Well, quite a lively debate kicked off in the comments section of my last article: for those of you who don’t read the comments (and you really should, for moments like these if not the general threats, double entendres, paddies and frank admissions by various readers), the mysterious Dublin Dave proposed that all that was needed was engaging the Reader, not adherence to supposed rules like Thou Shalt Not Overuse Staring. He went on to post a link to an interesting example of where he thinks internal thought processes can aid the action, Ron Bass’ My Best Friend’s Wedding which prompted my grossly unfair prejudice against Julia Roberts (what has she done to me, after all?) and my speculation that perhaps being one of the highest paid screenwriters in the world allows Mr. Ron Bass to get away with such things whilst the rest of us are at the bottom of The Screenwriting Food Chain with those kids on Work Experience reading our stuff. Then the marvellous but likely stalkerish Jon Peacey (what?? ; ) waded into the fray, positing that perhaps economy of words means a writer’s voice can be undersold, as well as other stuff including whether it’s worth trying to game the market, what we’re told at uni about the “rules” and if script tutors are any good and whether Readers “higher up” are more “open” than those right at the start of their career. Think that’s all of it. Phew.
People email me all the time and say they’re confused about my stance on the “rules”. They say I say one moment it’s a good idea to adhere to the “rules” and the next, I’m saying break them. The true answer then, once and for all?
Do both. Still confused? Let me explain.
The very fact that I included “” around the word “rules” indicates my *true* feelings on them. Rules or not, if your writing rocks, then who cares what it looks like or evn – shock horror – how exactly it plays out. I got a script through something outside Bang2write so ill-formatted, so wayward structured, so screwed up on character about eighteen months ago that if I had received it when I first started reading, it would have never made it past the ten page test. However, there was *something* about this script. As I carried on reading, despite the shocking format (which still did my head in by the way and made one of the worst and irritating uses of the word BEAT I have ever, ever seen), I actually did get into it. Come the end, I was amazed by the subject and this particular writer’s voice – even though it was patently their first script and they had never read so much as a website page about screenwriting their entire life. Despite this however, they were going to go far.
But not now. Now, they were just gonna get rejected.
Why? Well, even as I passed it on for its second read, I had a heavy heart: the likelihood of two Readers understanding a script so badly structured, written and formatting was slim. And guess what? It not only got rejected but said second reader phoned me up and questioned whether I was out of my head for putting it through. Even in the face of my justifications, he thought I had. Lost. My. Mind. And maybe I had: after all, this is a business that demands its material is in some semblance of order; it’s not always enough sometimes that a Reader LOVES somebody’s voice. Hell, it’s difficult enough to get through to the other side development-wise when your script IS well-presented, well-structured and well-characterised – when it’s not? Good luck. As I’ve said before, it’s like buying a house to some people: why buy one that’s falling down when you can buy one that’s structurally sound? There’s so much competition out there, those producers etc can literally take their pick – even if their Readers would prefer to go for the hardcore renovation jobs.
But anyway, I’m getting way off topic: what I’m trying to say here is rules are rules and are therefore meant to be broken, but if you’re gonna break them, you need to know what they are – or indeed what others’ expectations of you might be – else aren’t you fumbling in the dark (oo er)? Yeah, yeah shut it Lucy. Whatever, talk to the hand, face- bovvered? Etc etc.
I talked in my last article about those moments where staring can get in the way of “real” actions and though I recognise (and agree with!) DD’s very good points that sometimes referencing internal thought processes can add to your narrative, as does sparing use of “stares”, I’m still of the steadfast opinion that it’s best to err on the side of caution when dealing with characters’ thought processes in specs. Readers *can* be so touchy about scripts that use such things that have what they call “no clear image” or what I abbreviate as NCI. Moments in scene description like this:
1. Mary searches for a reason as to why her mother might have gone.
2. Pain explodes between his eyes.
3. Nick wills Aaron to understand.
And my absolute non-favourite:
4. S/he has an idea.
Again, it’s not that Readers are thick or don’t understand it when you reference stuff like this. “Searches for a reason” SOUNDS like an action after all, so what does it matter? With reference to number 2) When people are in pain, it’s obvious – their faces contort, this particular character may even pinch the bridge of his nose and even say something like, “Argh! My head!” Nick’s “willing” too can be construed as “obvious” as can “ideas” on the basis of facial expression, context, etc etc. What Readers object to, quite simply, is the fact that these can be re-written as something more apparent or even – shock, horror – cut out altogether. With visuals vs. NCI, it boils down to: do we NEED this information? What does it ADD to the story? After all, couldn’t we have something like this instead of the above lines:
– 1. MARY: I can’t understand it… Why has she gone?
– 3. NICK: Do you understand what I’m telling you? AARON: Of course I do!
– 4. PERSON: I’ve had a great idea. Why don’t we…
I think some writers are so afraid of their dialogue becoming “on the nose”, that they’ve actually forgotten the audience uses dialogue as an anchor to their understanding of how a scene is playing out. This means, if your script is full of NCI, if it was played out on a screen in front of you, I’d wager there’s a good chance you’d get lost as to where the scene is going. Consider a franchise like CSI: in any of them, investigators present evidence to each other that in real life, another investigator would simply say, “Interesting, let’s get to work, etc etc” whereas in the programme, because of the high science content, investigators EXPLAIN points to each other constantly which is not really dramatic, but we accept this because we are laypeople and need the CSIs to tell us that epithereals means skin or that mitochondrial DNA present means the two suspects are brothers or whatever it is. We don’t really care at the end of the day, we’re not scientists, we’re wowed, Loreal-style instead: HERE’S THE SCIENCE BIT, BECAUSE WE’RE WORTH IT!
Now, let’s not get bogged down in THIS IS RIGHT/WRONG etc, I fully concur with anyone who says a touch of NCI here and there adds to a screenplay – if used sparingly, it can have real impact and leaves behind its nitpicky NCI tag and becomes “lyrical prose” or any other name you want to give it: in other words, moments that can’t *strictly* be seen, but perks up your prose and makes you seem like the wo/man writing-wise, rather than a writer making a mistake. When NCI becomes a problem then, it’s the same issue as the staring – you’re doing it too much. Then of course there are those pedants out there, like me, who hate particular phrases: “S/he has an idea” being one of them. It prompts them to write the one phrase that you never, ever want to have in a script report from an agent or a prodco:
HOW DO WE KNOW THIS?
The problem on this issue lies not so much with your writing, but in how it’s going to be interpreted. In my experience, there are three types of Reader when it comes to this issue. With a bit of luck, you might get Reader Number One who doesn’t give a damn about non-visual visuals and even better, actually LIKES the referencing of internal thought processes and actively celebrates them. Or, you may get Reader Number 2 who believes that NOTHING must be included that cannot be seen and rejects all scripts with any non-visual scene description out of hand. Or most likely of all (and it’s still not a good one), you may get a Reader who recognises the importance of lyrical prose but concludes you’ve used just way too much by having some on every page. 2 out of 3 Script Readers recommend cutting back on your NCI, my friends.* Why take the risk?
*In my totally non-scientific opinion.