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  • Brian Magid

Visualizing Social Media in Screenwriting

A guide to what writers must consider when undertaking storytelling projects in a social media format.



When any writer writes anything, there is a process by which they convert the images and sounds that appear in their head into comprehensible language as it appears on the page. This process of sublimation - the chemical reaction that crystallizes the gaseous fog of thought into solid words - is a murky, internal affair. Its mechanisms are mysterious, different for each and every writer. But one constant, especially when it comes to writing for the screen, is the need for visualization. The images must be there before the words give them shape, waiting to be realized.


When writing for standard film or television, this is fairly straightforward. The visual grammar of film and TV is well established, intuitive. Anyone raised on a steady diet of either understands its philosophy and devices on an almost subconscious level. We, the audience, observe the scenes and characters as they exist when we are not there; the camera is an invisible eye, planted where it must be in the world to show us the story as it unfolds.


Lilly Johnson as Mia in archive video

This has been the basic underlying principle of nearly all film photography for a century and a half, and conceiving of the images that will be conveyed in this manner requires only thinking of what's happening in the story. In theory, there are no limits to what we can be shown; anything a camera can be pointed at, anything that can be contrived or created to exist in front of a camera for us to regard. The camera in this standard format is - even when conveying a characters' subjective experience - godlike, all-seeing, visible nowhere and able to present anywhere.


But with any new developments in storytelling media, in how stories are delivered to an audience, we must reconsider these fundamental questions of what we are looking at, and from what perspective. Sideway is an upcoming new streaming app where stories are told through a simulated social network. It doesn't resemble any other streaming app, or for that matter any current manner of storytelling exhibition directed at an audience. What it does resemble is a social media app: in look, in navigation style, in everything but the fact that the profiles belong to fictional characters and depict their fictional lives.


Depictions of social media on film and television have, in the past decade, followed from a basically rudimentary and confused playbook. The devices used to incorporate social media into the stories are apologies for the dramatic difficulties this incorporation poses: texts appear magically over phones for our benefit, cameras are pointed crudely at screens as we watch characters scroll and click.


Ethan Olson as Joey making a call

The fundamental problem is that we watch film and television passively, while we engage with social media actively. Not in an intellectual sense, but in a muscle sense. When we use social media our thumbs move. We click around. We choose where to go, what to look at, how long to look at it. Film and TV can't replicate this experience with any honesty. The grammar is designed to showcase the characters themselves, not their virtual worlds.


When crafting stories to be featured on Sideway, the writer's brain must be visualizing the app itself, visualizing the information that an audience will have before them as they navigate its profiles, video chats, DMs, likes, and comments. Social media is the filter through which these characters' lives, indeed all the vastness of the show's world, seeps into the audience's purview. But because of this filter, the writer must also, in some sense, conceive of the pre-filtered material as well, the parts of the characters' lives that they don't broadcast, that they keep for themselves, because the visible is always touched by the invisible.


On their profiles, we, the audience, see nothing that the characters don't directly choose to share with us. However, we have access to deeper layers of the characters' inner worlds. We can see their DMs, their video chats, their ostensibly private social media interactions. But still these are parts of themselves they choose to share with one another, albeit on a more intimate one-to-one basis than a public post.


On the deepest level of intimacy, of learning a character's true nature and feelings, we have the Digital Diary Entry. This is a Sideway-specific feature wherein characters record themselves speaking as if they were writing in the pages of a diary. These videos are just for themselves, just to get their true feelings off their chests; but we as an audience get to see them, and so in some ways we know more about the characters than their peers do. These diary entries are similar in theory to reality show confessionals, but not in practice; our diary entries are longer and deeper, explorations of innermost feeling, not brief dramatic hand-holding to make conflicts clearer.


Gabriel Matthews as Noah in diary entry scene

Much of the appeal of Sideway lies, in a sense, in invading the characters' privacy, voyeuristically peering into their private worlds as they continue, unknowing of our eyes upon them. All scenes in all film and television take voyeurism as the basic premise: characters almost never know that there is an audience watching them. But with Sideway, there is the dramatic distinction between that which the characters consent to share with us and that which they do not.


I have not yet touched on the big question that Sideway raises about storytelling, which is one of perspective. At any given moment in a Sideway show we are in someone's point of view. We are a passive observer only when scrolling the main timeline of events; the second we enter a character's profile we gain their private perspective, the view of their social media that only they have. The "camera," as it were, is behind their eyes. We take on that character. When we look at their DMs, their messages are blue, and the other person's messages are gray, because we are looking at their phone from their perspective. When we watch their video chats, one video is small, the other big, the same way it is when you video chat a friend of yours. But, here is the kicker: if they are interacting with another main character, another character whose perspective we also have the ability to adopt, then we can in fact switch between the two perspectives, at will, in the middle of a video chat or DM stream. Suddenly the blue messages are gray, and the gray messages are blue.


The point is, every scene comes accompanied by questions of whose perspective we are in. If it's multiple, we need to empathize with both characters, understand both of their contexts, feel both of their ranges of experience coming into play. To gain access to these lives is a privilege, and it must feel that way for the story to be engaging.

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