Screenwriting Tips: Visuals - By Pauline Kiernan

Understanding Visuals

To state the obvious. As a screenwriter you are - or should be - a visual thinker. Your story is told in images. Everything in the story has to have a visual impact on the audience. Powerful but subtle visuals are the mark of original and distinctive screenwriting. Exploit it for all its worth.

If you’re not thinking in images as you write, you’re losing out on one of the most dynamic ways of creating screenplays of cinematic power. Above all, learning how to exploit this extraordinary capacity to make meaning will help you to discover how to connect to the audience’s emotions at the deepest level, develop the interactions of your characters into finely-wrought layers of meaning, shape the emotional plot so it powers the surface plot, reveal inner and outer conflict - everything in the story.

            Think beyond ‘picture’. Visuals aren’t about backdrop and setting. They play an essential role in the story-telling. They can be as vast as a huge landscape or the colour of someone’s shoes.


  • Take the draft of the script you’re writing now. Open it at random and read for a few pages. What are you seeing in your mind’s eye? Is there anything there that’s drawing you into the physical and emotional world of the story? Feeling it on your pulses?  Are there images suggesting or revealing a character’s emotions or helping to express the deeper meaning of your story? There should be.


  • Draw a storyboard for the script. This has an almost miraculous effect of MAKING you think in images.


  • Have you worked out how many script elements can be provided or enhanced by visuals in one go? Are your visuals expressing mood, tone, atmosphere, character, structure, emotional plot and complex emotions a character can barely express?


  • Look at your first image. What is the single most important emotion you want the audience to be feeling as they watch? Is it intriguing them?


  • Write Description Lines. They have to move. Do they have pace and rhythm? Choose strong, active verbs that express or suggest energy. This is a terrific way to suggest how an action or emotion is to be performed.

Remember, the industry reader is your first audience. Imagine the reader ‘watching’ the film, and you’re describing on the page what they ‘see’.

The best kind of visuals can do things that are either impossible or very hard to do using the other elements of the screenplay. How is your script making the most of visuals?  

Expressing in subtle ways the deep meaning or universal theme - what it’s really about? Reveal the unconscious of your characters?

Using their power to make the audience unaware that they are being ‘told’ something? Creating the world of the story in palpable ways?   

 Creating suspense, tension, softness, violence, just about anything that you need to tell your story in suggestive, subtle ways?


Take the script you’re working on and write some new description lines focusing purely on how the visuals can add one or more element to a scene - mood, tone or atmosphere. Night? Day? Rain? Sun? Cramped? Spacious? Dark? Light? Sound? Cold? Warm? Movement? Sense of mystery? Ultra-realistic? Dream-like?

Experiment with lines using visuals to express psychological states - think of visual metaphor s for someone emotionally blocked, realising they’ve fallen out of love, has been betrayed, or about to betray someone. Character look small and inhibited by surroundings? Wearing uncomfortable clothes to reflect awkwardness? Standing? Sitting? Alone in a landscape? Marginalised in a company of people? Rain/Dark to reflect character’s mood? Sun/Day to contrast character’s negative mood? Where you place your character in relation to others conveys meaning too - think of power structures, who is strong, who is weak? How would you position them to reflect the relationship?


Keep studying description lines of produced scripts to see how the visuals are written on the page, and then watch the relevant scenes of the film. As you write, keep imagining what images are on the screen, always as though everything is happening before your eyes now, and discover the incredible cinematic power of visuals.


About the author - Pauline is a screenwriter, award-winning playwright, Shakespeare scholar, and former journalist. She's also the author of one of the best guides there is to screenwriting, Screenwriting They Can't Resist: How to Create Screenplays of Originality and Cinematic Power. Explode the Rules.