In my previous posts, I discussed a common complaint readers have regarding a screenwriter's tendency to 'insult' directors and actors with his script. This critique is often couched in the warning that the writer is doing someone else's job. I explored where these comments originate from, and what their deeper meanings may be. In this post, I'll describe how a screenwriter can avoid receiving these critiques and, hopefully, engender respect on all sides.
As I previously pointed out, these comments are not so much about stepping on toes as they are about the writer's penchant for impeding the forward progression of his story through excessive action and camera angles. Some writers (mostly those with less experience) will, however, continue to argue that those directions are important to the script.
The reader, they protest, needs to know when certain things happen, when those things need to be seen and from which particular angles. Fine, you can still accomplish all that but in such a way as not to step on anybody's toes. As screenwriter Michael E. Bierman, and moderator of the Facebook page Screenwriters Who Can Actually Write, has stated in his posts, “Make them bend to your wishes.”
What does Mr. Bierman mean by this?
Instead of dictating a particular camera angle, subtly indicate the shot through the use of action. Reveal how the scene plays out by grouping the action into blocks that show us the way you want it to play out.
John stares into the glaring light of the oncoming train. He hesitates, then
turns and runs, panicked and breathless, from the train track, stumbling
over rocks and old train ties as the train grows ever closer, it’s horn screaming
a warning of impending doom. John’s heart pounds in his chest. He reaches
the lower gully and looks back with trepidation as sweat pours down his face,
his hands shaking convulsively.
We see the train barreling down the track, sparks flying from its locked up
wheels as we CUT TO. . .
ECU of John’s eyes as they widen with fear. He clasps his hands over his ears
in anticipation of the deafening roar to come. And BACK TO. . .
CU of the train slicing through John’s stalled car like a hot knife through butter,
disintegrating it into a million tiny pieces.
John runs from the track. He glances over his shoulder.
The train barrels down on the stalled car.
John’s eyes widen with fear as. . .
BOOM! The train demolishes the car.
John flings himself to the ground as pieces of debris rain down.
Okay, this may not be the greatest example I could have come up with, but you get the idea.
To begin with, lose virtually every CUT TO or BACK TO in your script.
You should never use them in your action. Those are edit decisions that will be made in the edit bay. And you certainly don’t need a CUT TO: at the end of a scene as a transition. It’s a given that you are going to the next scene.
Never use “WE SEE.”
Just write what we will actually see. It’s a movie. We’ll see it.
Lose any and all camera angles.
The director and DP will storyboard everything and create the shot lists. They will decide what angles and lenses to use without your help. You can, however, discreetly suggest edits and angles by how you write the action. For example: John's eyes widen with fear. Obviously, the shot of John’s eyes will be a close up. You wouldn’t be able to see his eyes in a wide shot. Is the director aware of what you are doing? Of course, he is. He’s not stupid, but you’ve kept him in the story and moving forward. He won’t have time to think about it because he’s engaged.
And keep the action limited.
If a writer gets bogged down in the minutiae of action, he will likewise take his reader out of the action because of the action. Writers often overwrite their sequences in the misguided attempt to clarify or really drive home an emotion. This is where you will get into trouble with actors. You don't need to dictate every action or emotion a character experiences. That's what the actor is for. He'll take the information you've furnished and build upon it. Don't lose sight of the fact that this isn’t a novel you're writing; it’s a Classics Illustrated comic. As such. . .
Provide only what is needed to keep your story moving forward.
If you’re giving a lot of direction to an actor or adding a lot of description to your scenes, you’ve killed your pace and lost your reader. Cut it and move on. And finally. . .
Leave out the unfilmable events.
We can’t see inside John’s chest, so there is no reason to mention his pounding heart.
If we can’t see it on screen, don’t mention it on the page. Remember, this is a visual medium.
Now, you may want to add a little more description than I have given in the rewritten version of the scene, should you want to add a little intensity. It is a train crash after all. But as a writer, if you follow these simple precepts, you can avoid the dreaded ‘you’re insulting me’ comment. You'll gain respect by showing respect and create a more engaging screenplay in the process.
For the readers, directors and actors who feel the writer is impeding on their domain, resist the urge to label the writer ‘insulting’, and instead, offer suggestions on how to get the action moving forward again. If we can all agree to that, we’ll all be happier and more collaborative.
If we can’t, then I’m insulted.
If you found any of these pointers helpful, let me know in the comments below or on The Screenwriter's Journey Facebook page. Until then, keep writing.