cut an extra hole in your wallet ahead of time.

If you wish to add visual aids to your screenplay, do so sparingly. Be sure to invest heavily in your story — where it counts for more. Please do not pay someone to do artwork for your script — make a comic book instead. If the idea of visual aids in scripts continues to proliferate, it will only add to the money pit of guru services that already exists in the world of screenwriting.

My final thought on including visual aids your screenplay… It’s called screenWRITING.

So learn to write, with words.

-Zac

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