Okkkkkkkkkk, so we all know “scene description is scene action” in our screenplays and that we should be kickstarting the prose in our novels, right? RIGHT???
Um, no. We don’t it seems, which is why there’s a stack of scripts and novels with what I call “Fillers” in them … those “actions” and moments that AREN’T REALLY ACTIONS AT ALL, but just a way of breaking up dialogue in screenplays, or filling up space in novels, just for the sake of it rather than any “real” character or story-based reason.
Now, we’re ALL guilty of shoving a “Filler” in an early draft … Think of it as a “place holder” for a scene or a chapter. You can go back and rip them out like the flesh-eating TICKS they are, replacing them with the GOOD STUFF later. Natch.
But if you’re sending out your submissions with Fillers in?!? Le gasp! FOR SHAME!!!
“But … But … what’s the difference between “the good stuff” and a “Killer Filler”, you say? Well why didn’t you ask sooner! Here’s my Top Ten, Script Pickers:
10) Face Touching
In at ten, this is a recent addition. In the past, male characters would feel their partners’ faces in what I can only assume is meant to be a sensitive manner to presumably show What A Good Guy They Are in screenplays. In novels, the situation would be reversed and the female character would REACH OUT only to be REJECTED as the (usually male) love interest jerks away like a … well, jerk. Because men are jerks and afraid of intimacy, right? (Le sigh). Now female characters, especially kickass ones, will get beaten up and spend the rest of the screenplay or novel feeling their own face ruefully as other characters say, “OMG! Look at your face! How terrible, we must unite and get whoever did this to you,” etc.
SO: It’s understandable that writers want to give the impression of a tender moment, or want their characters to comment on something visual (like a bashed face) as a call to action. Dealing first with i) then, the biggest issue is the “tender face touch” just reads to me like a MOVIE MOMENT, completely artificial. There are loads of ways love can be expressed physically (oooh Matron) that are much more realistic, don’t be afraid of human beings’ physical nature. In terms of ii) think about the last time you saw someone with a black eye or other facial injury. Did they need to touch it or rub it for you to notice it? No, of course not. As human beings, though we may not notice what someone is wearing or driving, we ARE trained to notice even tiny details on people’s faces because we use them as a primary source of interpersonal and intrapersonal communication: this is why having pen on your face or food in your teeth is so excruciatingly embarrassing! MORE: Why so much writing ends up “static” & how to combat this
The action of kissing in itself is not a problem, but the variety of kissing synonyms, especially in screenplays, is – this is usually because there is FAR TOO MUCH kissing in it. Remember (barring movies and novels about actual romance, relationships or SEX), there often isn’t that much in say, Horror, Comedy or Thriller. In fact, if there is *any* kissing at all – whether platonic or romantic, though usually romantic – it’s often towards the end in a genre piece, usually as a “Aha! We beat whatever it was that tried to kill us, now let’s PASH.” Or something. In addition, the phrase “kiss teeth” surfaced in 4 or 5 novels I’ve read this year for Bang2writers and it’s only April, yet I’d never heard it before. It seems to be ALL OVER THE PLACE now, FYI.
SO: If you find yourself searching your thesaurus desperately for formal and informal snogging synonyms for variety’s sake, think instead about your characters’ needs/wants, your plot and whether it NEEDS so much kissing, of lips OR teeth. Are you just filling space? MORE: 5 Important Elements Of Writing A Romantic Comedy (novels), plus check out Welcome To Rom Com Hell (screenplays)
8) Hair Flicking
Like many Mums with not enough time, the ponytail is my friend. I never had any interest in hair whatsoever … Then chemo meant I was bald as a coot for a short while. Since then, I notice everyone’s hair. And I mean EVERYONE’s, even if they’re fictional. And weirdly, it would seem writers are just as obsessed with hair, with constant references to hair in screenplays and novels, as if this tells us about a character’s personality. Yes, yes, there’s the whole “flame haired = fiesty” thing and various other stereotypes (“dumb blondes” – seriously??) but let’s get real: IT’S JUST HAIR.
SO: The most common verb associated with hair I read is “Flick/ing” (quiet at the back). NEWSFLASH: Ponies flick their TAILS. Women are not ponies. Please stop using this daft Filler! Ithangyew. MORE: 10 Ways To Revitalise Your Scene Description, plus check out the B2W Novel Writing Pinterest Board
Hugging is great, but like kissing it gets a bad rap in creative writing when everyone’s hugging all over the shop.
SO: Give your characters a REASON to hug so it has IMPACT … or get them to do something else. MORE: Description And Characters – does yours mean events happen TO them?
Characters are such crybabies, especially in dramas when their families are dead. Look, I know it’s sad, but crying about it won’t bring them back. Also: when someone else is crying, do YOU want to cry? Or do you avert your eyes and feel a bit embarrassed? (And we are all British, so yes. Except those of you that aren’t and are reading this from another country or Outer Space – what?? Could happen).
Tell you what makes me want to cry though: when someone is trying NOT to cry, or is conflicted about their response to a given situation. Both screenplays AND novels can use the power of subtext like this brilliantly, so why are writers choosing to play it out “on the nose” instead?
SO: Remember, what a character DOESN’T do (or tries to hide) is sometimes more power than what they DO. And yes, this works for novels as well as screenplays. MORE: 9 Ways To Write Great Characters
5) Sitting / Standing
Sitting or standing NOT an action; it’s barely anything at all, in fact. Screenplays and novels require “movement” and “narrative thrust” (holy HELL what’s up with this blog today!). So yeah: stop using “sit” and “stand” as supposed ACTION. They’re not!
SO: Most screenwriters are aware of scenes needing “movement” but novelists aren’t off the hook either. We need to feel as if the story is moving forwards … or BUST. MORE: 2 Things ALL Writers Get Wrong In Early Drafts
Did you know? Women sigh. A LOT … Or at least they do in screenplays and novels, apparently (she sighs). But like “sitting” at number 5 on this list, this is a Filler because it’s not a “real” action, but something we can apply to (usually female) characters, because they haven’t “done anything” for a while. But this is not the way!
SO: What is the way?? Well how about anything BUT assigning “sighing” to your female characters?? One of the reasons the patriarchy gets a free pass is people not examining themselves for internalised sexism … ie. Us doing it to ourselves or to the women around us without thinking, such as by propagating the view women are nags by having them sigh every five seconds in fiction. But even if you think that’s a load of BS, fact is female characters get a raw deal in the spec pile of screenplays OR novels by being two dimensional nags who stand around, hands on hips, sighing all day. So how about writers do their bit for feminism (yay!) and differentiate their female characters?? MORE: How To Write A Complex Female Character
3) Eye Looking
People “look” A LOT in novels – and same goes for the trillions of other synonyms for this: gaze, glare, glimpse, glance, review, regard, survey, oh and all the others I can’t be bothered to mention.
Same goes for screenplays, where characters typically have “determined looks” on their faces (which they probably touch a lot, as in point 10!! GRRR). Look, I totally understand.
SO: Fact is, in a novel, writers CAN be much more psychological than this with their prose … So why aren’t you? Just do it! Screenwriters want to convey an idea of those characters’ states of mind and that’s fine. But guess what: this is not a novel. So you can’t. You have to give an IDEA of the characters’ states of mind/worldview/psyche etc and “looking” doesn’t cut it. It’s just people looking. If you want your audience to have an insight INTO that character, you have to built it into the characterisation and the storyworld he or she inhabits. There are no shortcuts! MORE: 4 Tips To Write An Unusual Character
Okay, let me make this easy for you, homies:
Characters walking aimlessly so they can fill the reader or viewer in about **stuff**?? = BAD.
Characters MAKING JOURNEYS *for some reason to do with plot & character* = GOOD.
SO: The above goes for screenplays AND novels. Lots of writers believe erroneously it’s “all about character” and forget about plot. Fact is, it’s a symbiotic relationship. We want to watch and read about characters who DO STUFF. It’s non negotiable, unless you want to make some sort of ten hour art film or write a novel solely for yourself and then bury under it four foot of concrete in your garden. Whatever floats your boat. MORE: Why Walking Is So Damn Boring (Especially As An Opener)
1) Eating & Drinking
And here we are: the top Killer Filler of all time, whether screenplay or novel.
Obviously eating and drinking is fine … if you want one of your characters die, courtesy of one of THESE (yes that IS a horrible weird insect):
Or do THIS:
That’s why eating and drinking has become a staple of the Horror genre in particular … After all, the thought of contamination in particular is pretty horrifying. That’s why I found THE BAY rather effective in this regard, which is about contaminated water (if not the actual story as a whole, but that’s for another post). But none of us can survive WITHOUT drinking water, so the idea we may HAVE to drink something that will kill us?? YARGH. (And also a sobering thought, since for many in Third World countries, this is an actual reality. Donate to WaterAid, here).
Same goes for the idea of dying AT a meal, like dear ol’ Kane above in that iconic scene from ALIEN. Most of us think of food and eating as a “safe” experience, thus for someone to SUDDENLY DIE (and horribly) whilst doing such a “normal” thing adds to the horror of course.
Similarly, restaurants have become a staple of stories in various genres, especially if they’re full, as it means there is ample opportunity to do something for one of these, maybe:
Or perhaps this?
That’s right – the full restaurant’s main function is not about dining out, but CAUSING A SCENE of some kind (good OR bad! Or both!). Same goes for bars, shops, schools, whatever.
SO: Obviously a character’s fave drinks and foods *can* be character building when used sparingly, plus meals can be a great way of bringing everyone “together” (whatever that means), but if your characters are going to Nando’s or drinking bloody coffee for what seems every five seconds??? YOU NEED TO CUT IT. MORE: 8 Ways To Jump Start Your Novel’s Description, plus 10 Ways To Revitalise Your Scene Description for screenwriting.
Basically, when it comes to Fillers, the same rule applies as to pretty much ANY writing element, whatever the medium: IS IT JUSTIFIED?? Don’t shove stuff in for the sake of it. Obviously, duh. Except it’s not obvious, else we wouldn’t all do it. ‘Cos we do. So be aware of this and identify where you are most LIKELY to create Fillers … and that’s half the battle.
The one used a lot these days is the mobile phone and messaging. I only watch “eastenders” because I have no where to sit and it seems a lot ot time is taken up viewing and sending texts , which often show the viewer, saves both on writing and acting
You just cut my script to half its size. Thank you! 🙂
No, seriously, thank you for another useful post.
Most of these things should be obvious and common sense, but I keep making some of these beginner’s mistakes. Which is probably expectable since… well, I’m a beginner. But I do have a hard time to write those lines in between dialog (or to know if I even need them at all).
I’d like to ask a question to the more experienced writers out there: in my first draft, I had a lot of references to the state of mind of my characters and what they were feeling or thinking. After reading somewhere that you should stick to visible actions, something that can be easily shot, I decided to rewrite those descriptions.
Now, I’m not really sure that was the right call. I really feel it makes a lot more sense to give an idea of what a character feels or thinks and allow the actor to have its own interpretation. Yes, feelings and thoughs are abstract and non-shootable, but I suppose the actor should know how his character would react when he feels sad or excited, when he feels compassion or shares a romantic moment with another.
Of course balance is key here, but I shouldn’t restrain myself from writing what a character feels or thinks, if it hints how an actor should behave. Hints, not forces.
Ex: She almost belies him, but what’s they point.
So she KNOWS something that she could share, she STRUGGLES with the decision to say something, but she DECIDES not to, because she THINKS it wouldn’t accomplish anything.
I’ve read several screenplays in the last few months, so I believe I should be able to deal much better with these situations by now, but truth is I don’t. I often question myself if I’m not describing situations enough or if I’m being to abstract.
Opinions from more experienced writers would be most welcome.
Tom – yes, devices like text messaging can really be helpful, especially in soap opera/continuing drama, where there are no jump cuts, so they need to get a lot of exposition into a small amount of time. If using in a spec script however, it’s best to be VERY sparing with such a device though generally (as with most things, TBH).
Bruno – absolutely, there’s no reason you can’t reference the “unfilmable” for “colour” in your scene description and as you say, produced screenplays frequently do. What spec writers need to be careful of is a) doing it “too often” and b) making sure they do it in *such a way* that it’s obvious it’s intentional, rather than a simple mistake. So easy, really! 😉
Good article! And I would add “puking” to this list. In the last 10 years I’ve seen a dramatic increase in characters puking to show they are (1) really grossed out by what they have just seen; (2) traumatized by having been molested; (3) mentally and physically exhausted; or (4) very, very sorry for what they have just done. In almost every case, it feels like a filler–a way for the writer/director to show an emotion instead of doing so more authentically.
You’re so right, puking very definitely made the list, it was my number 11 😉 Also coughing, especially when someone’s been punched!
Great post Lucy- will definitely be checking that theres a reason for people to be in the cafe/restaurant/library in future! Bob
Great article! Reading the list of filler made me feel better about my novel; I did a mental check of each and couldn’t think of any instances of their over use. Maybe it’s not as chuck full of filler as I thought!
Glad it helped, thanks for letting me know!
The kissing teeth comment made me chuckle. It’s a very common thing in Carribbean culture. People do it whenever they are annoyed or frustrated. I was doing it at work without realising and my manager said I was tutting a lot. I guess it’s catching on in other communities now too.
You forgot the obligatory scene men’s room scene where the guys in the film discuss profound thoughts while taking a leak. What is it about urinals in a room that make men such chatter boxes anyway? And since women are always standing in line for the ladies room, and have much more time to talk while waiting to answer nature’s call, why isn’t THAT ever depicted in film?
Hah! Excellent point 😉