Want to see an early draft of A Quiet Place? We found a copy of the A Quiet Place Screenplay for you.
This week we are going to be looking at A Quiet Place by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and John Krasinski.
Everyone who knows anything about A Quiet Place has commented on the way it uses the visual medium directorially to tell a story with hardly any dialogue at all.
But what very few people are talking about is how this relates to the writing of the screenplay– how to actually put action like that on the page–and how all that relates to one of the most important concepts in screenwriting: formatting.
So in this podcast, we’re going to be breaking down the actual construction of A Quiet Place to show you how to write action and how to handle formatting in your own screenplay.
Regardless of whether you’re writing a nearly silent film like A Quiet Place, or one as chatty as an Aaron Sorkin movie, we’re going to discuss how to put these concepts into action in your writing.
A lot of screenwriters are really terrified about formatting; they feel like formatting is this counterintuitive thing, this kind of grammatical set of rules by which they somehow have to abide.
And if you think about formatting in this way, it isn’t going to free up your creativity, and it isn’t going to be a lot of fun.
The truth is, screenplay formatting exists for only one purpose: to isolate the visual moments of action in your script.
In other words, formatting exists to help you hypnotize your reader, to allow your reader to see your movie in that movie screen in their mind, not to have to think about it, not to have to process it, not to have to read it, to forget that they are reading it and to slip effortlessly into the visual world that you are creating for them.
If hypnotizing your reader sounds a little scary, I would like to remind you that you are actually hypnotizing yourself all the time. If you are a writer every single time you write you are entering a hypnotic state.
And if you’ve ever seen a movie, you’ve also entered a hypnotic state; in fact, it is impossible to enjoy a movie without entering a hypnotic state because we have this problem called “suspension of disbelief.”
Everybody thinks the suspension of disbelief is something that the audience chooses to do, but it is actually quite the opposite.
Suspension of disbelief is something that happens to you in a hypnotic state–when a movie becomes more like a dream, when you forget that you are sitting in a theater or reading a script and start to actually see the world through the eyes of the characters.
When you start to experience a movie like a novel, suddenly time slips away, and suddenly you are crying over things that you know aren’t real. Your heart is racing for characters facing monsters that don’t exist, and you are having an emotional reaction to things that you know are made up.
Formatting doesn’t exist to abide by a series of grammatical rules. Formatting exists to help you visualize your script, to help you see your script in movie terms, and to help your audience see your script in movie terms. Your formatting exists for one reason, which is to isolate the visual moments of action.
There’s a link at the top of this transcript to download an early draft of A Quiet Place if you’d like to read it yourself..
If you do download that script, you will see that it is totally pushing the limits of formatting.
You will also see something else that is very important, which is that the script and the final product that was made are very different from each other. We are going to talk a little bit later about why and how that matters for you as a screenwriter.
When you get to page 15 of the screenplay for A Quiet Place, you are going to see something you have never seen before in a screenplay.
You are going to see a line oddly centered right at the end of page 15, all in caps and underlined, “THIS IS THE LONGEST WALK OF HIS LIFE.”
And then you are going to see on page 16 one line surrounded by white space: “John is 30 feet away from the shed…”
Then another line on page 17 surrounded by white space: “20 feet away.”
Another whole page, on page 18: “10 feet…”
Page 19: “5…”
Page 20: “…SNAP.”
And then suddenly we are back on page 21 in screenplay format again.
Now, if you read The Hollywood Standard, which is the Strunk and White’s Grammar of Screenwriting– the formatting book that tells you the rules of what formatting is and how it is supposed to work– that book would tell you 100% that this is wrong.
Similarly, The Hollywood Standard would tell you something like posting a PDF of a monopoly board in a screenplay to show how the monopoly game is going to work in the film (as these writers have done) is just not screenplay formatting. That’s just not how it is done.
But, if you just listened to my description of those pages, you probably found yourself feeling something. You probably found yourself experiencing the length of that walk, the feeling of that walk, and the isolated moment of that snap, how loud that snap needs to feel, how long that piecing needs to feel.
A Quiet Place is a very special movie. This is a movie that has hardly any dialogue at all, and in fact, the final version has even less dialogue for reasons we are going to talk about other than the original script.
This is a movie that is incredibly sparse and that really is pushing the edges of how sound works in horror movies and in films in general, turning the envelope inside out. We are used to action movies where the scariness comes from sounds, big, big, bigger explosions, bigger sounds, and instead, turning that inside out and allowing the tiniest little sounds to create the feeling of horror. And because of the extremeness of the concept, extremeness in the formatting is warranted.
So, please don’t go out and do this kind of formatting in your own script. But do take this idea as a way of thinking about formatting. Formatting doesn’t exist to be right. Formatting exists to communicate a feeling to the audience, to allow your audience to see, hear, and feel your movie in the little movie screen in their mind without having to bring their own creativity to the table.
This isn’t about readers being passive; this is about readers being engaged.
Reading a script is hard, and most of the people reading scripts are actually not that trained in how script reading works.
If you are a playwright, the chances are the person that is reading your script is a playwright themselves or at least an MFA graduate in theater. If you are a poet, it’s pretty much guaranteed your editor has an MFA in poetry or a PhD in literature.
But if you are a screenwriter, the chances are the person reading your script is a coverage reader, and a lot of coverage readers are very talented but inexperienced writers. But there are no experienced writers working as coverage readers because the average pay is $50 a script.
If you start to do the math, you realize that they must be reading for pennies on the hour. They would be reading for way less than the minimum wage if they were actually reading.
And which means if you are writing for a coverage reader, you know you are writing for someone who actually can’t afford to really read your script, write a great summary, a great commentary, a great logline.
Rather, you are writing for somebody who must skim in order to survive, who is looking for that diamond in the rough… but most of what they are reading is crap.
You need to use your formatting with your coverage reader to show them, “Hey look, this is the real deal, this is the one worth reading,” not by the time they get to the end but from page one.
You need to pull them into the story and start conjuring it in their mind’s eye so you can get past that jaded exterior and get them excited again.
If you are lucky, once it has been read by a coverage reader, your script is going to get passed on to a producer or a development executive, and a lot of these people are brilliant too. They are brilliant salespeople, they are brilliant fundraisers, they are brilliant networkers. They are people who are brilliant at being on the phone all the time.
But often, these are different from the people who really love to read, and in fact, most producers hate reading. Most producers would much rather be talking, and that is why it takes so darn long to get your script read.
Every producer in the world is reading your script late at night after they have done all their other work, or on the weekends when they really wish they could be spending time with their family, and so they are scheming too.
And so here is the trick: you are writing for people who don’t like to read, or you are writing for people who have too much to read for way too little money.
You are writing for people who don’t have a lot of experience reading, and that means you need to use your formatting not to get the technique right, but to get the feeling right, the visuals right, the story right, and sometimes that actually means breaking the grammatical rules.
For a model of this, all you have to think about is Strunk and White’s Grammar. Remember that big white book for middle school that told you all the rules of how to use the English language?
If you actually followed Strunk and White’s Grammar in your life, you would actually have no friends.
“To whom should I address this email?” Nobody is going to talk to you, even though you are using the grammar properly, you aren’t communicating the connection, the relationship. You would be speaking with so much formality that people wouldn’t feel like you are being real.
And yet at the same time, everybody knows bad grammar, and when we experience bad grammar, all hackles go up just like the hackles of a coverage reader or a producer goes up.
If you go into a job interview and you had bad grammar and another applicant has good grammar, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you are instantly going to be judged.
And if the grammar of your script isn’t right, if your formatting doesn’t look right at first glance, what is going to happen is before they have even read your script, producers are going to reject it.
And in fact, A Quiet Place even had this problem.
Many producers refused to even read the initial 67-page draft. In fact, the original writers before John Krasinski got on board– Bryan Woods and Scott Beck– their plan was, “look we are going to have to produce this damn thing ourselves because no one is even willing to read it because it is too short, and they don’t get how that premise of a movie without sound is going to work.”
So even this film, which is actually quite brilliantly formatted, had that problem. It just simply didn’t match the expectations, and the assumption therefore was that it was going to be bad.
So, this is the weird thing about screenplay formatting: nobody uses proper format.
No two screenwriters format the same way, and even two screenplays from the same writer are likely formatted quite differently, because the formatting that you are using is designed to communicate the feeling of the script, and certain scripts need to feel different than others.
If you are writing a script like A Quiet Place, which happens in a world with hardly any sound, your script is mostly going to be action. And if you are writing a script like an Aaron Sorkin movie, your writing is mostly going to be dialogue.
If you are writing an action sequence, your formatting should feel high paced, visual. If you are writing a romantic love story, your writing should have that feeling of flow. Your formatting should exist to create the feeling of tone, of speed, of action, of the script.
In fact, your formatting should work to allow the movie to play in the mind’s eye of the reader at the same pace that you experience it, at the same pace that the audience will experience it on the screen.
A page of your screenplay should be the equivalent of one minute on the screen, but not just the equivalent in its layout but the equivalent in its speed, in its processing. Each moment should take about the amount of time you imagine it taking on the screen.
So, formatting exists to isolate the visual moments of action. Formatting exists to create the experience, the pace, the rhythm of the script, to allow your audience to experience the script in their mind’s eye in exactly the way they are going to experience it in the film.
This doesn’t mean that you are writing down every little detail. This means that you are giving us the greatest hits.
If you were really to describe every detail of a single frame of a movie, it would probably take you 15 pages.
What we are going for are the greatest hits. And how do you know if you’ve got the greatest hits? All you have to do is remember four words: Isolate Visual Moments of Action.
Now if this is new to you, we drill much deeper into this in my Write Your Screenplay Level I Class and in our Write Your Screenplay Level II Class, where we really get into how to write for the inner eye.
But, this is going to give you a beginning of that understanding, because all formatting actually boils down to these four words.
Isolate. Visual. Moments of Action.
So what do these four words mean in the context of screenplay formatting and writing action?
We’re going to start by drilling down into these concepts this week, and then wrap up over the next podcast, while getting really deep into both our analysis of A Quiet Place and how you can use the concept of Isolating Visual Moments of Action to make you a better writer.
Word #1. Isolate.
Isolate means that, in a movie, no two things are happening at the same time.
Back in the day, a movie used to be shot on a film strip. You can think of each line of your action like an image, like a frame of that film strip.
And what is really interesting is that to create the feeling of movement, what they would do is they would speed those film strips through at high velocity, and one image plus another image would allow the audience to tell themselves the story as if it was moving forward, even though each of those images were technically still.
So what isolating means is thinking about your formatting, thinking about your action as you put it on the page, or your line of dialogue as you put it on the page, as an isolated moment.
You then must make sure that each little isolated moment has something special, something specific about it. Something that hooks us in.
So, for example, you wouldn’t say, “Jake is recording his podcast while sitting at his desk.”
That sounds like action but it is actually not. And it isn’t action because it is not isolated.
Those two things are happening at the same time and because of that, I can’t play it on the visual movie screen in my mind. I can see it, but I can’t make it cool unless I am creative. I am just going to see a dude sitting at his desk recording his podcast.
If you isolate that moment– “Jake’s hands tip the microphone towards his mouth. His lips move within a bushy grey beard.”
Well now suddenly you are starting to get an image of Jake. You just saw these two moments, one isolated image of the hands tipping the microphone, the second isolated image the mouth moving in the beard.
Notice I didn’t have to tell you it is an INSERT or a CLOSE SHOT. You automatically saw the CLOSE SHOT in those two isolated images.
And even though I haven’t even told you that Jake is recording that podcast, you put together the hand on the microphone and the moving mouth, and you told yourself the story of Jake is recording something. In the gap between those two isolated images, you were invited to tell yourself the story.
So the first element of formatting is thinking of things as isolated.
Every time you type a period, that is an isolated moment. Every time you type a comma, that is an isolated moment. Every time you create a space, that is an isolated moment.
It is a way of thinking about the cuts in your movie, and starting your creative mind thinking not in terms of continuing action but in terms of cuts.
A lot of people think that screenwriting is about telling your reader a story, but that’s actually not true. Screenwriting is a way of inviting your reader to tell themselves the story of your movie.
And real storytelling happens not in the images themselves, but in the cuts in between the images.
And this is one of the coolest parts of formatting because it’s the place where the technical craft of screenwriting and the art of screenwriting actually converge.
Because once you start to think about each image as an isolated moment, you can get really efficient as a writer. Thinking about one image, and then asking yourself “what’s the coolest thing to cut to from there?”
Rather than tracking your character entering, exiting, or walking across the room like you would in a play, you can start to collect the greatest hits moments of isolated action that tell the story to your audience.
For an example of how this worked in A Quiet Place, just think of that very first scene.
This scene is not in the script (for reasons we’ll discuss in the next installment of this podcast) so here’s a deeply abbreviated version reconstructed from memory from what I saw on the screen– but it’ll fit the purposes of the podcast.
Bare feet walk silently on a trash-strewn floor.
Racks of tossed about products.
Those two images and we’re already telling ourselves “post-apocalyptic” — something is wrong.
A child walks silently down another aisle.
There’s more than one person. How do they relate? What are they looking for?
Is this a family? Are they hunting each other? Are they afraid of each other?
A woman’s hand reaches through bottles of prescription medicine. Carefully extracts one.
Oh, that’s what they’re looking for.
A rocket ship toy on a top shelf.
The little boy reaches up to get it.
I don’t think that’s what he’s supposed to be doing…
His mother dives to catch it– just in time!
These people are terrified of noise. The boy wants that ship. But what would have happened if it crashed to the floor?
One line of whispered dialogue: “Too loud.”
Probably it’s not even necessary. Because we’ve already got it.
The woman takes the rocket away from the boy.
Takes out the batteries.
Sets it down on the counter.
No– don’t turn your back on that kid!
The daughter hands the little boy the rocket ship. Puts her fingers to her lips, shh…
No, no, no!
The little boy pockets the batteries as well.
And that’s all it takes to set up one of the most disturbing scenes ever in a horror movie.
…And I’m not going to ruin the upcoming Bridge scene for you, but if you have seen A Quiet Place, you already know about.
And even if you haven’t seen it, you are already anticipating it…
You see, all those isolated moments added up and let you tell a story to yourself. And it’s a pretty darn scary story. And you don’t have a clue what everyone is so afraid of, but you know it’s going to be bad.
You’re not having the story explained to you. You’re seeing the story in your mind’s eye. You’re making the connections–isolated visual moment of action to isolated visual moment of action.
If you want to try this in your own screenwriting, take a moment to look very closely at a scene you’ve written. Ask yourself, what do I see first, what do I see next, and what do I see after that.
Play it in the little movie screen in your mind.
If you’re moving too slowly, ask yourself, “what’s the coolest thing I could cut to?” “What are the greatest hits?” What are two isolated moments that could rub together to create pressure– to invite me to tell myself the story of the movie?
And then, tune in for the next installment of this podcast, when we’ll be getting even deeper into the concepts behind “isolating visual moments of action”, how they work in A Quiet Place, and how you can apply them to your own writing.