A Screenwriting Thesis (Statement)

“Ultimately, I will investigate how this strategy allows Hitchcock to manipulate his second audience more precisely, having learned to give viewers their clues directly from his control of sound and image, rather than filtering his communication through the less easily managed relationship between a viewer and any given character.”

As much as I’d like to deny it, I was the author of this horribly long and convoluted sentence. To be fair, I think I wrote it at around 4am in a mate-induced frenzy of last minute finals work, but still. Unacceptable. The problem isn’t that this sentence doesn’t say anything—indeed, the ideas are all there. Unfortunately, they seem to have gotten lost in a jumble of clauses and qualifiers.

So, how should I go about fixing this sentence, the foundation, the thesis, the last in my introductory paragraph? It needs to introduce some very complicated ideas with just a few broad strokes. How can I tackle the perennial task of all good writing: conveying the most, while saying the least? In this particular instance, I found inspiration in a somewhat unexpected form. A medium in which brevity is key, clarity is paramount, and readability is an absolute necessity: screenwriting.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a movie is worth about 24,000 words per second, since film runs 24 separate frames past your eye every second. As a general rule, a minute of screentime amounts to about a page of screenwriting. One page in a typical screenplay has about 175 words. You can do the exact math yourself, but basically, screenwriters get one single word for every 8,000 pictures—according to the old adage, they’re the most succinct writers in history.

Do I indulge in a little bit of hyperbolic analogizing? Maybe, but I think the point still stands. Obviously, screenwriters can’t actually describe every image that appears in the final product—so, like academic writers forming thesis statements, they must only use those few specific words which will evoke the basic idea in the mind of the reader. Take, for a familiar example, the opening scene of THE MATRIX, which shows Agents chasing Trinity across rooftops for about 45 seconds. Instead of describing each moment, however, the script uses just three paragraphs and only 68 words:

Trinity begins to jump from one roof to the next, her movements so clean, gliding in and out of each jump, contrasted to the wild jumps of the cops.

Agent Brown, however, has the same unnatural grace.

The roof falls away into a wide back alley. The next building is over 40 feet away, but Trinity’s face is perfectly calm, staring at some point beyond the other roof.

Screenwriters use short, descriptive sentences, often relying on only one adjective or adverb to help them along. They speak almost exclusively in active verbs for a snappy, fast-paced read that moves the reader through the film as quickly as possible. They tend to have very simple and precise vocabularies. And they rarely, if ever, use more than two clauses in a given sentence—except when trying to create the impression of speed or chaos, as in the first paragraph from my MATRIX example. So, what were the results when I applied these techniques to my thesis? Well, judge for yourself:

“Hitchcock later began to communicate directly through his form, rather than indirectly through his characters. My essay will investigate this shift and its impact on Hitchcock’s increased powers of manipulation.”

Now if only I’d figured this out four years ago, instead of two weeks before Commencement…

-By Gus Spelman ’11

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