Friday, September 29, 2006

This Is, We See, It Is

Actors and critics often target a script out for praise, and will laud the writer or writer/director for his screenwriting skill. (The actors are talking about their specific roles while the critics are referring to the dialogue.) This script then gets nominated for awards, maybe even an Oscar, and possibly even a win. And so, as soon as it becomes available on-line, or maybe a friend gets his hands on a copy, we are eager to read the screenplay to soak up its insightful skill and craft.

Disappointment kicks in, then frustration. The script is all right, nothing special, okay. The new writer is thinking: “my script is easily better than this, how did this attract so much attention and win so many awards? There’s hope for me and my scripts yet.” The new writer may have a point but what they’re missing are two crucial aspects of the script: 1) its invisible qualities of story regarding characters and narrative momentum; 2) the visual dramatisation and performance of the piece that makes it a successful film.

The disappointment and frustration a new writer feels towards the script is understandable but it usually relates to screenwriting style (and so-called screenwriting rules) rather than actual story content. This is what is ultimately more important than rules and regulations about how a screenplay should be written. Most new writers, and some script readers, will get their knickers in a twist about format, drab writing style and general screenwriting no-nos without really assessing what the characters and story are doing around the writer’s misguided presentation.

It is certainly important to strive for an expert grasp on style and craft, and it’s definitely disappointing to read lazy writing in a professional’s work, but it’s the story that matters underneath it all. I’ve been suitably engaged in the emotion and drama of badly written screenplays. While this sounds like a paradox, the “badly written” term relates to the writer’s style and presentation rather than the emotional weight of their characters and the dramatic value of their story.

However, it should be pointed out that these scripts are rare. As a script reader, you have to keep an open mind that the writer is going to do okay, and because script reading can be a soul destroying process at times, it is difficult to maintain this optimism when the first thirty pages or so feel like you’re wading through thick-sludge.

The other day I was reading a script from an Oscar-nominated writer, and it wasn’t very good. In the first twenty pages, a lot of the scenes started like this:


We see a perfectly still ocean that stretches out before us. It is a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. It’s June and summer’s at it’s (sic) peak. A swimmer splashes in the sea and comes into view. This is MARY. She’s twenty, got a good sense of humour and is enjoying the inhibition of life that her age gives her.”

General screenwriting advice tells us to avoid “We see”, “It is” and “This is” because it allows for lazy and convenient description. Actually, the use of these terms is fine but they should be limited so that you don’t over rely on their safety crutch. (My personal rule of thumb is that there should be no more than two instances of these terms in a script.)

But in this particular script, a lot of the scenes started in this way. The “We see” usually came immediately after the slugline, proceeded by “it is” and then the introduction of a character, “this is”, and their basic characterisation. As I progressed with the script, I tried to stem my feelings of annoyance and frustration that an Oscar-nominated writer should indulge in such lazy and flat description but after a while, I was drawn to the particular characterisation, action and emotions of the characters. These qualities were emerging with some interest, much better than the style and presentation of the actual description.

A perfect blend of style, craft, emotion and drama is the ideal, and obviously this is difficult to achieve. Making the reader feel distanced from your descriptive style and then making them work hard to get into the spirit of the story is not the best way to go about securing interest in your work. But if you get nominated for an Oscar, or are validated in the industry in some way, then this kind of work will always be ‘out there’. And because new writers will study these respected scripts for inspiration, it perpetuates a misleading standard in the business, thus leading to arguments, articles and blogs about the whole evolving scriptwriting process that, ultimately, will never be perfectly mastered…


Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

So is this just laziness or has the writer made it to an Oscar nomination without ever knowing "the rules"?

I like to think I'm aware of what the rules are and that if I ever made it big I would stick to them. Writing within the rules doesn't seem any harder than writing outside of them to me. Like you say, the constant use of "We see", or an overactive desire to point the camera here and there just makes a script look unprofessional. Who would want to make their script look unprofessional?

Lucy said...

Hey Chris, you're getting in my space as the first person to comment on all Danny's entries beeeeech, wanna take it outside?!??!

Besides that, I agree. I tell BANG2WRITE clients that specs are like a job interview on paper: you gotta be the greatest writer EVER not breaking any of the rules... once you got your feet under the table you can break all of them in the slobbiest writerly fashion EVER! ; )

Oh and Chris, once we've had that scrap, you may be interested to know that WW2 is a personal interest of mine so if I can be any help research-wise, that's cool.

That actually sounds a bit weird. But you know what I mean...

Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

Hi Lucy,

Well, I'm not saying I never ever break the rules. I just don't break the ones I know about ;)

Hmmm, you are the second person who seems to be shepherding me towards my WW2 idea. I may have to revisit the outline I have for it. And just when I've started a new screenplay.

Suki Singh said...

Craft and great stories go hand in hand. If the writing is okay and the story is great, job done, get a script editor to polish it. To me, it's story, I'm a story person, what's the story baby? The conversation about your script from you to the producer, money, production and marketing to Ben and Barry on the street, will be...what's it about then?...What? It's about an Irish fella called Danny who wakes up one morning and can only speak Spanish?...sounds funny..Frank saw it...and? Said it's great...okay, lets it well written...hey?...I said...never mind.

Mystery Man said...

Great post, Danny!

The current pro-screenwriters who have been validated can do whatever they like. I'm surrounded by TriggerStreet kids (many of whom post comments on my blog) who are nothing short of fanatical about screenwriting. Their thinking has been, "Hey, it has to excel on every, single level - story first, characters second, style & grammar & format third. How else are you going to beat the competition if you aren't a true master craftsman and create a script that's at that level that we expect when we read an oscar-nominated script?"

Because of these very talented kids, I frequently think about the future of screenwriting and the next generation of screenwriters, and I think that the days will be gone when a screenwriter could get a sale with a sloppy spec. Why bother reading it when you know that there are hundreds of master craftsmen out there with superior scripts just waiting to be read? We're not there yet, but I believe we will be someday.


Mystery Man said...

"...but what they’re missing are two crucial aspects of the script: 1) its invisible qualities of story regarding characters and narrative momentum; 2) the visual dramatisation and performance of the piece that makes it a successful film."

I couldn't agree more.