Friday, February 17, 2006

What a Writer Doesn't Write

In screenwriting, it is commonly accepted that subtext is a key component to a story, partly responsible for the audience’s emotional involvement and ultimate dramatic reward. But there is another facet of subtext that is not as commonly discussed or considered, at least not in the subtext sense: narrative description.

The way a writer writes his script and displays his knowledge of craft is all-important in how a reader/exec, and an audience, responds to the material. From the pages that roll by, the reader will (hopefully) get a solid sense of tone, pace, characterisation, emotion, drama and structure that represents the writer’s voice; his/her particular way of telling a screen story.

However, the golden rule of screenwriting (there are no rules or to put it in a Matrix context: “there is no spoon”) is this: less is more. Screenwriters are continually told that they should only describe what happens on the screen, and let the drama and exposition flow from the characters’ behaviour and actions. While this is generally good advice, it is impossible to write a script without indicating some unseen sense of emotion or what a character is thinking.

Some will gasp at the notion of describing what your character is thinking or telling the reader what’s emotionally under the surface but sometimes the writer simply cannot take the risk of the reader not getting it and which could lead to a hasty and misinformed ‘Pass’ on the reader’s coverage. This dismissive tendency is at the root of writers’ never-ending frustration at over-worked interns and the system not recognising their talent.

Reading screenplays isn’t very hard but understanding and appreciating screen language is something that every reader should take a little bit more time to mull over. It’s sometimes too easy to read a script and think: plain, dull and uninvolving, when really the script could be rich with subtext and dramatic content, and worthy of a consideration.

The onus inevitably rests with the writers to make sure their story is as clear and as expressive as possible but with the adage of “less is more” haunting your head at every page, just how do you combine the key emotional and dramatic beats with basic directions such as: “John walks in to the room”?
(a page from one of Robert Thorogood's scripts, writer/creator of Death in Paradise, which was developed through the Red Planet Prize.)

As the writer, there’s so much to consider: how am I going to dramatise this in the best way possible; what are the characters feeling; what should they say etc? And then this thought-process gets distilled to the clear form of screenwriting where, to a layman, it could read plain and unremarkable.

In TV drama, you have a little bit more leeway not to stop and explain what is going on or what a character is thinking (because everyone's more familiar) but for feature spec scripts, it’s crucial that every bit of emotion, story beat and motivation is understood by the cold reader. Less is indeed more but sparse description combined with the direct expression of what the subtext is could be the perfect accompaniment for the reader to ‘get the story’ without them feeling that they’re being hammered over the head every step of the way.

It’s an extremely delicate balance and one writers struggle over every day. Ideally, scripts want that keen sense of story and momentum, with characters and motivation jumping off the page through the dialogue and action. However, “less is more” can sometimes come across as “less is less” and the reader is left none the wiser by your cool sense of style and wicked grasp of craft.

For the writer, it will be clear as day what the character is doing and why, and will think the audience has got it, but sometimes if it’s not directly in the narrative description, then the reader’s just skimmed by it.

So much criticism and responsibility is laid at the writer’s door to make a screenplay as engaging as possible with the fewest amount of words and wonderful visual description but readers/execs need to take some responsibility too, and be aware of “what the writer isn’t writing” or try to consider the choices the writer has made in telling the story in the manner in which it’s coming across.

Maybe in an ideal world, this could happen. Just because they say it’s rubbish and leave you crushed with rejection doesn’t mean that they’re right. As it is, we simply have to keep plugging away and hope that someone with a discerning eye and a solid appreciation of screenwriting will recognise and embrace the work as told.

It’s a topic that can’t easily be summed up in one short post, there’s so much to discuss and debate (different styles of screenwriting, what someone does well another will do atrociously, a wannabe Shane Black for example) but style and tone aside, the important exposition about character, story and emotion is what I’m talking about, the stuff that’s not in the dialogue but in the characters’ visual behaviour and motives…


Anonymous said...

You've put into words what has bugged me for ages. I think this has an extra resonance when you're writing comedy - you imagine how the actors say the words, whether the charcater is party to the irony, whether the listener is, and so on. Impossible to describe in a script without coming across as obsessive - and naturally, explaining any joke removes the humour.

Anonymous said...

I think this illustrates why those people who go into screenwriting thinking it's an easier option than novel writing are deluding themselves. It may be less physically punishing on the fingers, but communicating an inference or an atmosphere or an unspoken thought in a single line of action or a few words of dialogue is much more difficult than using half a chapter of prose.

I'm always struck when I read a good script at how little is on the page. But true simplicity and clarity, as we all know, takes a hell of a lot of re-writing.

What was that saying quoted ad ifinitum by English teachers? "I didn't have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one."

Nice post Danny - and another good link.

Anonymous said...

thanks, I loved seeing that Six Feet scene disected and discovering what was really going on inside Alan's head

Tim Clague said...

To me the key is to just say what you want to happen. Not physically, but what you want the experience to be. Sometimes you can do away with line after line of complex description to just say - Paul entered the room like he was the only guy at a cheerleaders conference. Its enough for the actor, without treading on their creative toes. Same for the director. They get what Paul's enterance is about. They can then fill in detail of what that looks like and how to film it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Danny, very interesting.

I remember reading in one of William Goldman’s books that he often flouts convention to include explicit subtext description. This is because he has a pretty dim view of directors and isn’t convinced that they’d ‘get it’ (his words) otherwise!

One point about that script excerpt: it seems to be flouting what I thought were two cardinal rules:

To quote:

We see;
We follow him – he circles around us;
Reverse angle on David;
Closer on David;
He looks crazier than we’ve ever seem him’

All this in a scene which probably lasts thirty seconds! Directing from the page = no, using ‘we’ breaks the spell and reminds us that we’re reading a script.

As an experienced script reader what’s your opinion? Is this type of scene description more permissible in the US than it is here? Or are these writers proving that they’ve never been trained and are simply being allowed to get away with it because they write well?

Or are these rules losing their currency?

Even if this is a so called shooting script it doesn’t make it right. The usual procedure is for a director to issue a shot list for those who need to know and not have the script itself littered with random references to camera angles.

Personally speaking, as someone from a directorial background, I HATE to see specific directing notes on the page – I’ll choose my own angles thanks very much!

However, I have less of a problem with ‘we see’ and all its derivatives as long as by using these terms the writer is alerting me to something that is dramatically significant in the scene which may otherwise not be obvious.

So what is the current thinking on this issue?

Danny Stack said...

I don't mind WE SEE or REVERSE ANGLES but I don't like them used in every sentence, only when they're necessary. Ideally, for new writers with spec scripts, they should be kept to a minimum or not used at all but I'm not going to dump a script in the bin just because it says We See or uses a specific direction from time to time. I think the Six Feet Under extract was directed by Alan Ball so he was writing for himself (plus he's proven successful with his writing so whatever style he uses is going to be okay).

Unknown said...

I read the White Girl script, and that has loads of directions and feelings etc. Is that because it's the finished product and not a spec script?

Or is that just Abi Morgan's style do you think?

Loved that script by the way.

Danny Stack said...

A lot of professional writers will get away with heavy description in their scripts, especially if it's a commission, or they've already established their name.

Unknown said...

Okay, thanks.