Avoiding the dreaded unfilmable

flagman

Don’t go this way!

I recently had the pleasure of giving notes on a friend’s script. It was an early draft, so it had some of the usual problems that were easily fixable.

But the one thing that really stood out to me was their use of unfilmables.

“Unfilmables?” some might ask. “What are those?”

I’m glad you asked. Here’s an example:

“EXT. PORCH – DAY

Jane sits on the stained deck chair her father bought for her birthday last year.”

If you saw that onscreen, you know what you’d see?

A woman sitting on a chair.

In other words, HOW DO WE KNOW it was a birthday present from her father? We don’t. How can you let us know? Maybe we see the father giving it to her. Or another character asks about it, and she delivers a one-line explanation.

If there’s an important detail to your story, you need to find a way to include it as part of the story, and preferably in the most organic way possible.

What’s on the page is what we see and hear.

Unless there’s a line of dialogue or some kind of action somewhere in there that reveals these kinds of things, the audience has no way of knowing them.

Here’s another:

“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT

Kevin washes dishes. He thinks about that time he and his high school girlfriend crashed her mom’s car.”

What’s on the screen? A guy washing dishes.

HOW DO WE KNOW that’s what he’s thinking about?

Maybe we see the accident take place. Or hear Kevin talking about it. Maybe the story involves how the accident leads up to him washing dishes.

In my old writing group, one writer was insistent about leaving these sorts of things in. When pressed on why they were so adamant about not being willing to take them out, they’d launch into a long-winded explanation of why it was necessary to include them.

“So if we were watching this, you’d be there explaining things, rather than working them into the story and showing them on the screen?”

I’m not sure if they got the point.

Hopefully you do.

3 Responses to Avoiding the dreaded unfilmable

  1. Pauline Hetrick says:

    Your insights are always helpful.

  2. Jody Wheeler says:

    I’ve found I can bend that rule slightly, when such flourishes work to better specify an otherwise general or ambiguous action or sound.

    “They kiss” vs. “They kiss with years of passion” or “They kiss — with hatred.”

    “SOUND: Revolver cocked” vs “In answer, the cocking of a gun. It silences the room.”

    You can take any of this to extremes, cluttering or otherwise overwriting the script. But a few of these, in choice places, can enhance the read and subtly let the actors or director know the intention for the action.

    Which they can then change. 🙂

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