How do you write a silent film script when there are no words?

It seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?–writing a script for a silent movie. What’s there to write, other than the occasional titles that interrupt the story? At least, that’s what I thought before I started researching this time period. 

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland Avenue in the mid 1920s

A lot of writers in Hollywood wrote film scripts for silent films. First, the writer supplied a basic “story line,” the overarching lot outline with character descriptions. If that was approved, he (or occasionally she, but not often) would develop the story line into a full treatment, creating scenes and situations, giving life to the characters. After approval, the next step was the script, or “continuity.” This involved breaking down the story into individual camera shots–long shots, medium shots, or closeups. When all this was complete, the result was typed up and carbon copies handed to the producer, associate producer, actors, script girl, director, cameramen, casting director, and anyone else involved in production. The whole precess, start to finish, might take as little as 6-8 weeks, but it was usually longer. 

Often more than one writer worked on a script, which led to squabbles over whose name would appear in the film credits. According to Frederica Sagor, a Hollywood writer in the 1920s, she got credit for writing one film that she barely touched, and was cheated out of credit for some that she accomplished entirely by herself. 

I use this informaiton in the third of my Roaring Twenties series, when I talk about Douglas Fairbanks writing his own movie script. 

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