5 Tips for Writing Visually


Of course, films are visual. That’s not news. Screenplays, though, aren’t always very visual and they really should be. The more you use visual techniques in your script the easier it will be for people to see your script as a movie and for it to eventually to become one. Here are five ideas for writing more visually.

  1. Have a theme. Visually, a theme can be color, location, type of shot, or even a character. A recent example of visual theme used to great effect is Moonlight. The film is based on an unproduced project called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Writer/Director Barry Jenkins picked up on the idea of blue—which suggests melancholy, of course—and used the color over and over in the film from the cars to the sea to the lighting effects. Now, you might think a color motif is really between the director and the cinematographer and certainly, they might change whatever you’ve written but it’s a good idea to write with some kind of theme in mind. It will make your script all the more viable.
  1. Write with emotion. Don’t forget to put emotion on the characters’ faces. Yes, you’ve probably heard that many actors immediately cross those directions out. But you have to get that far in order to suffer that fate. If you’re writing something that’s perfect for Julia Roberts make sure her character “bursts into an infectious grin” a couple of times in your script. Another reason to write with emotion is that actors what to play characters who run the gambit of emotion. Help them see that’s what you’ve written.

Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock 

  1. Use colors. Remember to use colors when you’re writing (even when you’re not using color as a theme) and then make those colors count. You might want your main character to drive a classic ’65 Mustang because it’s cool but we’ll learn more about your character and get a better sense of what the movie will be if you tell us it’s “candy apple red ’65 Mustang.” Notice I didn’t just use “red.” It’s too broad to be really descriptive. A lipstick red economy car, a burgundy luxury car and the candy apple red ’65 Mustang are all red cars. But they say different things about the characters driving them and they create different moods and different visuals. Be careful, though, don’t use colors like eburnean, fulvous or amaranth. You want to use colors people are familiar with. When in doubt use foods and plants to describe colors. If I say the couch was rose red, everyone knows what I mean. If I say the couch was amaranth, people are running to Google trying to figure it out.

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.

  1. Expand your scope. Movies need to be big. If your story takes place in outer space we need to see the galaxy. If it’s a western we need to see the desert or the prairie or the plains. But these shots aren’t just meant to be pretty, they’re telling the story. If you look at a film like Gravity the shots of a vast solar system are meant to increase the sense of terror experienced by Sandra Bullock’s character. Another great example of scope is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Here’s a clip. If you were writing this sequence you’d want to make sure to include the enormity of the desert surrounding them and the size of the armies, and then move back and forth between the emotions on Peter O’Toole’s face, the tension between the characters and the inserts of close-up action.


  1. Tell it with pictures. The master of telling it with pictures is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Here’s a clip from Psycho in which Janet Leigh’s character decides to steal the money her boss has entrusted her with. If you were putting this scene in a script you’d need to do much more than just record the character’s movements. Note the inserted shots of the envelope full of money and the emotions that cross Leigh’s face. All of that was scripted well before the day they shot.

So what are some of your favorite visual moments? And how would you write it in a screenplay?


Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

9 Replies to "5 Tips for Writing Visually"

  • comment-avatar
    Allen March 30, 2017 (11:18 am)

    I recognize that visuals are an important part of the storytelling, yet I’ve been told in more than one critique that that stuff’s for a shooting script (in my case, a TV Pilot). They’ve been very critical of the atmospherics I spend time on (in a crisp manner), like your “candy apple red ’65 Mustang” example. It’s irritating and confusing to me. I’m currently stripping my script a fair amount, which ticks me off. I don’t get it.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton March 30, 2017 (11:33 am)

      Thanks for the comment. You will hear a lot of different things, many of them conflicting. My suggestions are mainly for spec scripts which have to get through readers, agents, managers, and development people before they get to artists who will interpret them. Sometimes people will criticize the very things that brought you to their attention. A producer attached to a script of mine asked me why I bothered to go to college — and he’d found me by judging a contest that I could only enter because I was in college!

      I don’t know who you’re getting critiques from so I can comment on their quality. I’ve certainly never had anyone tell me not to use a phrase like “candy apple red ’65 Mustang”. I do avoid camera angles like CLOSE-UP and ANGLE ON since they’re more appropriate to a shooting script. That doesn’t mean I don’t write in close-ups though. Something like “tears welled in Debra’s eyes” is a close-up. It is ultimately up to you to decide the style you want to follow.

  • comment-avatar
    William Sommerwerck March 30, 2017 (12:00 pm)

    When writing a scene, I have no trouble visualizing how it will play out on the screen, in detail. The dialog is only part of the scene. It does not wholly define the scene.

    Janet Leigh’s theft could have been much shorter, with her simply sticking the money in her pocket book and grabbing the suitcase. But the scene’s length — and its detail — gives us a chance to feel as if we experiencing what she’s going through (another of The Master’s skills — intense identification with the characters).

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Bernard Herrmann’s music echoing her thoughts and feelings, ratcheting up the tension. A great scene is a Gesamtkunstwerk, and this is a perfect example of how its done.

  • comment-avatar
    James Jones March 31, 2017 (8:26 am)

    Great idea and I utilized colors on my screenplays! Went from white to Ivory White, lily white and snow white, as well as Charcoal, and ruby red. Since Land of Cotton is a sports drama, several scenes include football fields!

  • comment-avatar
    Allen March 31, 2017 (1:16 pm)

    Thank you for the reply, Marshall. I have taken out camera angles like the ones you mentioned and write language descriptive in the manner you suggested. Still seems silly to me not to use terms like POV, when that might be an integral element of the story you’re telling.

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