STOP WITH THE PROSE, ALREADY

Fairly frequently I’m given an unsolicited screenplay to read, to consider directing, or to give my two–cents on.  I try my hardest to not read any of them.  But every now and again, curiosity takes hold, and I’ll open one up.  Sometimes the scripts are filled with spelling errors, stilted dialogue, boring scenes, you name it, but there is one mistake I see most often across the board: too much ink on the page and not enough white space.

Screenplays aren’t novels.

The purpose of a screenplay is entirely different than that of a novel.  I could go as far as to say screenplays aren’t even meant to be read.  I know that might sound weird.  But, think about it.  What is the purpose of a screenplay?  Screenplays are meant to be spoken, heard and watched.

Screenplays are a map.

They should be made up of great dialogue, with brief descriptions of specific actions that happen when nothing is being spoken.

I agree that scripts should include some prose to set the tone and hint at the atmosphere, but my advice is to keep it light.  We do not need to know the year, make and model of a car, or learn about the squeaky door, or the broken windshield wipers.  We just need to know it’s an old, shitty car.  Allow the reader to imagine whatever they want.  Even then, their imagination will hinder how they interpret your story.  No one will totally “get it” until they SEE it.

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, he writes:

CUT TO:
Young Alvy at the food-stand concession watching three military men representing the Army, the Navy and the Marines arm in arm with a blond woman in a skirted bathing suit.  They all turn and run toward the foreground.  The girl stops before the camera to lean over and throw a kiss.  The sign over the concession reads “Steve’s Famous Clam Bar.  Ice Cold Beer,” and the roller coaster is moving in full gear in the background.

That would be much easier to read if it looked like this:

EXT. STEVE’S FAMOUS CLAM BAR – DAY
Young Alvy watches three military men arm in arm with a woman in a bathing suit.
They run towards us.
The girl stops to lean over and –
throw us a kiss.
The roller coaster is moving in the background.

By adding more white to the page, we’re able to move through the description faster, getting back to the dialogue.  Some might argue that Woody Allen’s prose adds a different kind of atmosphere than mine does.  I say that in either case, no one watching the film will ever know how it was written.  And not everyone making the film is going to imagine that shot exactly as the director will see it and film it, so it doesn’t matter.

When you’re watching a movie you can’t read what the script says.  So why not keep the paper light, effortless and easy to use?

If there is something visually specific in your screenplay that you’d like to communicate to the reader, my advice is to attach a visual design book to accompany the script.  Sometimes I’ll include storyboards, costume designs, even hairstyles.  For my film FIRECRACKER, I even incorporated images into the screenplay and provided music to listen to while reading it.

Most people in the Industry will tell you never to do that.  But don’t listen to them.  They’re just stuck in a box.  Do what YOU want.  I did it, and it worked.  Shortly after sending my FIRECRACKER script to him, Dennis Hopper called me up personally and invited me to his house.  When I was there Dennis told me he wanted to be in the film and added, “This is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read.”

I’ve read dreadful screenplays that made spectacular, dazzling, poetic movies, and I’ve read brilliant screenplays that have made terribly uninteresting movies.  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the illustration of the vision, the poetry of the dialogue and performers who can nail it.

3 thoughts on “STOP WITH THE PROSE, ALREADY

  1. Well said. There is a reason why people write screenplays and there is a reason why people write novels. I think the best thing for someone to do before trying their hands at a film script is to first have it clear in their head what they are setting out to do….A. Novels for people to read. -or- B. Screenplays for people to visualize and then bring to life on screen for other people to watch.

    You had me laughing at the part about not needing to know about the squeaky door and make and model of the car. The latter actually had me wondering if there are some exceptions when writing a script about a particular type of story, such as that of Gran Torino starring Clint Eastwood…but yes, I know that’s an isolated matter. lol.

  2. I just answered a question from somebody wanting to know how to write a screenplay when their tendency is to write a novel. I said, “Write your novel, then write your screenplay.”

    Because they are different, as you point out. Some writers are more prosaic than others, even within the screenplay format; that’s up to them. But it should typically be as succinct as possible while still conveying what needs to be conveyed.

    PS – I would have made mention of the roller coaster before the kiss. That’s just me. 😉

  3. I was shocked to find out that only 2 out of 10 people could actually visualize what they are reading. The other 8 can only patch together ideas in their head from their experiences(non visual). This explains a lot of interesting choices people make. Like Einstein said “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really know what you are talking about.” In screen writing, creating a full visual experience through the dialogue is optimal. I learned that from Ivan Goff. Some of my favorite jokes as well.

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