Being John Malkovich - to write for cinema, learn to multi-task


Everything in a well-constructed cinema script carries out two, three or even more tasks. There’s no room for slackers on a movie screenplay page. A single line of dialogue may tell a joke, reveal character, move the story on, hint at a possible danger and develop the theme, all in a few words.

Of course, good TV writing has many layers, and there is much overlap between TV and film. However in film this complexity is carried to a much higher level, more consistently.


You have far less flexibility of time in a cinema script and generally much less screen time to pack in a strong plot, rich characters and deep exploration of theme (to name just three). Compare, say, the film MASH with the TV series (which ended up running longer than the Korean War it was set in).

The movie has to deliver its punch lines faster, with less build-up than the TV show is allowed. It has to find depth in character without weeks or months of familiarity for its audience to rely on.

Most importantly, as with most cinema films, the majority of scenes only last as long as a single dramatic beat. TV script can generally afford fewer sets and so scenes are longer and have more beats in them.

On page 14 of the script for MASH the movie (written by Ring Lardner), Hawkeye finds himself operating with the help of Lieutenant “Dish”. His interest in her has been planted in a previous scene. His eyes linger in her a moment. We cut to outside the operating theatre, where he makes his next move. Here it is, in full:


Hawkeye and Duke are working together on the last stages of a leg amputation. This time there is no doubt about the surgical process we are watching; we see the almost severed leg and the process of controlling bleeding; then the limb is actually separated from its stump and handed by Duke to a corpsman. Hawkeye speaks to the nurse standing behind him.


Hot pack.

Watching her dip the pack into a warm solution and wring it out, he recognizes, despite cap and mask, that it is Lieutenant Dish. His eyes linger on hers for a brief moment.

In the TV series, that scene would have been built on, through further action and dialogue, and combined with one or more of the scenes that follow.


This means that the movie screenwriter must find ways to layer meaning, without of course confusing or distracting the audience.

In the scene above, we also learn more about the kind of operations being performed, the seriousness of the injuries, Hawkeye’s professionalism, and how he relates to Duke (wordlessly), all in a quarter of a page and two words of dialogue.

This layering means using every means at your disposal: visuals, dramatic tension, plot development, surprise, choice of setting, choice of time (day, night, dusk), non-verbal action, context. And it must be done with a very light touch (no technical instructions or “novelistic” descriptions allowed).


In TV of course, beneath what is being said, there is subtext. In movies, beneath the subtext there is deeper subtext.

Good movie dialogue reveals much more through what is not said than what is said. There’s no space for the long ruminating speeches of Coronation Street or Midsomer Murders.

In the second to last scene of The Apartment (Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond) Fran has come back to look for Bud who she rejected earlier. We know that he once tried to commit suicide when rejected in the past, but only shot himself in the knee. As she knocks on his door, she hears what sounds like a gunshot from inside. To her relief, he opens the door, holding a recently uncorked champagne bottle.

She asks, “How’s your knee?”

Think of the levels of subtext in that one line. (It’s also one of the biggest laugh lines in a very funny movie).

Forward movement

When writing cinema, whatever the genre or style, you need to keep things moving forwards at all times. This may mean pushing on the plot, but it also means keeping things moving beneath the plot.

Even a less action-packed movie, such as Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, or Haneke’s Amour must keep the characters evolving, the themes developing.

In the Almodóvar, a small scene about watching a play can bring out emotional depths in the central character. In Amour, the gradual disintegration of a life (and a marriage) is plotted through the minutiae of daily existence and the challenges of age and illness.

In each scene, you have to keep challenging your characters to reveal more about themselves, often in small ways that slip in between the larger “plot” elements.

Your personal voice

If this feels constricting, then maybe you are more suited to forms which give you more space to expand, and less need to multi-task – TV, radio, theatre or the novel.

However when you get into the swing of it, you can find it becomes part of your personal voice.

And as you grow as a multi-tasking writer you discover deeper and richer levels to your voice and begin to bring your own individual take to the precision and multi-layering of the cinema screenplay.