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In Praise of —

Visual Writing

~ by Patrick A. Horton


I recently found myself in an unexpected conversation with an accomplished colleague about some of the things most writers are taught and not taught that can make difference between subsequent success and failure in their work and careers. The colleague was the one and only Max Adams, whose own very able and largely unique contribution to teaching, discussing, and creating story with an emphasis on what she calls visual writing reminded me the importance of these issues and of a script I did a number of years ago that broke many of the so-called rules and prevailing wisdoms that still prevail today and doom others to creative and commercial failure.

The script, Crossover, literally prompted ‘thank-you’ notes from production company and studio readers and got on a brief fast track for possible back door pilot for series development (bypassing accepting an offer to sell it as a feature). It also prompted two separate friends to call some time later to tell me they had spent considerable time and duress trying to remember where they had ‘seen’ this little movie that materially existed only on the pages they had read. In truth, we all need those who read our scripts as gate keepers and buyers and all those who then translate them to ‘see’ and feel the story we are telling. Unfortunately, the way most people are taught screenwriting neglects how to write in this way at best and often tells students and clients they cannot and should not write this way at worst. The result is unneeded impairment to outright failure of what often could have been great material and soul-fulfilling and career-making writing.

What were the primary prevailing rules or shared wisdoms that were broken? That you cannot write anything ‘internal’ in a screenplay (thoughts and feelings of the character) and more especially that you cannot use valuable script page space writing any kind of substantial scene or action description. Both of these rules or pseudo wisdoms are true if you do them badly. They both are horrifyingly false when you provide internal or visual information well. It can make the difference between a script that reads relatively well to one that jumps off the page and vividly plays out in the mind of a succession of readers, creative collaborators, and decision makers on its way to the screen.

On the polar extremes, this includes many readers and many more development execs who really do not know how to read a script to begin with and have very little ready imagination for painting the images not expressed or suggested. On the other extreme are directors and others who genuinely do not want too much information or instruction, but who you most definitely want you to give them both a fast read and clear impression of what you are offering up. There is a whole string of people in between who will not look at large blocks of black ink (and stupidly are given encouragement and permission not to bother), but who realistically need to be quickly oriented to the setting and tone of any scene in an instant, and who need help seeing the movie that so far just lives on the page if it lives at all. A script that is too detailed and dense will slow them down and stop them just as a script that conveys too little will lose them.

Now, in some ways, Max the teacher and consultant is the best of all possible worlds for addressing the issues and needs above. In addition to her success as an award winning screenwriter and author of the book, “The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide,” she is an unusually articulate and dedicated teacher who draws on all of her training and experience to help writers discover how to give voice to their voice. Fortunately this include her formal training in directing and strong understanding of the many artistic visual and auditory elements that must converge to make a scene work to engage the audience in a complete and clear experience. Most importantly, she understands the importance of conveying a quick initial vision of each scene along the way to orient the reader to where they are and keeps them oriented along with ‘seeing’ what it ‘looks’ and just as importantly feels like. She knows how to capture and convey the feel and tone of what is really going on emotionally that we want the audience experience and feel in the ride – first on the page and then on the screen.

As a quick double examples she uses herself, we can take a quick peek at the simple handling of conveying a kitchen setting as we enter a scene which, again must orient the reader, make the scene play visually in their mind, and convey a great deal more.


The kitchen is ugly, small, cramped beyond thought, one small bare bulb overhead tries to illuminate the dirty linoleum floor and old Formica table without any help from windows.




The kitchen is huge, spacious, whoever lives here has more money than God. More than modern refrigerators with glass doors going on forever line the wall, frosty interiors illuminated by harsh artificial light….


Unfortunately, most of you having read this piece will encounter the advice over and over again not to attend to what the above suggests is not only important to attend to but crucial. To that I simply repeat my oft given warning to keep in mind that a great deal of what you are told by many so-called experts (and/or are guilty of telling others yourself) may not only be partially to completely wrong, but the costly and unneeded cause of limiting, maiming, and/or completely killing what otherwise could have been great writing and successful storytelling could have left the reader engaged, moved, and changed.


For more information on Max Adam’s classes on visual writing, consulting services, book, or work as a writer, visit


where this article comes from :
that is from

where the art work comes from :
that is from jonathan safran

© patrick a. horton
republished with permission


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