A screenplay is written for the visual medium known as motion picture. This means the story’s key components are revealed visually rather than via dialogue. In contrast, television relies more heavily on dialogue to reveal information than visuals. This is primarily due to the smaller visual screen compared to a motion picture ‘theater’ screen.
A motion picture is the visual medium. TV is the talking heads medium.
The difference between the mediums creates difficulties for writers seeking to complete a feature length screenplay. Why? Because most of us are used to the way television handles stories, but it isn’t the way motion picture handles information. For example, a detective story on TV might wait until the end of the show, then reveal ‘what happened’ in a black & white FLASHBACK. A motion picture would NEVER end this way. In a feature film, the writer has to visually reveal the information in a show, don’t tell fashion.
Failure to understand the difference between these mediums leads to screenplays written for the big screen that read like TV scripts. And it makes it obvious to a Story Analyst or a Producer that the writer is an unseasoned newbie who doesn’t fully understand the craft of screenwriting.
One of the ways this mistake stands out is screenplays that have one of two things: 1) T-Pages 2) All-Dialogue Pages. This quickly shouts to the reader (or producer) “Amateur!” It means the screenplay relies too heavily on dialogue to tell the story rather than visuals. There should be few, if any all-dialogue or T-Pages in a screenplay! The screenplay should be a mixture of action/description and dialogue with a per page ratio of 60% action/description and 40% dialogue (or less).
What is a T-Page? A T-Page is a screenplay page that literally looks like the letter ‘T’ with one line of description at the top followed by all dialogue. The action/description rarely has been given much thought and is just tossed in to make it look like a screenplay, while the writer relies on the dialogue to deliver. This creates a huge problem because a motion picture’s story relies on visuals to deliver the story. A producer said he should be able to remove ALL the DIALOGUE and still know what the story is about. If he can’t do this, then the writer hasn’t written a story suitable for motion picture production.
Don’t forget that motion picture literally means ‘moving pictures’, not talking heads.
What is an all-dialogue page? It’s just like it sounds. There is no action/description on the page. The page is all dialogue. In fact, there are usually 3, 5, 7, 10, 20, 30 or more pages of these all-dialogue, when there should be ZERO in a motion picture! What about pages filled with action/description and no dialogue? That’s okay because visuals rule in motion picture.
With that said, don’t make the mistake of just adding action/description just to fill-in these pages to make the screenplay look more like a motion picture. This might be worse than just leaving the T-Pages or all-dialogue pages. Instead, the writer should study the craft of screenwriting and learn how to use action/description to tell a story. Use the show, don’t tell rule.
The best way to avoid T-Pages and all-dialogue pages is to integrate action/description rather than writing in a narrative style that’s more suitable for books. For example, don’t just describe a room. In fact, DO NOT add any description unless it’s integrated with action.
INT. TOM’S HOUSE – DAY
Ashtrays clutter a coffee table. Newspapers stacked on a couch next to dirty dishes and a sleeping cat. TOM (25) enters and plops on the couch.
INT. TOM’S HOUSE – DAY
TOM (25) enters and bumps into a coffee table. Dirty cigarettes spill out of ashtrays. He shoves old newspapers off the couch and slumps into a spot.
A CAT meows at him.
From now on, forget the word DESCRIPTION when writing a screenplay and think in terms of ACTION. This assures the writer is writing like a screenwriter rather than a novelist and in a style that creates a MOVING PICTURE.
Also, the writer with a ‘visual eye’ for his story won’t get bogged down with dialogue and will rely on visuals to tell the story. Sure, dialogue’s important, but the writer who wants to engage the reader/audience on a visceral level knows the best way to do so is to learn how to create moving pictures that evoke emotion.
Flip through your screenplays. Are there any T-Pages or All-Dialogue pages? If so, re-evaluate if your story is a strong enough contender to become a motion picture. If not, revise the story or consider marketing it to television, the talking heads medium.
Finally, don’t become discouraged if your screenplays are riddled with T-pages or all-dialogue pages. You might be a different type of writer. Take a quick test:
This person speaks quickly and can answer a question before someone finishes asking it. This person ‘sees’ what you’re saying and the world’s a visual playground.
This person speaks slowly and asks/answers questions in a careful way. This person ‘hears’ what you’re saying and senses the world through spoken words.
This person speaks in depth and with meaning beyond mere words. This person ‘feels’ what you’re saying and is determined to deliver world-renowned themes that evoke change in the masses.
What kind of writer are you? If you’re not a screenwriter, then focus on the type of writing that best expresses your style. If you are a screenwriter, then get back creating those moving pictures!