Throughout my years of reading both professional and amateurs scripts, I’ve noticed that what really makes or breaks a good screenplay is the use or lack of a single attribute - trust.
Yes, as Billy Joel put it, it’s a matter of trust and not where story is concerned. We’re going deeper than just the three-act structure and into the exact way the screenwriter puts into words the action and dialogue that make up their story. It is in these snippets of motion or quips of talk where a screenwriter can develop a relationship with several of the people who will eventually turn their story into a true blue fleshed out film and, by having such a faith in these individuals, the screenwriter’s own work will become cleaner and more concise in the process.
So who should a screenwriter trust?
Trust the Director
It’s amazing how many times I’ll read the first draft of a screenplay and find more of a shot list. You’ll see such things as…
“And, as David moves down the hallway, the camera pans past him to Susan.”
“Cut to Bob, who writes in his bed.”
Though amateur screenwriters would say such flourishes help illustrate the story they see in their heads, what none seem to realize is that their “mind movies” don’t count for diddly and, by growing attached to them, you run the risk of being disappointed by the final product, giving yourself one melancholy premiere after-party.
This doesn’t just count for camera direction either. I’ve seen lines upon lines of screenplays devoted to the deep details of how a location should look in a particular scene. Though one could simply say a location is a “seedy bar,” the description runs as far as to the color of the waterhole’s threadbare curtains. Leave these details to the director, as he will be leaving them to his production designer.
Remember, the director is going to film the screenplay any way they choose so understanding that from “FADE IN:” saves a writer from giving out a lot of unnecessary visual description and getting their heart broken when most of it doesn’t project on the silver screen.
Trust the Actors
Time and time again, I’ll see screenplays riddled with parentheticals, a device that, when used properly, can help actors realize the tone of dialogue. While this is fine when the mood of a character can’t easily be understood through their words alone, newbies to screenwriting love to slather every single snippet of speech with one, hoping that how they hear the line in their noggin won’t be lost on those beautiful beasts known world round as actors. Many times I’ve seen something like…
“Bob sees a car speed around the corner, heading right for Dan.”
At least we now know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Bob is scared. I thought, at first, he was perhaps giddy.
On other occasions, screenwriters will do the equivalent of this when describing the story’s action.
“Terrified, Michael runs as the madman with the knife chases after him.”
What other emotion would he be but terrified? He’s being chased by a madman! Adding the emotion only tells us (and the actor) what we can already can guess. In the action of a screenplay, many writers get caught up in embellishing, adding these small moments to grow their characters, even though all that should be on the page is what, in the end product, the audience will see.
By adding such things, screenwriters aren’t letting actors do their job of finding the arch and pathos of their characters amongst the story. It is for the actor’s benefit that screenwriters shouldn’t spell everything thing out as an actor must discover what makes their character memorable by themselves while using the story as the backbone to what they find.
Trust the Reader
Before there are any lights, camera, or action, a screenplay is read a couple thousand times by a multitude of people. From the big studio brass to the college intern, who is usually the first person to judge your script according to David Mamet, a screenplay has to hold up under many different eyes and, because of this, young writers tend to pad their script with all sorts of clues that they believe will shield their work from being misunderstood. For example…
“Ronald looks at the babies in the nursery and sighs, remembering how his only child had died in a fire.”
In this context, we have probably already seen a flashback of the aforementioned fire, but here the writer fails to believe the reader can remember the child’s death or connect the dots needed to do so and, to make sure all is understood, they put in a reminder to why he might sigh at the very sight of infants.
Yes, of course, you’ll run into readers who are more interested in the bagel they are eating than your script and they’ll miss the important bits all on their own, but a writer should never consider this the norm and, if something isn’t made clear enough through the dialogue and action, then most likely the problem comes back to how the writer presented his story in the first place.
It’s true that readers are the hardest people to trust, but, by doing so, a writer can really listen to their advice without feeling that they held their hand throughout the whole script. By keeping things lean and sparse, a writer can find out what parts of his story might actually need more explanation, which will, in the end, strengthen the screenplay as a whole.
Trust is a component every screenplay should have, but that doesn’t mean its an easy one for screenwriters to give. We are a defensive bunch, who at times would rather hand over our literal babies to a stranger opposed to our written ones. If someone hates our work we see it as a slight on us personally and so, as the saying goes, “Why open your heart if you only know it’s going to get broken?”
Trusting others with understanding our work is against our very being as it takes us out of the pilot seat and out of control, but, as you can see, it is imperative that we do so, for both our benefit and our story’s. If a screenwriter can accept the idea of trusting others with their work, they can take a sigh of relief, knowing that the devil is in the details, and concentrate on what they do best, telling a story.
So, you screenwriters out there, trust your director, actors, and readers for only then can they put their trust in you.