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What’s In a Look? NCI Pt 1

Quite a lot.

Especially when your characters “look” at each other all the time in your scene description. Same goes for staring, gazing, glowering, eyeballing, scrutinising or any other synonym for the word “look”.

Until I starting script reading on a regular basis, I had no idea how much my characters “looked” at each other and how much of a problem this *can* become for the Reader. Now let me get this straight: “looking” is not a problem per se – until you do it all the time. It’s easy to fall into this trap. You want some actions, you want to render stuff as image, right? Looking is an action, nice one. Stick that in.

DON’T! If your characters do very little but look at stuff and/or each other, then frankly, it becomes a dull read. If a character is not what they say, but what they do, then an action is not a look but a real movement. What do you move when you look at someone or something? Your eyes. Hmmmm. Suddenly I’m thinking not only that’s pretty dull, but also problematic: a look after all is always open to interpretation; one man’s rage is another’s cool indifference, one woman’s sorrow is another’s resentment. Just HOW are we supposed to see this? If you can only read it actually on the page, does this not then mean you have committed the cardinal sin of sharing information with the Reader that is inaccessible to an audience? Go straight to jail & do not collect two hundred pounds, naughty screenwriter.

Of course “looks” can add to your writing. There are those “Oh Shit!” moments when characters’ eyes meet when something bad happens or they are visited with a moment of insight; used in the right context, this can work well. Equally, characters in love can stare at each other and get away with it because people in love DO actually stare at each other like sick puppies (also go straight to jail, boo). Just use this type of thing sparingly, so as to not affect their impact.

No, what I am referring to is what will be known forever as The Wimbledon School of Staring on this blog, when characters look at each other so much in the course of your scene description that it becomes a mad mess of looks, going back and forth like a tennis match with turgid action and highly directorial prose to boot. Something like this, in fact:

Jenny stares at her hands, won’t look at John.

JOHN: Look at me.

Jenny still won’t look up. John glowers at her, his face red with anger.

JOHN: Look at me!

It’s not that a Reader *doesn’t* know what’s going on here. John is peeved with Jenny, Jenny is ashamed, blah blah blah. Okay, fine. But the Reader will want a more entertaining read and you could give it to them, firing on both cyclinders, blast off baby. There’s some serious conflict going on here, yet the writer in question (okay, me) is relying on staring or not staring (how DO you show a character NOT doing something??) to get their point across when they could use anything they want. In your spec, it’s absolutely limitless. What if John was peeved with Jenny and he was the type of man prone to violent outbursts? What if Jenny was prone to violent outbursts? What if Jenny is struggling to hold in tears or John is less outraged than desperately hurt that his wife could have done this to him?? Looks alone can’t achieve that sense of drama. They can add to a scene (sparingly!) sure, but using looks alone is dangerous in my view, it bores the Reader. They’ll be reading a squillion other specs that rely on the same device, how is yours going to stand out?

Maybe something like this:

Jenny loiters in the doorway, hangs her head like a guilty schoolgirl. John pours a glass of scotch, picks it up with shaking hands.

JOHN: Look at me.

Jenny blots her hands on her dress. John’s cool demeanour slips, his face contorts with rage – he throws the glass at Jenny, it shatters against the wall, inches from her.

JOHN: Look at me!

Not the perfect scene, but that’s okay ‘cos it’s just an example I came up with whilst writing this. But by forcing myself NOT to use words like “look”, “regard”, “stare” etc, I’ve injected more visuals into this scene. I’ve had to dig deeper and find props like the scotch glass that truly convey (by throwing and breaking it) how mad John is at Jenny, instead of the vague “look of rage” he had before. I always think that a good gauge is: if it’s harder to write, then it *must* be better.

Part 2: When is a visual not a visual?

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24 thoughts on “What’s In a Look? NCI Pt 1”

  1. When is a visual not a visual? When it’s dialogue:


    WOLF (47) and DOVE (43) search the office.

    (American accent)
    Wolf? Company coming.

    (English, Public School)
    Plan A


    Wolf shoots her a look.


  2. My script is fully inaugurated to The Wimbledon School of Staring as you know Lucy. I was totally blind to it until you flagged it up, actually. I can see now constant “looking” is dull – but what are great ways to get the Reader’s attention in terms of your characters’ actions?

  3. My latest effort is quite light on ‘looking’. It does have a few ‘refusing to make eye contacts’ (introvert character) and a couple of ‘turnings away’. It’s that whole non-verbal communication really and what could be more visual than that? But have you noticed how you can get caught repeating things: recently for me it’s been all ‘uncomfortable knee twitching’ and ‘coffee cup turning’. Like spokesmen who use ‘actually’ every other word.

    “If it’s harder to write, then it *must* be better.” Then I must be on top form… the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about…

  4. Welcome Elinor and glad to hear it, Jon! 😉

    Anya – I like to convey emotion through actions, I think this makes for a more entertaining read. If someone’s angry, why not have them grab the lapels of the other character? If someone’s devastated by a revelation of some kind, why not have them “lurch” to one side, another character needing to “steady” them? The trick here though is to not to use this idea too much or go into too much detail, else you might get accused of using extraenous detail and/or directing from the page. It’s a minefield isn’t it??

  5. Strangely, it’s perhaps harder to convey ‘positive’ than ‘negative’. Angry has lots of signifiers but what about contented? Maybe that’s why so many films lurch from one extreme emotion to the next. Or it could be that whole ‘conflict being the root of all drama’ thing of course!

  6. “If you can only read it actually on the page, does this not then mean you have committed the cardinal sin of sharing information with the Reader that is inaccessible to an audience? Go straight to jail & do not collect two hundred pounds, naughty screenwriter.”

    A script, particularly a spec, is first if not foremost a sales document. It’s a common misconception that all that should be on the page is what can be seen or heard by the audience i.e. what can be shot. This very often leads to very utilitarian and unengaging writing. For a masterclass in how to break up dialogue in what’s essentially a fairly static situation take a look at the start of My Best Friend’s Wedding by Ron Bass. Link here:

    If putting in lots of ‘looks’ works then it works. The only rule is don’t be boring and that starts with engaging the reader.


  7. Cheers Dublin Dave. Couldn’t agree more on the notion of spec scripts being sales documents. Like I said in the article though, looks *can* work – but overused, they become as boring and unengaging as those “perfect” scripts that only put in stuff that can be shot. Regardless of misconception or not, there are those pesky work experience kids reading our specs after all.

    I believe totally the odd piece of lyrical prose in your scene description can work fantastically. Acres of it however makes it seem like the writer really wants to write a novel.

    So My Best Friend’s Wedding was a spec, then? Interesting.

  8. I confess: I’ve never watched or read it. And I’m unconvinced you have ESM, Mr.I’m-Gonna-Rip-Your-Eyes-Out-With-Fish-Hooks! : P

  9. Not sure if Bass specced it or not and it’s not all that relevant.

    The point is no one should underestimate the importance of your writing and voice to your career. ‘Lyrical prose’, although not the phrase I would choose, has more of a place than many people looking to break in might suspect. If you get a lot of fans of your writing you’ll be well on your way.


  10. Think it’s relevant personally; if Bass did spec My Best Friend’s Wedding, it could be indicative that talent will always out regardless of the supposed “rules” – if not, then it could show that with commissions, a writer is given more leeway with stuff like this. I will definitely look into it.

    But I totally agree – Voice is so important to the success of one’s script engaging the Reader; I’ve written about it extensively on this blog before and funnily enough am right in the middle of writing an article for Scriptwriter Magazine about the same subject as we speak. It definitely concerns me and “voice versus utility” is definitely a contentious issue.

    But like you say Dublin Dave, regardless of all those “rules”, some specs just “work”; that writer has that elusive je ne se quois, that intangible “something” that is their Voice and if they remain true to it, those scripts can be fantastic. But, like with all things, it’s a delicate balancing act in my view: you can have a Voice and be realistic about those things that *may* get in your way since overworked Readers *can* overlook or even plain miss stuff because they don’t and can’t view one’s script in exactly the same way, since they’re different people with a different worldview.

    Wow, this is getting deep! Love this stuff…

  11. “Think it’s relevant personally; if Bass did spec My Best Friend’s Wedding, it could be indicative that talent will always out regardless of the supposed “rules” – if not, then it could show that with commissions, a writer is given more leeway with stuff like this. I will definitely look into it.”

    Bass is one of, if not the highest earning screenwriters working today. He developed this style of punctuating dialogue with reactions, sometimes internal rather than external, very early on. It’s a great tool for taking the reader into the scene and the world of the story. It’s also something you’re told to avoid at film school like the plague. Along with first parantheticals/wrylies which ‘direct the actor’ too much – another mistruth.

    But here’s another possibility, Bass is hired because producers and execs know that his style means a greater chance of the movie being made. Good writing’s good writing. Whether he was working for hiring or speccing an original the song as they say remains the same.

    Incidentally he also has his own development team but that’s for another discussion.

    I was about to say if you’re writing British TV none of this really applies but then I’ve worked with several writers who even on a soap had their voice stamped all over an episode and that included breaking a lot of supposed ‘rules’. One example, one of them starting a scene in a Brookside script with:


    Porridge covered glens in the background.

    Read your post on readers and you’re absolutely right about formatting. With FD and MM there’s no excuse for incorrect formatting anyway. But even within that there are devices to improve readability such as mini slugs.

    But whatever you do don’t tailor it to a set of real or imagined reader prejudices. Do what you do as well as you can and don’t try to game the market.


  12. I would just mention a couple of things I was told by tutors (about feature film):
    -they DON’T mention the 10 page test (so it’s come as a bit of shock to me) and that the ‘inciting incident’ should happen between page 10 and 15,
    -they DO say that the first 25-30 pages (i.e. the first act) are read (though obviously not for the Red Planet Prize),
    -someone once advised me to break up long scenes with a new slugline regardless of whether it’s actually a new scene solely to break it up,
    -the ‘voice versus utility’ argument has become a nightmare for me. My style can tend to the prolix yet without the ‘lyrical prose’ it’s not MY writing style. Some have praised my style as ‘disturbingly evocative’, others have proclaimed it’s just too many damn words.

    I suppose the best advice came from a man who needed no action lines, ‘to thine own self be true’. But then again he also said ‘brevity is the soul of wit’.

    I enjoyed My Best Friend’s Wedding, not as much as Pretty Woman, While You Were Sleeping or Four Weddings but if it was a spec, well, more power to the man’s elbow.

  13. DD – Ron Bass? I’m aware of his work… *Said in a Newman & Baddiel manner* Loved them as a kid, wonder if they’d be so funny now I’m all grown up? Must dig up a DVD. But anyway, rambling, it’s catching Jon Peacey!! ; ) Just didn’t watch My Best Friend’s Wedding, don’t like Julia Roberts. Or Rupert Everett. No specific reason, my fault, not theirs. Interestingly, Ron Bass figures heavily on the top ten of Best Unproduced Scripts occupying 2 of the 10 spaces. Scott Rosenberg, James Cameron and David Lynch are there too, showing you can be a script bigwig and STILL get rejected. Not much hope for the rest of us then – but you can make yourself feel better by trying to “Reader-proof” such things as format and various pet peeves like staring-overuse. Maybe it doesn’t work, maybe it does… To me, it’s kinda like Ofsted watching teachers in the classroom, your mark (or in this case, whether it gets read in full) can be dependant on the person observing you.

    Jon – I’m so glad I started reading when I was still at university, as it gave me an invaluable insight in to how script tutors present the industry and how it actually *can* be (though having said that, it depends on the place you’re at!!). Nothing is certain: some places DON’T do the 10 page test and read all stuff in full for example, but the numbers seem to be shrinking. I do refute however that it’s not possible to retain your voice and be lean with your prose – economy of words doesn’t have to mean you’re boring and voiceless. It might be an oldy, but it’s a goody – Lawrence Kasdan got his unique style across in just 4 words introducing Tommy in BODYHEAT: Rock n’ roll arsonist. Hell yeah.

  14. “you can be a script bigwig and STILL get rejected. Not much hope for the rest of us then”

    Rejection is a constant throughout your career. All that changes is that, hopefully, you begin to accept it as such. Think of your favourite film or TV show. Out there are plenty of people who didn’t get it or did get it but didn’t like it. If it’s like that for an audience it’s going to be the same for readers, execs and producers. The game doesn’t change when you get an agent or start making a living at this. If breaking in appears hard it’s nothing to sustaining and building a career.

    In terms of readers what I’ve found over the years is that the higher up the person reading my work then generally the better the reaction. Maybe it’s because they can see what’ll play.

    A lot of the time spelling things out, which is what’s increasingly demanded and which is why so much British drama is utter shite, helps you with a reader and hurts you higher up the chain. Not saying don’t format properly and certainly steer away from too much black (scripts are read down the page not across) but beware what Frank Cottrell Boyce called the literalism of British TV.

    Agree with you on voice and being economical. Unfortunately a lot of writers confuse economy with utility which can lead to bland description. The Kasdan example’s a great one.

    I brought up Bass not because I love MBFW but because that opener really speaks to the original post in terms of how he uses stage direction in an unconventional manner to engage the reader.

    Jon: I’d go further than Lucy. Grab the reader on page one. Doesn’t mean you have to have a huge event but you have to start engaging the reader from the get go. If it’s page 25 before things are set in motion it’s probably too late.

    Don’t even get me started on script ‘tutors’:)

  15. I think I managed to get myself slightly misunderstood. I didn’t mean to imply economy of words IS voiceless only that it can lead to voicelessness. I feel there has to be a certain mastery of language. It’s in the difference between ‘Jon walks slowly sticking close to the wall’ and ‘Jon skulks’. To me, the second conjures an action better than the first. Unfortunately, I’d then probably describe the damned wall. 😉

    I am prolix (‘tediously wordy, lengthy’- OED). I am glad I know this: it means I know that (along with plot, journey, character, etc.) my challenge is to keep what voice I seem to have without the floridity.

    I can’t remember Body Heat (found it a bit boring and derivative, controversy?!) and can’t recall Tommy but confronted with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll arsonist’ I’m not sure what I’d conjure mentally: a kid with a petrol can or Keith Richards lighting up at the O2. However, I will aver to the notion it’s classic.

    I agree on grabbing the reader/ audience member on pg 1 and that it doesn’t have to be a huge event: however, too many don’t and this has had the annoying knock-on effect that too many features are now starting with a large event which is at best tenuous. This is most prevalent in horror (the unrelated killing) and thriller (something big gets blown-up/ away supposedly to show the protag is brave or has failed before or that the antag is ‘scary-bad’- this is in no way a cynical way of grabbing the attention of the audience- honest!). The film that stands out to me is Swimfan which started killing people off immediately before I could care about any of them and promptly lost me from minute 1.

    A good screenwriting tutor is worth their weight in gold (I’ve had a couple like that) but some (particularly) younger ones are bogged down in rules and find any deviation ‘problematic’.

    Argh! Rambled on again!

  16. Whoops, sorry LizH – missed you down here! Hope your job interview went well. Let us know if you get it. Bournemouth’s fab thanks, feel like I’ve never been away!

    MQ – glad the blog’s proving useful!

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