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”?
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…