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.