Sunday, February 24, 2008

Clarity in screenwriting

I’m one of those screenwriters whose work space is littered with motivational and methodological axioms scribbled on index cards. One of my favourites is:


In my opinion this is always an excellent rule of thumb, but perhaps even more so when you’ve yet to establish your reputation. Because when you bring a screenplay to market, you’re going to have to deal with feedback. Heaps of it.

Sometimes it’s constructive and can raise your screenplay to a higher level. However, the vast majority of the comments you receive will be negative, completely unfounded and only uttered in an attempt to make the utterer appear more knowledgeable than you, the novice.

Which is also one of the oldest negotiating tactics in the book: “I don’t know … it needs a whole lotta work.” (Spoken by a producer who is secretly so excited about your script he has a hard-on.)

So it’s of the utmost importance to make sure every word in the screenplay clarifies something, either in terms of what’s physically going on in the scene, or in terms of what’s going on inside the characters.

Naturally, this requires you read your own work critically and to be acutely aware of any nagging doubts about the clarity of what you’ve written. Are your descriptions specific or evocative enough? Is your dialogue constantly adding to the reader’s emotional involvement in the story? Are you being obfuscatory rather than profound? And so on.

Once you’re convinced that everything you’ve written is clear and intentional, then it becomes a much simpler task to deal with feedback. Because you know immediately when someone has read and understood the script but has legitimate questions or even great new suggestions. You also know right away when someone is bullshitting.

But consider this for a moment too: The finished screenplay is merely a starting point for a whole new process, including storyboarding, casting, set designs, composition of the score, not to mention budgeting all this.

In other words, the people who have the resources to turn your script into a film have every right to demand clarity.

So make it easy for them and never assume they’ll know what you mean.

P.S. For some examples and analysis of top-notch, professional screenwriting, take a look at an additional blog I’ve started, called Great Screenwriting. Enjoy!

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