Script Coverage Chronicles – March 2015: The One Thing Every Screenplay Needs To Be To Get Made

What is the one thing every script needs to be if it’s going to get produced?

Unique?

Hardly.  True originality often hurts more than it helps.

Commercial?

Nope.  It’s not entirely necessary if the writing is great.

Entertaining?

Please.  We all wish every script ever filmed was entertaining.

Then what is it?  What does every successful screenplay need to be?

It needs to be clear.

Clarity In Screenplays

Clarity in dramatic writing is very different from clarity in prose.  We’ve all heard the adage:  Show, don’t tell.  That’s a good rule of thumb, but it gets a lot of screenwriters in trouble.  Showing an idea clearly is much harder than telling (or describing) an idea in a clear way.

And yet it’s critical to “show” your story elements clearly.  Every writer makes artistic choices, and readers may or may not respond to those choices.  But if you don’t make your choices clear on the page, your readers never have a chance to experience them at all.

For that reason, clarity should always be on a screenwriter’s mind, as much as writing natural dialogue, as much as crafting consistent characters, as much as being entertaining.

Here are five tools for avoiding unintentional confusion and writing crystal clear scripts:

1. Use Pre-contextual Action Sparingly

Pre-contextual action is when action takes place on screen before we know why we’re seeing it.  Nine out of ten times, when characters are doing things on screen, we – the audience – should know in advance why they’re doing those things.  We should have the context (i.e., the reason) first and the action second, and not the other way around. 

The one exception is when you want to create a sense of mystery, when you want the audience to question what’s happening.  For instance, you might begin a thriller with an inexplicable murder. 

Most of the time, however, when characters are doing stuff on screen, and there’s no context for understanding why, the result is an uncomfortable and frustrating confusion.  So if you’re going to do it, be aware that you’re doing it, and do it only for good reason.

2. Layer Characters Slowly

Establish your characters’ primary traits before layering in their nuances.  If you throw a character’s multiple dimensions at your readers all at once, the result is usually confusion.  Take your time, let your audience get to know a character’s dominant qualities first, then later you can show shadow sides.


3.  Use Voiceover When Necessary

If there’s an element in your story that works perfectly for you, and yet people aren’t “getting it”, don’t be afraid to use voiceover.  Voiceover allows you to “tell”, and “telling” is sometimes the only way to get an idea – especially a complex idea – across to your audience.  Yes, I know some directors have a knee-jerk aversion to voiceover, preferring filmic action, but clear voiceover is almost always preferable to confusing action.

4.  Simplify

You’ve probably heard the advice that movie scripts should be simple.  That’s not just because moviegoers like simple stories.  It’s because it’s much harder to make complex plots clear on screen.  If you’re having clarity issues, try simplifying.


5.  Get Feedback


Even the most experienced writers sometimes have trouble gaging how clear their scripts will be to others.  It’s not easy.  You know your screenplay inside and out.  You practically have it memorized.  It’s going to seem clearer to you than to fresh eyes.  Getting quality, constructive notes on your script will make it far easier to identify any clarity problems that need to be addressed.