February 14, 2017

Avoid a Screenwriting Trap: Tell a Story Instead of Explaining Your Movie

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This is why you shouldn’t think of your screenplay as a movie.

One of the more omnipresent traps that aspiring screenwriters succumb to in the actual writing and execution of their script is to think of their screenplay as a movie. 

I know, I know, that doesn’t sound right at all. A screenplay is a movie, right? 

Well no, it’s not. For non-established spec writers a screenplay is a written story that—if loved by enough industry folk—can then lead to being set up at a studio, and hopefully produced into a movie. 

It’s an extremely valuable distinction to make for aspiring screenwriters who write on spec, and here’s why.

Avoid being so engrossed in envisioning your finished product as a movie that you fail to fully articulate the story on the page.

Yes, writers should be envisioning their screenplay as a movie, which means writing visually, externalizing actions and conflicts, and applying form and function. However, the story has to be fully executed on the page first. 

That means that the narrative intentions of the writer have to be clear in the writing. The ideas associated with the story; individual beats, moments, subtext, emotional nuance, and the plot itself, have to be transparent to the reader. 

Most reading this article would think that’s a complete and utter given; yet lack of clarity is a trap that far too many aspiring screenwriters fall into and never even realize it. 

Spotlight
'Spotlight,' 2016 Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay

Your screenplay must be understandable on its own

Screenwriters can get locked into the movie they’re envisioning in their head, one that’s filled with amazing images, and casted with brilliant actors, and has amazing cinematography and sound. The challenge is that they often get so caught up in seeing it, that they lose sight of the fact that it has to be read first.  

In other words, they’re so engrossed in envisioning the finished product as a movie that they fail to fully articulate the story on the page. And as any studio reader will tell you, that’s a knife in the belly of any screenplay that will instantly cut the life of your read short.  

Simply put, instead of writing a story for a reader, they’re writing a movie for a producer. Instead of telling a story, they’re explaining a movie. 

I’ve seen it happen far too often. I would read a writer’s spec only to be constantly stopping because it lacked clarity.

The repercussions

Writing a movie for a producer or director in mind instead of writing a story for a reader is a mistake, as it can directly lead to ambiguity in the writing. Parts of the story are on the page, but other parts are vague and still in the writer’s head, attached to that awesome three-dimensional finished movie that one has to actually see in order to fully comprehend its story. 

In my years of teaching and consulting I’ve seen it happen far too often. I would read a writer’s spec only to be constantly stopping because it lacked clarity. I’m constantly being “taken out of the read” because the writer’s narrative intentions aren’t clear on the page. Instead of being engaged, I’m confused. 

However, when I sit down with the writer and he or she explains it to me, it all makes perfect sense. 

As an example of this at play, let’s take an excerpt from a spec script I consulted on that illustrates this notion of failing to articulate a vision. The following is a before and after snapshot of the scene. Here’s the before version:

Spec Script before
Spec script before clarification.

When I sat down with the screenwriter, I explained that the scene confused me on many levels, and that I sensed there was supposed to be much more here that wasn’t being articulated. 

Upon hearing this, the writer eagerly launched into an emotional explanation of the scene and its narrative intent as related to the story as a whole. It was both compelling and moving, yet it was entirely missing from the page. It was still in the writer’s imagination in movie form. 

After rewriting the scene per our discussion, here’s what the “after” version looked like:

Spec script after
Spec script after clarification.

As you can see, the scene took on a whole new life by simply clarifying beats and emotional intentions. 

And therein lies the rub, because your screenplay isn’t going to come with a person to explain it. When your screenplay goes out into the world, it doesn’t go with a person attached who can clarify or explain scene intentions. 

For non-established screenwriters a screenplay has to be a piece of material that stands on its own merit. It’s not a blueprint for a movie. It’s a literary version of a movie. And thus it has to engage and move the reader just like a great movie does an audience. 

When your screenplay goes out into the world, it doesn’t go with a person attached who can clarify or explain scene intentions. 

How to overcome it

Ambiguity is the enemy of your screenplay. Curiosity is its hero. Meaning, truly engaging writing generates narrative curiosity, causing the reader to want to read more in order to know more. Ambiguous writing just causes confusion. Or, as I like to put it, curiosity is “good confusion” whereas ambiguity is not.  

One exercise I would have my former MFA screenwriting students do was to read their finished first draft scene-by-scene as if they were a lit agent reading it for the first time. In other words, step outside yourself and be an objective reader. What would the agent’s informational and emotional takeaway from each scene be? Does it match what your intention as a writer was for the scene? 

Doing this forces you to take the intuitive ideas you wrote and articulate them into specific choices in the rewriting stage. (Note: Experienced writers tend to do this organically in the outline or first draft stage of the process.)

The bottom line

The bottom line is: a spec writer’s audience is the people who will be reading their screenplay, which may include agents, managers, development execs, and readers doing coverage on it.

Executing the story on the page is everything. It’s the difference between the reader understanding the nuance of your story or not. Between them being engaged in the read or not. Between them continuing to read it or tossing it. 

In order for your screenplay to ever actually become a movie, people have to love it as a story first. And that story has to be on the page.      

Your Comment

8 Comments

I can see both of those script examples working though. I get a different sense of the scene from both.

After reading a Tarantino script I couldnt write any other way but essentially for a reader and not for a movie.

February 14, 2017 at 2:12PM

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Chris Hackett
Director, Director of Photography, Writer
910

"It’s not a blueprint for a movie. It’s a literary version of a movie." That's your opinion, but I believe the opposite. I hate overly dramatic description. To me, it's annoying, unnecessary, and muddles the flow of reading. I think you should keep your script as clean and minimal as possible. There are no set rules but you are not writing a novel, you are writing a script and if it doesn't show up on screen it doesn't need to be in there. For example the "after" version of the above script, "He checks the gunshot wound to his head, the one that should have killed him but amazingly grazed him." We already know it should of killed him if he is coming out of a grave. You could just say, "He touches his wound in disbelief." Also lines like "Sean realizes she wants it" hurt my soul. We don't need it, cut it. Instead show that through action not vague description about his thoughts. We know he realizes she wants it when he looks at it and gives it to her. Anyway, just my two cents.

February 15, 2017 at 2:14AM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1305

I absolutely agree with you. I'm not a fan of the first example at all, it's definitely unclear, but the re-written version is bombastic. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.

February 15, 2017 at 4:31AM

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Chris Courtney Martin
Screenwriter
16

I found "Sean realizes she wants it" equally irksome, NEVER ever describe what is in a characters head, the audience can't see the unseen.

February 15, 2017 at 6:13AM

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Matt Carter
VFX Artist / Director / DP / Writer / Composer / Alexa Owner
347

I certainly can understand the dangers of doing it, but if handled properly and within appropriate context, it can be quite compelling and still visual. Many of the best produced screenplays utilize this method.

In the screenplay "The Revenant", there's a part that reads,
"Bridger sits at the base of a tree... his mind replaying the desertion of Glass over and over. He notices the smoke."

When you watch the film, we never actually see inside Bridger's mind, but you can VISUALLY see from Bridger's expression, that there was no doubt that he was "...replaying the desertion of Glass over and over" in his mind. Why? Because in the previous scene just before this moment in the script was when Bridger deserted Glass. The writer and filmmakers provided appropriate context in the film/script for the reader/audience to be able to come to that conclusion.

February 15, 2017 at 2:44PM, Edited February 15, 2:49PM

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Hi Stephan,

I’m a big believer in the notion that there is no ONE correct way to execute a screenplay. Whatever works to tell the story works - within reason. I’ve seen far too may aspiring screenwriters get so caught up in rules and formulas that they locked into a box that they can NEVER think outside. One such so-called rule is that you can only write what can be seen or filmed. This is just not true. For example, take the following screenplay excerpt….

“Goeth steps out onto the balcony in his undershirt and shorts and peers across the labor camp, his labor camp. Satisfied with it, even amazed, he’s reminiscent of Schindler looking down on his kingdom, his factory, as he loves to do, from his wall of glass. Life is great.”

This from Oscar winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and as you can see he is using prose and editorializing. I can sight a dozen more examples from various successful screenwriters who all do the same thing.

Obviously you don’t want to “overdo” this type of writing. As you said, it’s not a novel, but it is a technique that is used quite often.

February 15, 2017 at 11:06AM

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Tim Long
Founder, PARABLE

My initial reaction was to agree with you Stephen. That's one of the reasons I was so drawn to screenwriting initially, because I didn't have to fool around with all of that unnecessary fancypants stuff. Besides, I plan to direct most of the things I write. But reading this article opened up my mind about something. As a micro-budget filmmaker, I have to convince anyone I can to give me money to make my film. Although I don't want to spell it out for them, I think this can be a very useful way to draw the reader in emotionally. You want the reader to be as emotionally connected to the story as possible, and this could be another way to accomplish that.

February 15, 2017 at 11:42AM, Edited February 15, 11:43AM

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"Executing the story on the page is everything" i agree with this pitch line. Even you can convince some conflicting minds with your words and the way you describe them. Good luck with your thoughts
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February 15, 2017 at 2:47AM

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