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Having It All

Blogging about screenwriting craft sometimes is like lighting the blue touchpaper and needing to stand WELL BACK… And predictably, my last post started a comments bomb off.

One thing that always amazes me about screenwriting craft is how far people *seem* to be at either end of extremes – writers either go for white OR black on the page it appears, the usual worry being story may not be what a writer intended if there’s not enough detail or that “texture” or “colour” in a scene may be missed out somehow.

Yet why can’t you have both? Enough black to be interesting, but enough white so as to not bamboozle your reader with extraneous detail?

The marvellous Billy Mernit posted this great article on Monday about this very same subject (I posted Sunday though, so he obviously copied ME, I’m the trendsetter, right?? ; ). If you’re yet to read it, Billy starts with a quote from Tony Gilroy who says that reading a script should be as identical to “seeing” the movie by whatever means possible, including the use of COVERT camera angles; Billy then goes on to look at a variety of this year’s Oscar-nominated movies, including a look at some description from Juno:

Juno’s bedroom is decorated with punk posters: The Damned, the Germs, the Stooges, Television, Richard Hell, etc. She picks up a hamburger-shaped phone to call her best friend, LEAH.*

Billy says this is not directorial, even though it specifies props – and believe it or not, this is exactly what I was talking about yesterday in the comments section with SK when I said I’m looking for description I’m reading to push the story forward and/or reveal character. Why? Because description like this reveals character; we are left in no doubt as to what “kind” of girl Juno is. She’s the kind of girl who likes punk, ergo she’s anti authoritarian, wants to think for herself, sticking one finger up at the establishment… Yet even punkass girls like Juno have a softer, more sentimental side, hence the inclusion of the hamburger-shaped phone: who thinks these are cool, except twelve year old girls or girls who’ve had them SINCE they were twelve?

It’s this line of scene description that reveals character that I think is really fab:

Leah’s room is cluttered with the sentimental junk that certain girls love to hoard.**

In 14 short words, whammo! We’re introduced to Leah’s character – I was one of those “certain girls” so know exactly what *could* be in her room, but even if I hadn’t been when I was growing up, haven’t we all known one of these girls and been in their rooms at some point? I’m reminded here of Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise script and her intro for Daryl: “Polyester was made for this man”! Six words and suddenly you are well acquainted with a boor who thinks he’s more sophisticated than he really is. Magic.

Seriously, if you find the notion of “overwriting” or “directing from the page” hard to understand as I’ve said that I did when I started writing, then please do read this article as it’s a revelation.

On the surface, it would seem Billy and I disagree – and on one element we do: I have never been a big fan of referencing the actual camera or specific shots (can’t say I’m too bothered about the infamous “we see…” however). I think it takes the reader out the story and in my view, that can never be a good thing. I also think, as stated in the previous article, that being too obsessive about how a shot unfolds – regardless of whether you’ve mentioned the actual mechanics or not – does not pay dividends; as the reader, I just wonder why it’s important when there are so many other more characterful and/or story-rich ways you can make a specific scene play out. We all know those darn directors will stamp all over our babies anyway ; ) [Edit: Billy doesn’t actually like overt camera angles either…Instead he is advocating the “sense” of the shot here, I misunderstood this point. See the comments section of this article or in Billy’s for further clarification].

But otherwise, I agree completely with Billy: reading a movie absolutely should be how you would “see” the movie. We want a mind movie in effect, with a clear plot that pushes the story forward, revealing character on the way (and of course a soupcon of my beloved arena to back it all up, that all important “texture” or “colour”).

Yet 9/10 this is precisely what readers at initiatives, agents and indies don’t get. Now there are many reasons for this, from poorly thought-out premises and plots through to transparent characterisation and ill-advised stereotyping. We also don’t write perfect drafts first time – but presumably, if you’ve got as far as sending your work “out there” I would hope you are way past the first draft mark.

So if a writer has already done a lot of work on their story, characters, plotting etc, ONE thing a write *may* want to consider is their use of scene description: if scene description is scene action, then is it doing its job? Is it “overwritten”? But to know if it’s doing its job, then I think it makes sense to figure out what it *should* be doing. From the scripts I’ve read, both professional, new, produced and unproduced, I would venture that a writer should ensure the following from their scene description:

It SHOULD be dependant on specific actions that push the story forward.

It SHOULDN’T specify random actions – it obfuscates the story since the reader will expect them to pay off and will get confused when they don’t.

It SHOULD offer “titbits” [like the Juno excerpts] that reveal character which in turn will feed into the plot [like the fact Juno is rebellious, hence her actions that propel her into the story *no spoilers here*]

It SHOULDN’T overdo these character elements, since it will make scenes quite static as the reader reads lots of “asides” without the characters being “on the move” or conversely, if too many character elements like this are added to action as well, it will make for acres of black.

It SHOULD add just enough arena to give a real “feel” to the piece.

It SHOULDN’T have so much arena that it’s more about the “feel” and less about the actual plot and/or character’s place in it (this can happen).

It SHOULD insist that everything in a scene adds to the scene [including props](story/character/arena) and thus to the plot.

It SHOULDN’T have lots of random props, artefacts, clothes etc, since that adds more to the word count than story or revelation of character.

It SHOULD make every single word count.

So, those are just my thoughts, it obviously varies reader to reader. But I reckon you can have the best of both worlds; you can be “lean” and have “colour”. You can have enough black to be interesting and enough white to keep the readers happy. Like all things however, it’s a case of “all things in moderation”. Or instead we could kidnap all the readers of the world (except me, natch) and subject them to Clockwork Orange style torture where we make them read one of the densest scripts ever in terms of scene description until they are moulded to our new way of thinking, then we can write whatever we like. (Any suggestions for that mega-dense script btw?).

Whatcha reckon… Pick you up around 8?

* & ** Kudos to Billy for finding these gems.

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19 thoughts on “Having It All”

  1. Joss Whedon directs from the page, but he’s a hyphenate, so he can get away with it.

    “And as they leave,(all this dialogue overlapping), the camera cranes up in the empty library, tilting straight down to look at the ruined skeleton of the Master.


    Love that “Loser” at the end. There’s another script of his which features something along the lines of “The bastard actually winks at her” as scene direction.

  2. Ah, those pesky hyphenates. Let’s torture them too or lock them in the cellar with your zombie babies Oli (check out Oli’s blog for insight!).

    I like the “Loser” thing too – and stuff like that really can work for “colour” even for non-hyphenates (see what I did there? Oh, the irony!) provided a writer has the confident style that goes with it and the wherewithal to realise that s/he’ll only get away with it a couple of times before it gets OLD for a reader who is not as in love with the script as the writer obviously is (otherwise presumably s/he’d have never written it, though stranger things happen).

  3. As I said on the previous post Steve, all cookies, biscuits, wafers, crackers and all things under my crunchy sweet foodstuff patent are mine.

    So a bit of overwriting with a long list of detailed items. One of my sins I am trying to break.

    Thanks for the checklist Lucy. Very helpful.

    And to heavy black script. Try the early draft of Gattica. Lots of black and camera directions.
    Available on

  4. Steve, I was actually reading a script when that alert came through, so technically you actually did drag me out of one. You fiend!

    Thanks for the suggestion re: Gattica Rach, will check it out then call on you at 8 in order to do some reader-bashing as arranged. I vote we start with Sir Daniel. Not actually because he’s one of those fiendish readers you understand, but because he doesn’t live far from me and I’m a lazy homicidal maniac.

  5. Long time lurker here (always wanted to say that, sorry.) One of the funniest directions I’ve ever heard about came from the pen of Andrew Davies when he was adapting Pride and Prejudice. There is a scene when Darcy happens upon Lizzie Bennet after her muddy walk to Netherfield. Apparently, AD wrote in the script ‘Darcy got a hard-on’, at seeing her so dishevelled after her walk.

  6. Hey Lurking Lisa (got a ring to it don’t you think? Maybe you should change your display name…)

    LOVE the notion of Mr. Darcy with a hard on! I would imagine you could have real fun adapting the classics, keeping dialogue and actual events erm, “classic”, whilst making your scene description like, well-modern, innit for your reader.

  7. Come to think about it, recalling that scene, Darcy does look like he’s having trouble keeping something under wraps!

    Lurking Lisa, not bad!

  8. What a revelation! Didn’t realise Andrew Davies had written all that sexual tension in P&P quite so overtly. What about the scene where Lizzie Bennett stumbles across Darcy (in that white shirt) fresh from his plunge in the lake. How about….’It wasn’t only Darcy’s shirt that was dripping wet’ Maybe?

    I’m guilty of much ‘directing from the page’ but thanks to Lucy’s feedback I’m on the case now. I thought I was writing the movie I see by including all the visual detail swimming round in my head. When in fact what I’ve been doing is a long way from capturing the *essence* of what’s going on in the scene. All of the examples that Billy Mernit quotes do seem – to me anyway – to be about capturing the essence of the scene. Even if they’ve used a fair amount of detail to do so. Really useful post Lucy. Thanks.

  9. Lucy — Thanks so much for the link and appreciation. Just want to underline one point: I DO NOT recommend or enjoy the use of actual camera angle language in a script (“we pan to” “CLOSE-UP of” “the camera moves through the window and into his shirt pocket,” et al).

    The Coens and PTA do it because they’re directing/writing as they go. But for spec writers, there are a myriad of clever ways to infer and imply camera angle and movement choices, WITHOUT actually using camera terms. When you say, “there’s a half-moon scar below his unblinking eye” you can only be in close-up, no? Say “the people look like ants to him from here” and you’re in a wide long shot, are you not? Etc. You can peruse the Oscar-nom scripts cited for other examples.

    As a studio reader, I do see occasional camera language in spec scripts… and it’s almost always an unwelcome distraction to the read.

  10. The “essence” is a great way of putting it, Caroline.

    Billy – oops, sorry! Misubderstood there (bloody readers hey???). I know what you mean though, since giving the IDEA of camera angles as in “the people look like ants from up here” gives the idea of HOW you see it as the writer, but still gives room to the director to create the shot too… It’s also completely different to pretty-much-saying-it-without-saying-it, the biggest offender being PULL BACK TO

  11. That scene’s mostly played on Colin Firth’s face, and seeing his expression, and knowing what the stage direction is: priceless.

  12. Great posting yet again, Luce, with a very helpful list to save to refer to as we plough through our 2nd drafts.

    Here’s favourite opening scene of mine I’ve saved to refer to.

    I think it’s brilliant the way it sets up the Character in one simple paragraph.

    He’s lean, keen, job obsessed, hi tech & takes his girl for granted.
    The spearmint description gets me every time!

    Series 1, Episode 1
    Matthew Graham

    Close-up – photograph. A small boy – 4 or 5 wearing an
    oversized policeman’s hat. Freckles. Toothy grin.
    Reflected in the glass of the photo – a dozen separate News
    24 items explode onto a plasma screen.
    The widescreen TV spews up a giddy-making cocktail of current
    affairs. These images usher in a fast set of very
    contemporary TITLES.
    The TV with Dolby 5.1 dominates one half of the apartment and
    holds the attention of SAM TYLER. This room with its beams
    and varnished wooden floor has been converted from some vast
    Victorian factory.
    SAM himself is smart, lithe, mid-30’s. If he were a flavour
    he’d be spearmint. He is talking into his mobile and
    negotiating the News 24 menu simultaneously. Girlfriend MAYA
    cradles her coffee, watching him.

    p.s. have you seen the FREE internet courses at mine & Potdolls?

  13. Yes, there are lots of ways of implying what you’re aiming for visually without clogging your script up with camera directions.
    For tight, colourful description, I would say that Shane Black’s screenplays are pretty good examples btw

  14. I want to be hyphenate! And not just in the Joss Whedon sense but also name-wise… then I’d leap up the alphabet and I could get a horse and go round the countryside shooting peasants… er… pheasants…? 😉

    I loathe the ‘we see’ thing; as you say, drags you out of the moment. I’m not keen on camera direction but I have no problem with trying to subconsciously influence a director… some smarter than I once told me that this wise the director is allowed the luxury of thinking he came up with the idea which I’m told they kind of like. Bless!

    You may be staggered to know, Lucy, that the scripts you’ve read for me have already had far more than half the scene description excised! I guess I just enjoy over-writing then scrawling all over print-outs with my trusty old red pen.

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