Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Story Vault: What A Writer Doesn't Write

Ah, the summer down-time. A month where the entire media seemingly hightails it to Edinburgh or goes on holiday with the kids (or this year, totally consumed by the Olympics).

For a freelancer, August is always pretty quiet, so it's a good time to either start a new script or do loads of script reading (I'm doing both, by the way, so hit me up for feedback if you fancy).

To 'celebrate' this down-time, here's a re-splurge of one of my more popular posts, all about the 'subtext of scene description' if you will. Originally posted in February 2006, with 9 comments to add to the discussion.



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…


Rob said...

Ace post! Constantly struggling with it - this kind of thing is why I find stage directions much, much harder than dialogue. Dialogue's tricky too, but what they say is what they say.

What I've ended up doing, in a pinch, particularly on early drafts, is just flat-out stating the mood in as few words as possible. I'll try and make it visual if possible - "Margaret is clearly surprised" isn't a stage direction, "Margaret is slack-jawed" is - but the most important thing is that everyone who reads this document is on exactly the same page.

One scene in a script I'm writing goes like this, in my blueprint draft --

"INT. VILLAGE HALL - DAY 3. [1550]

"MARK emerges from the side room, relieved to be out. He crosses the hall to the exit."

-- and that's the whole scene, and there's a big no-no right in the middle. Because "Relieved to be out," I'm aware, isn't really a stage direction. It's not a verb, it's not something an actor could do.

I could write "MARK emerges from the side room - heaves a sigh, shakes his head," but what does that mean? One person could read that and think he's wistful, another might think he's daunted, all of a sudden the tone's everywhere.

Dialogue, I'd argue, contains subtext because people lie to each other, and they lie to themselves, and they withhold information and they compete with one another and because in the end we're all volatile little bags of contradictory chemicals. Actions contain subtext, too, and the difference between a wander and a swagger is huge and inbuilt, but it's not the viewers who see the stage directions. The most important thing, when writing a stage direction, is making sure that everyone who reads it knows exactly what's going on, and if that occasionally means spelling out the subtext, I'd rather do that than risk it going completely missed.

I'll admit it's a fairly clumsy approach. I do intend to change that line up there - mood should ideally be built in, rather than dictated. This is still draft zero, eventually Mark will shuffle across the hall, or he'll escape from the side room, to give two rubbish examples - but even something as duff-handed as "relieved to be out" serves a purpose. The director will know Mark shouldn't saunter, the actor will know he shouldn't be grinning... and a person's body can be so expressive. I might be faffing about with something as clumsy as a sigh when all the actor might need is the word "relieved," and they'll be able to convey it with the flicker of an eyebrow, the bulge of an eye, or they might twitch a corner of the mouth we haven't got a name for - incorporate a stated tone seamlessly into some fairly pedestrian actions.

I know that I probably say too much in my stage directions, but it's driven by a fear of saying too little. Obviously, the target's to write a perfect script, always - but if I'm going to err on either side, I think this one's the safest. Still very self-conscious about it all, though. So self-conscious I've toyed with deleting this entire comment, in fact, for fear I'll sound like a gibbering amateur. Stage directions are bastards!

Danny Stack said...

Brilliant, Rob, thanks. One of my fave comments, ever!

Rob Webster said...

Oh, wow - thank you! Even feel bold enough to respond under my full name, now. Cheers!

All very much inspired by a cracking blog post, though, of course. Thanks very much for reposting it, I wasn't here to see it first time round, and it's given me so much to think about - and, hopefully, apply. Properly probing the way I write, now. Huge topic! And we don't hear enough about it.

Paul said...

Great post.

This is true in novel and short story format also. Once the reader is engaged just one subtle word hinting at events outside the direct narrative can clang like a dramatic bell in a sea of what might seem mundane description or dialogue.

Lovecraft's fantastic essay on the weird story "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (a must for any aspiring genre writer in my opinion) describes a story by Lord Dunsany, wherein a thief "jumps over the edge of the world, after seeing a certain light lit and knowing who lit it." What a wonderful example of opening a vacuum in a tale and allowing the fevered reader's mind to fill it with her own personal terrors.

Danny Stack said...


And here's a nice link that Tim found which kind of illuminates the whole point, writing with the tunnel effect.