A small kerfuffle erupted on Twitter, as is wont to happen, when the Mare of Easttown pilot script was made available to read online. Someone made a joke about how it used “we see” in the scene description and was therefore unprofessional, which turned into a debate as to whether or not that rule should be followed.

It’s not the first time this debate has come up, and it won’t be the last. So let’s unpack why this rule exists and whether or not it is necessary. It’s just two little words! It shouldn’t cause this much passion, but here we are.

When I personally read “we see” in a screenplay, I cringe. It’s as corny and cliche to me as walking up to a microphone and saying “test 1, 2, 3” or pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa in a photo.

“This writer actually wants to direct,” I think. But this isn’t because I’m some kind of descriptive language purist or film snob. (At least, not completely.) It’s because I have had it hammered into me by screenwriting professors and contest rules. This is a bias that I and many other film students have been taught.

And yet! Just about every screenwriting rule you’ve ever been taught has been broken in a screenplay you love by a professional writer. 

Why you should never use “we see” 

Brevity is your friend. You don’t need, “We see a hammock hanging between two trees in the distance,” when you could say, “A hammock hangs between two trees in the distance.”

The same goes for “we hear.” There’s no reason to write “we hear a bell ringing” instead of “a bell rings”—or, better yet, “DING!”

Don’t tell the person reading your screenplay what they see. Show them what they see. The language you use should be as active and present as possible.

Screenwriters are taught not to “direct” their films in their writing. If it looks like you’re trying to choose the shots yourself, that could turn off a potential director. And hey! Maybe that means that the director is an egomaniac, and you wouldn’t want to work with them, anyway. But in the spirit of collaboration, this is a simple enough way to avoid micromanaging from the page. 

It is important to note that many of the screenplays that are made available to the public to study are shooting scripts, not spec scripts—and shooting scripts are much more likely to describe what the camera is doing in the scene description.

Look out for that when you're reading and also note screenplays from writer/directors and how they describe scenes they intend to shoot. 

Why you should totally use “we see” 

If the audience sees something that the characters cannot.

If writing “Behind Francesca, we see Courtney in the hammock,” feels more effective to you than, “Courtney lies in the hammock, unseen by Francesa”, then go for it. 

If you think rules like this are pedantic, which isn’t untrue, you can also go for it. Ultimately, the story you are telling matters more than anything else. The tips and tricks we get from screenwriting gurus are just that.

They'll also tell you never to put song titles on the page because it limits your budget, but that’s always seemed like a silly rule to me. As long as I’m not demanding needle drops every five pages, and the song is integral to the story I’m telling, why should I let that stop me? 

Is "just tell a good story" vague and frustrating advice? Of course! Where is the line? Do any rules matter? Why don’t I just send in a logline and some index cards via courier to Netflix? Why bother writing at all?

It’s especially frustrating when the kind of writer who decides the rules don’t apply to them also happens to be the kind of over-privileged or entitled person who thinks other rules, like waiting in line or turning their cell off on a plane, don’t apply to them either. 

The verdict

Rules like this are rules for a reason, even if that reason feels arbitrary. More often than not, readers and professors notice a pattern and want to kibosh the bad habits before amateur writers use them as a crutch.

Here’s a compromise. Challenge yourself to use active language and show what we see instead of telling us what we see first, and once you’ve gotten better at that you can start to weave the royal "we" back in at the opportune moments.

And maybe don’t use it on the first page if you’re overly anxious about impressing and engaging a reader—not all of us are writing the next Mare of Easttown