HOW TO PLEASE A SCREENPLAY READER: Know Your Job: Storyboard on your own time


KNOW YOUR JOB: Storyboard on your own time

The second type of overwriter are those who write from a director’s point of view, often what we call storyboarding a screenplay.

Their screenplay often reads something like this:

INT. KITCHEN DAY

A pair of hands clear the remainder of dishes from a table.

A cat rubs up against a pair of legs.

Two feet in worn slippers pad against the floor.

A set of fingers, one with a tarnished wedding band, change the channel on a radio.

An arm wipes sweat off a tired brow.

A figure covered in a sad blue dress starts swaying to the bosa nova beat coming from the radio.

The woman, now fully seen, is Elizabeth, 40’s. She loses herself in the lush music.

Let me say here and now, storyboarding is not your responsibility. Don’t do it. Don’t even think about doing it. Don’t even think about thinking about doing it. Cut off you right hand (or your left if you are so inclined) if it threatens to offend you by doing this.
It’s not your job.

Now that I got that off my chest:

For the scene above, all that is needed is

INT. KITCHEN DAY

Elizabeth, 40’s, careworn, clears a table and washes dishes.

She changes the station on the radio, then loses herself in the bosa nova music that comes over it.

It’s actually unclear to me why author’s even want to storyboard a screenplay. They often say it’s an attempt to get the director to film the image the way they see it (sneaky little devils).

I would accept this if the way the author was storyboarding the scene was essential to the meaning of the story, that the plot or character or character arc or whatever is driving the story would be meaningless if the scene was shot in any other way. But it would take a lot to convince me that the second way the scene was written (the way I wrote it) is significantly different, changes the plot or arc or whatever, in any way from how the scene was written in the first example.

I can just see the audience now. “I don’t understand that scene. It makes no sense. Wait, I know. If they had only had close ups of the hands first, then everything would be crystal clear”.

And in the end, the second example, the way I wrote it, is much easier to read and follow and brings more forward momentum to the story. The other is just a bit slog, bog heavy, unnecessarily slowing the scene down.

Storyboarding is the director’s job. They put long, hard hours into it. It’s one of their few creative outlets (we did write the screenplay and come up with the whole idea, characters, themes, mood–you know all the good stuff). So throw them a bone and let them add that something creative to the proceedings since it‘s all they have to offer.

The problem writer’s have with director’s is not that they do the storyboarding, it’s when they rewrite the script, which are two different issues–and writing the screenplay as if you were storyboarding it isn’t going to stop the director from rewriting it; it might even encourage him to do more of it.

In addition, storyboarding is often based on issues that you as a writer are not aware of yet: budget; scheduling; how many takes a director can take; how does he edit a scene out of the shots he made; the location and set design; how the actors want to do the scene and what they want to bring to it; etc., etc., etc.

What I often find interesting here is that more often than not, when a screenwriter begins their screenplay the way the example does above, it usually only lasts a couple of scenes. After that they tend to go back to writing in a more clear, concise manner (notice I said more clear and concise, not clear and concise).

Why, I don’t know. I mean, if the story or characters made no sense in the opening scenes without the storyboarding, then that should be true of the screenplay as a whole. My guess is that it’s much harder to write a screenplay by storyboarding it and the author quickly realizes they don’t need all this directory type stuff to communicate their intention. It’s an exhausting way to write a story and it doesn’t really do what the author thinks it does.

NEXT: STORYBOARDING DUEX

HOW TO PLEASE A SCREENPLAY READER: Proust or Hemingway–what goes into a narrative paragraph


My topic de jour is what exactly goes into a narrative paragraph. The answer actually resembles two phrases you may have encountered somewhere along the way. A story is made up of a beginning, middle and end. A person is born, lives and dies.

Both statements are deeply profound and incredibly insightful. The first one tells you everything you need to know about how to structure a story. The second tells you everything you need to know about the meaning of life.

At the same time, both statements tell you nothing at all. The first doesn’t tell you what goes into a beginning, middle or end, or how to use them to achieve your goal. The second doesn’t really tell you anything about how to live your life and falls short of explaining what the “meaning of” even means.

It’s the same for what goes into a narrative paragraph. The answer is that it is the least number of words necessary to introduce a character; establish a setting; or further a plot. Nothing more, nothing less.

I will eventually be getting into particulars of how to do all three, but right now, I want to continue in generalities.

The two main errors I see in how screenplay narrative is written (and as I said in my first column, I do believe it’s getting worse and worse) is first, overwritten narrative, especially those with a literary bent, and second, narrative that is storyboarded or written from a director’s viewpoint. I’ll deal first with overwritten narrative, saving the second for my next column.

Overwriters are those who approach their narrative like it’s a novel. They fill it with details and minutia , ideas and commentary, figures of speech and literary flourishes, all of which would be a joy to someone reading a book (it’s actually one of the joys of reading literature), but are a nightmare to someone reading a screenplay.

For example:

EXT. GARDEN DAY

Henrietta stands like a soldier in front of her easel as if ready to do battle. Then she suddenly drops her shoulders, relaxing into the excitement of what is to come.

She delicately grasps a brush and playfully twirls it in a glass of water, as if her artistic weapon were a ballerina. She thinks a moment, then carefully dips the brush in a reddish color that explodes off the palette.

She knits her brow as she deconstructs a vibrant red rose that almost seems to be blushing. Then she takes the brush and with delicate strokes, she applies color to canvass almost as if she is entering a trance.

In a way, I’m exaggerating. In a way, I’m not. I’ve actually gotten a few screenplays run riot with that much detail (the one above is a recreation of a page that actually went on for quite a few more paragraphs before the whole scene was over). Unfortunately, I had to inform the author that all she needed, believe it or not, was:

Henrietta stands in her garden painting a rose.

That’s it. End of story. That’s all she wrote, or should have.

At the same time, you’re right. I don’t get a screenplay that detailed very often (though more often than I or anyone should). However, it is not unusual to get a screenplay that reads something like:

John gets in his car like a thief in the night. He puts on his seat belt and adjusts the mirror. He starts the car. He listens attentively to a talk show on the radio for half a minute, trying to figure out if he wants to keep listening to it. He looks over his shoulder and pulls out of the driveway, calmly driving down the street.

When all that is needed:

John gets in his car and drives away.

I’m not sure why writers want to do this. For many it’s simply not knowing any better (the only acceptable excuse, though after reading this column, you can‘t use it anymore).

For many, I think they believe this is the way to create a visual image (it actually does the opposite as I‘ll go into in a future column).

For many, they think this is the way they can control what is shown on the screen and how it is shown (it won’t; first it has to get past a reader and this kind of overwriting will probably prompt a keeper of the gate to tell his boss that the screenplay is a slog to get through and moves at a snail’s pace; secondly, the director will just ignore all the details and storyboard the screenplay the way he feels he needs to in order to create his artistic vision).

One rider said he wrote in such detail in order to create a mood. I didn’t tell him, though I was tempted to, that the only mood he was creating was boredom. (Mood is not created through the literary details of narrative, but through action, character, setting and maybe, just maybe, every long once in awhile, a very carefully placed adjective or two–preferably no more than one if any at all).

I still have much to say here as I delve into such things as how to introduce a character and how to establish a setting. But first I want to deal with the idea of writers who storyboard a screenplay with their narrative.

In conclusion, I am going to make one last comment. When choosing a style for writing narrative, do not chose Proust or Faulkner as your literary model. They are two of the greatest writers that ever lived, and I relish their books. But if you write like them in a screenplay, it’s deadly.

Instead, take as your model Ernest Hemingway, especially the short story Ernest Hemingway. Simple, short, finely honed to the point declarative sentences with little to no literary flourishes.

Actually, there are times when I wish people would copy the style of their first grade reader: See Dick. See Dick run. See Jane. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane run. But Hemingway will more than suffice.

NEXT COLUMN: KNOW YOUR PLACE

HOW TO PLEASE A SCREENPLAY READER: Does Size Matter–how long should narrative paragraphs be


Another issue that comes up when I’m reading scripts is the length of narrative paragraphs. Sometimes it seems to me that writers either don’t know or just don’t care or think it’s irrelevant what the length of paragraphs should be. But I suggest that by not caring, it is so easy to create a screenplay that a reader has to slog through rather than breeze through. And believe me, I’ve done more than my fair share of slogging in my time.

One way to deslog one’s script is to find user friendly lengths to the paragraphs. Most writers tell me they are taught, or read in books, that narrative paragraphs should be no more than 3 ½ to 4 lines each. However, I wish to support a more reader friendly length. Narrative paragraphs should be no more than 2 ½ lines each. The exception here would be for action scenes, which I suggest be no more than 1 ½ lines each (a column on action scenes, on which I sometimes feel my opinion to be a lone voice in the wilderness, will be covered in a future column).

My preference for 2 ½ line paragraphs (or less) is not based on anything but experience; I can‘t point to anything empirical here, just a feeling based on reading script after script for years. It’s not unusual at my peak period to read four to five a day (not that unusual for people who read for a living). And based on this, I have found that paragraphs of 2 ½ lines each are easier to read than 3 ½ or longer. And there are times when even less than this is better.

Also, having a paragraph line that ends halfway through or sooner (and no more than 2/3rds of the way through) is psychologically easier to read than a paragraph in which the last line reaches the end of the margin. It’s the same thing as something costing 99 cents coming across as way cheaper that something costing a dollar on the dot.

In addition, the number of paragraphs you have in a row or in a scene is also a pertinent factor. There is little that is more dispiriting than for a reader to turn a page and see four or more paragraphs of 3 ½ lines or longer in a row. A reader’s usual reaction here is to sigh heavily, roll their eyes, then gird their loins and start on a painful journey through a mire of slogginess.

It is thus suggested that the more paragraphs you have in a row, the shorter the paragraphs should be. It is also suggested that if you have three or more paragraphs that you vary the length, say make one 2 ½, the next 1, the next 2 lines, etc. In addition,
my experience has been that if a writer has three or more paragraphs of 3 ½ lines each, most likely the paragraphs are overly written, filled with unnecessary details, and need to be ruthlessly edited.

This is where the concept of “white space” comes in. In the end, what the author is trying to achieve with his screenplay is having as much “white space” as possible, i.e. to have more white space than words.

The easiest way to check this out is to pull up a number of pages at a time and look at them (they don’t even have to be readable here; all you need to be able to do is to see at a glance how much white space there is). I agree that this sounds arbitrary; and it is, in a way. Shouldn’t the number of words parallel what Mozart said to the Archduke when the Archduke commented that there were two many notes in an opera Mozart had written–paraphrasing, Amadeus replied, only the exact number that is needed, no more and no less?

At the same time, the more I read scripts, the more the idea of white space does seem to correspond to a screenplay that is easy breezy to read. The less white space there is, the more likely again that the narrative is being overwritten. The more white space there is, the more likely that you will have the exact number of words you need, no less and certainly no more.

There are methods one can use to help with tightening paragraphs to within an inch of their lives, thus keeping paragraphs at a user friendly length and adding to the amount of white space. But first, I want to talk about what actually goes into narrative and what doesn‘t, which is the subject of my…

NEXT COLUMN: PROUST OR HEMINGWAY

HOW TO PLEASE A SCREENPLAY READER


In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy opens his novel with the line “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. I’ve just finished reading for several screenplay competitions for the year, and Tolstoy’s observation can also be applied to screenplays, though in a vice versa manner: all good screenplays are good in their own way, but all mediocre to badly written screenplays resemble one another.

So I thought I would start a series of articles based on what are for me the most common errors I have run across in my years as a reader and script consultant, not just for contests, but for a production company as well as with my personal clients.

There was one area that was particularly frustrating this year, an area that seems to have actually been getting worse every time competition time comes around (if I had hair, I wouldn’t, because I would have torn it all out by now). For some reason, screenwriters often have little to no idea how to write effective narrative and formatting. In fact, I got so frustrated that at one point I publicly growled on my facebook page wondering whether writers were even being taught how to write narrative well, desperately wishing that someone, somewhere would devote a course to nothing but this topic.

First it should be noted what I mean by effective narrative and formatting. It’s not, as some people think, following a set of rules that if not followed, will automatically get an author a failing grade from a reader or production company or agency. The main reason to strive for effective narrative and formatting it to make the screenplay easy to read and understand; make the plot easy to follow; and make the characters come alive.

I even had to respond to a contestant who said that a professional script doctor was telling him to do things differently than I was and was curious which set of rules were correct. My response was that the screenwriter was approaching the idea of narrative/formatting from the wrong perspective. It’s not a matter of rules that have to be followed. It’s a matter of creating a use friendly screenplay that will be entertaining and exciting to read.

Usually there are two reasons writers give for why they write narrative and formatting the way they do (other than pure ignorance–writers who really have no idea). The first reason is that a book or teacher told them to. The second is that they read a script in which the writer did the same thing.

For example, one issue that continually pops up is writers who fully capitalize sounds and other objects the author wants to emphasize.

My suggestion is that it is more effective to only fully capitalize the names of characters when they first appear. The reason for this is that fully capitalized words are distracting to the eyes and can therefore interrupt the flow of the reading. In addition, fully capitalized words can throw off the rhythm of the lines, making me emphasize the capitalized word in the sentence rather than retain the natural rhythm of the sentence (“John throws the grenade” and “John throws the GRENADE” read very differently in the head).

When I ask a writer why he wants to capitalize these words, he often says that a book told him to. When I ask him why the book said to do it, he often says that the book said it was a rule. I suggest that that is usually an insufficient reason for doing something.

The only reason that ever made any sense to me in regard to capitalizing like this is that the writer wants to emphasize something for the director so that the director knows how to visually shoot the movie (in other words, the author is storyboarding the movie). But this is not the author’s job, it is the director’s. And the director isn’t going to care what you want to emphasize visually. They are going to storyboard the screenplay and shoot it the way they want to.

The second reason is that the author read a screenplay (one that has been made and/or lauded) and that that writer did something not normally done and therefore the screenwriter should be able to do it, too. Again, that’s not a reason to do something since you don’t know why this particular screenwriter did what he did.

Also, screenplays at different levels of development look different. Shooting scripts can look very different from spec scripts because there is often a lot of detail that has been contributed along the way, details that the director and producer asked the screenwriter to include. Also, sometimes these screenwriters are directors and include details for their own purposes. And sometimes these screenwriters have reached a level where they can do whatever the hell they want. Also, screenplays written for Hollywood studios do sometimes look different from spec scripts written for independent producers.

But in the end, I’m not here to tell you what you can get away with, like these writers have done. You can get away with anything. I’m here to suggest what is best for the screenplay and what makes it easier to read and understand, what works best for the screenplay. You can do anything you want and it’s possible that you might get the script bought. My purpose here is to make your screenplay more readable and more appealing to production companies, contests and others.

Next: length of narrative paragraphs.