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:


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.



So tell me what you think.

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