After all these years, I can still remember reading this script the first time and how fantastic I thought it was. The Sixth Sense sold as a spec script in a bidding war for a reported $3M, so evidently I wasn’t alone in my appraisal of the story [written by M. Night Shyamalan].
The compelling nature of the narrative starts straight from the opening sequence and Shyamalan’s use of scene description goes a long way in setting the tone.
Here is an excerpt from that opening:
INT. BEDROOM - NIGHT TWO GIGGLING SHADOWS APPEAR IN THE BEDROOM DOORWAY. They try to turn on the light. It doesn't come on. MALCOLM Bulb's out. Anna giggles some more as Malcolm's shadow stumbles across the bedroom. MALCOLM TURNS ON THE BATHROOM LIGHT. A SHAFT OF LIGHT falls on Anna as she stands in the corner of the room. Anna smiles playfully and pulls off her sweater. She sways to a pretend striptease song. Malcolm can't hold back his grin. He joins in -- slowly peeling off the sweat-shirt. He looks back to Anna. She's stopped her playful dance. She's facing away from him. He walks towards her. HIS GRIN QUIETLY DISAPPEARS. Malcolm's face turns to rock as his attention is drawn to the SHATTERED WINDOW in their bedroom. The wind moves through the room. A lamp lays broken on the ground by the window. Malcolm kneels down. Beat. Anna's eyes fill with a quiet awareness. ANNA He's still in the house. A SHADOW FROM THE BATHROOM FLATS OVER BOTH OF THEM. ANNA SCREAMS. Malcolm spins around. His heart stops. Malcolm and Anna stare at the bathroom doorway. They know someone is inside. Beat. Malcolm slowly starts towards the door. The first thing that comes into view are the clothes on the bathroom floor. Then the figure of a man comes into view. A STRANGER stands bare chested in the back of the bathroom. NO ONE MAKES A SOUND. The STRANGER is about nineteen. Drugged out. Pitch black eyes bulging. His body is covered in scars and bruises. His hands are folded in front of him. He shakes ever so slightly. He has a patch of white in his hair. Malcolm speaks in a very calm voice. Never takes his eyes off the stranger. MALCOLM Anna, don't move. Don't say a word. Anna barely nods her understanding. MALCOLM (to the stranger) This is forty-seven Locust Street. You have broken a window and entered a private residence. Do you understand what I'm saying? The stranger slowly looks up for the first time. His eyes lock on Malcolm. STRANGER You don't know so many things. Beat. MALCOLM There are no needles or prescription drugs of any kind in this house. The stranger suddenly comes forward into the doorway. Malcolm stumbles back onto the edge of the bed. Anna sees the stranger for the first time. Her face drains of color. The stranger looks at Malcolm. He half grins. STRANGER Are you drunk? The stranger's stare slides to Anna. STRANGER Did you get him drunk? The stranger gazes at Anna. Gazes directly into her eyes. A penetrating, unwavering stare. STRANGER Do you know why you're scared when you're alone? Anna's expression instanly changes. STRANGER I know. BEAT. THE ROOM GOES SILENT. MALCOLM What do you want? I don't understand what you want. The stranger turns and glares at Malcolm. STRANGER What you promised. Malcolm stops all movement. ANNA --My God. MALCOLM --Do I know you? STRANGER Let's all celebrate, Dr. Malcolm Crowe. Recipient of awards from the Mayor on the news. Dr. Malcolm Crowe, he's helped so many children... And he doesn't even remember my name? Malcolm can't speak. Beat. The stranger's face starts to tremble. STRANGER I was ten when you worked with me. Beat. Malcolm's intelligent eyes race for answers. STRANGER Downtown clinic? Single parent family? (beat) I had a possible mood disorder... (beat) I had no friends... you said I was socially isolated. (beat) I was afraid -- you called it acute anxiety... (beat) You were wrong. (beat) Come on, clear your head... Male, nine... Single parent... Mood disorder... Acute anxiety. Malcolm looks like someone hit him with a sledgehammer. STRANGER I'm nineteen. I have drugs in my system twenty-four hours a day... I still have no friends. I still have no peace. I'm still afraid. Tears jump into the stranger's eyes. STRANGER ...I'm still afraid. Malcolm stands. MALCOLM Please give me a second to think. Malcolm's shaking hands touch his mouth as he stares at the stranger. Beat. MALCOLM Ben Freidken? STRANGER Some people call me freak. MALCOLM ...Ronald... Ronald Sumner? Tears fall down the stranger's face. STRANGER I am a freak. Malcolm looks up at the sound of those words. Something clicks in his head. MALCOLM --Vincent? THE ROOM GOES SILENT AGAIN. MALCOLM Vincent Gray? VINCENT GRAY stares with surprise through his tears. Malcolm lets out a deep breath like he just emerged from deep waters. MALCOLM I do remember you, Vincent. You were a good kid. Very smart... Quiet... Compassionate... Unusually compassionate... Vincent's eyes burn at Malcolm. VINCENT You forgot cursed. VINCENT is fully crying now. VINCENT You failed me. MALCOLM (whispers) Vincent... I'm sorry I didn't help you... I can try to help you now. Vincent turns to the sink. His hand goes in. He turns around and raises a gun at Malcolm. He FIRES. A VIOLENT, EARSHATTERING ECHO. Malcolm clutches his stomach and folds like a rag doll onto the bed. Vincent instantly moves the gun to his own head. ANOTHER HORRIFIC BLAST SPIKES THE AIR. Vincent crumples onto the bathroom floor. ANNA'S CHILLING SCREAMS FILL THEIR HOME.
There are some slight differences, primarily cuts, between this draft and the film version of the scene, yet most of what ends up in the movie is here. What I’d like to focus on here is the imagematic writing, using strong verbs and vivid descriptors to convey what transpires:
* TWO GIGGLING SHADOWS: Sets a lighthearted tone, picking up on the previous scene.
* He joins in — slowly peeling off the sweat-shirt: Continuing the fun tone. Note: The use of “peeling” instead of the more generic “taking off.”
* Malcolm’s face turns to rock: A big switch in the mood of the moment and a foretaste of the seriousness of the situation.
* His heart stops: An unfilmable, going ‘inside’ the character to convey the emotional response to what is happening.
* Malcolm and Anna stare at the bathroom doorway. They know someone is inside: Building anticipation and tension. Note: The use of “stare” instead of generic “look”.
* NO ONE MAKES A SOUND: This is a scary, tense situation.
* Drugged out. Pitch black eyes bulging. His body is covered in scars and bruises: Increases the foreboding sense of danger.
* Malcolm stumbles back onto the edge of the bed… Her face drains of color: The reactions of Malcolm and Anna upon first seeing Vincent immediately puts them on the defensive.
* The stranger looks at Malcolm. He half grins. The stranger’s stare slides to Anna… The stranger gazes at Anna. Gazes directly into her eyes. A penetrating, unwavering stare: Conveys the intensity of Vincent’s character, intensifying the sense of danger.
* Malcolm’s intelligent eyes race for answers: A race between Malcolm’s brain vs. Vincent’s psychosis.
* Malcolm’s shaking hands touch his mouth as he stares at the stranger: Great visual moment.
* Malcolm lets out a deep breath like he just emerged from deep waters: A release of tension as we think Malcolm – in finally identifying Vincent – is back in control.
* Vincent’s eyes burn at Malcolm: Not so fast with the tension release. And then:
* hand… raises… gun… FIRES… VIOLENT EARTHSHATTERING ECHO… clutches… folds… rag doll… instantly… ANOTHER HORRIFIC BLAST SPIKES THE AIR… crumples… CHILLING SCREAMS.
Can’t you see this scene? Can’t you feel it? That’s because Shyamalan is expert in his approach to scene description.
Imagematic writing is my term for embracing the visual nature of movies in screenplays. We can do that by using strong verbs and vivid descriptors.