WHAT I LEARNED READING FOR CONTESTS THIS YEAR: Part the Second, Incomprehensible Screenplays

Another issue that made many of the incomprehensible screenplays, well… incomprehensible to read and understand was overwritten narrative.  Now, I’m not talking about people who like to be a tad proesy here and there (I will talk about that later).  
No, I am talking about narrative so dense (how dense was it?)…it was so dense it was like reading a novel; and not just any novel, no, no such luck.  It made me feel as if I was reading something Proust and Faulkner might write. 
It was so dense, I felt like I was hacking my way through a jungle with a machete. 
It was so dense, I felt like I was a cat hacking up a fur ball.
It was so dense, that the next thing I expected to happen was the big bang.
Okay, I’m exaggerating.  Except, sadly, I’m really not.  And on top of it, whenever anybody would write in this manner, they would add insult to injury by employing lengthy paragraphs that would come in multiples of five or more.  I mean, it’s one thing to stab someone in the back; but to take the knife and then twist it around seven times?  Give a guy a break, already.
And let’s face it.  Narrative written in this style is not just plain difficult to read in its own right.  This much narrative, more often than not, is filled with unnecessary detail that gets in the way of the necessary detail to such a degree that it’s difficult for a reader to even know what’s important and what’s not as he reads. 
And it’s often filled with metaphors and other literary flourishes that require one to stop and figure out what the frack the author is even trying to say (if a reader has to go to the dictionary or google a phrase more than a few times in a screenplay, you may need to start rethinking your style; but if a reader has to do research three or four times per page, you are in real trouble).
And if there is too much of this type of narrative, then the plot and characters are no longer illuminated, but are buried and crushed until it’s very difficult if not almost impossible to tell what is going on, robbing your story of forward momentum and tension.
This is at times compounded by writers who write like directors, story boarding the screenplay, including all sorts of camera angles and explanations for shots, transitions, and exactly how certain scenes should be framed.   It’s compounded by writers who like to tell actors how to say their lines and interpret their characters while blocking their every move; writers who want to describe a set in minute detail and likes to chose the colors and style of everything their characters wear; writers who want to choose every background song or piece of music and let the reader know where it starts and stops. 
And then just imagine if you had all of that alongside a plot that is convoluted and a story that is complicated and hard to follow.  At that point the whole thing just becomes one big slough of despair. 
But these are the extremes, though as I said, I’ve never had so many extremities in one year.  My next essay will be on those who just overwrite, but not to the degree of incomprehension.
NEXT: Narrative and formatting


By now, I had meant to do more entries in my series about issues I’ve been running across while reading screenplays for coverage and script consultation, but I got behind and am only now doing my second one. So, so sorry to be so sluggish. This particular column might seem a tad trivial, but it will focus on the use of two words I’ve seen crop up over and over again over the past couple of years, the use of which strike me as rather odd (if not maddening). The first one is “ironic” or “ironically” and the second is “smirk”.

I am constantly running across dialog in which the actor is instructed to say something “ironically’. I have to be honest. I have absolutely no idea what that means or how you say something ironically. I suspect that they mean “sarcastically”, “tongue in cheek”, “dryly” or something akin to that. This may be a generational thing and perhaps those younger than me have an idiomatic or slang use of the word that I’m unfamiliar with.

However, that is not the only use of the word that puzzles me. More and more, I’m running across narrative in which someone is described as “wearing a shirt ironically” or “has an ironic hair style”. I really, truly have no idea what this means. But even more importantly perhaps when it comes to writing a screenplay, that is not an action. From an audience stand point (and certainly from a reader’s standpoint), a character can’t do something or wear something or have a style of dress that is ironic (in the opening scene of The Social Network, when Zuckerberg is accused of wearing sandals and socks ironically, no one in the audience would have come to that conclusion without the line of dialog).

The second word is “smirk”. I have seen this crop up for a number of years as a synonym for smile. At least I think that’s how it’s being used. But “smirk” is a smile that is derisive or superior in some way. All smirks are smiles, but not all smiles are smirks. But when I see it used, it is used by a character in which the attitude isn’t remotely derisive. At first I thought “smirk” was being used in this way because English was a second language for the author of the screenplay since the stories took place in another country or were about characters who were immigrants. But more and more, it’s being used anywhere and everywhere.

It is possible that it is being used because of the recent advice that is constantly cropping up about not employing “neutral” or “bland” words in the narrative (i.e., not “run”, but “dashes” or “zooms”—I will have a column about this in the future). Maybe some writers feel “smile” is too bland and want to spice up their narrative. But whatever the reason, it really causes a disconnect when I read since it is constantly being used incorrectly.

So in conclusion, don’t use “ironic” or “ironically”, ever. If you mean to use it in place of “sarcastically” or a word like that, don’t; use “sarcastically”. In the same way, don’t use “smirk” unless the person is giving a smug, derisive smile. Otherwise just use “smile”.