Wednesday, April 12, 2006


I went to a seminar where the guru explained that writing the character's thoughts or “talking to the reader” are absolutely forbidden. True?

Always be wary of any absolutes.

Teachers, authors and “gurus” need to have something to preach. But what we learn in the classroom is often usurped by real life. Reading screenplays will prove that this is a common practice used by fledglings and old pros. The edict to avoid “talking” to the reader or writing what’s in a character’s head certainly makes sense. The popular question that always follows the decree is: “How can a director film any of that?”

However, I would suggest that you are not writing for a director – but writing for a reader. Enabling the reader (who could be a director, producer, agent, story analyst) to envision your movie is the prime goal. And if an occasional “cheat” here and there – like telling us what a character thinks – communicates a desired effect, then you’re doing your job.

“She’s nervous. Wondering what the hell she’s gotten herself into.”

“He looks at her. He can’t believe she loves him.”

“He slams the door in her face and her world crumbles beneath her feet.”

These sorts of descriptive sentences are not uncommon in screenplays. Of course, someone might suggest you find a visual way to convey these feelings, but don’t allow others to force their style upon you.

In this passage from Shane Black’s LETHAL WEAPON, he describes the unleashed fury of Riggs (Mel Gibson).

And then the Devil comes in and kicks the door off its hinges. Okay. Okay. Let's stop for a moment. First off, to describe fully the mayhem which Riggs now creates would not do it justice. Here, however, are a few pointers: He is not flashy. He is not Chuck Norris. Rather, he is like a sledgehammer hitting an egg. He does not knock people down. He does not injure them. He simply kills them. The whole room. Everyone standing….

This uses a conversational approach that might piss off a more serious screenwriter. But its entertaining, friendly style pulls us into the read instead of alienating us.

Any effect used strategically and in moderation that benefits the read is successful. Shane Black doesn’t do this sort of thing in every sentence. He does it for effect at the appropriate time.

On the other hand, there are examples that could mark you as an amateur and hurt the flow of your narrative. An example would be descriptive passages filled with exposition.

He turns to his wife and sees her as if it’s the first time…as if it’s their first date at the drive-in in Piscataway on that warm summer night. What was the name of the movie? It didn’t matter then and doesn’t matter now.
This sort of passage pulls us out of the story. It includes details that are unnecessary to the unfolding action. If the name of the movie didn’t matter then and doesn’t matter now, why burden us with the detail?

Some common sense should be applied as well. Hopefully, a writer has an inherent sense of what will play or not play. However, lapses of judgment can happen, as in this example from an unproduced romantic comedy by a successful screenwriter.

They make love. It's so hot the page should burn your hands or make you want to masturbate.
Gross negligence can be found in a screenplay called THE HISTORIAN: GUARDIAN OF THE FUTURE, where the writer interrupts his narrative on page 44 with this:

NOTE: I am sure, you have noticed, that the writer, has used, an over abundance of voice over, for each character, with more to come. I know the majority can not be used, but hopefully it will keep, and help build, an intimacy, between the Director, and also the audience if so desired by the honorable builder, of this epic picture…I’m sure if you are reading this, that you have a keen eye, and talent, so I think this could be a master piece. THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME. NOW BACK TO THE HISTORIAN: GUARDIAN OF THE FUTURE.

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