If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.
-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
Much like the study cited in the above quote, showing how much you’ve retained from your SAT prep work will not impress the reader of your script. It’s not about prose writing vs. screenwriting, or cluttering the page with unnecessary description, or slowing down the speed of the read.
It’s about showing that you are confident as a writer.
This isn’t an argument for writing simplistically. A screenplay should read well above a first grade level. Sometimes there is no better word for what you are trying to say than the complex, specific one. It’s important to be able to make the distinction and be able to know when to bring in those words out of necessity.
Writing plainly shows that you’re confident that your story is interesting and dynamic without having to pretty up the page with purple prose, that you are efficient and clear in your thoughts, and that you’re aware of how to best communicate what’s in your mind. You believe that your story, not your vocabulary, will convince the reader to take you seriously as a writer.
Words like “clearly” and “obviously” in action and description lines work against script clarity. They are an assumption that something should be understood without specifying how it could be.
Take these examples:
- The room is obviously a pediatric dentist’s office.
- Margaret is obviously interested in what Dana is saying.
- This exchange clearly took place in his imagination.
These are all missed opportunities.
In the first, the slug line can take care of informing the reader of what location we’re in, making the sentence wasted text. Additionally, details about the room could help to show what makes it a pediatric dentist’s office, and those items could be used to strengthen our understanding of how being in this location relates to the larger plot. If our protagonist is 12 1/2 years old, sitting in a waiting room looking at a poster of a child with a big grin and missing teeth while Nick Jr. plays in the background, that suggests a conflict.
Or in the second, how it’s essentially a sentence telling us that Margaret is listening to Dana. The details of how we would understand she’s interested in the conversation while watching the finished film could be used in place. Margaret’s body language or her end of the conversation would be stronger ways to help the reader intuit Margaret’s interest.
The third is something of a double whammy. It’s in past tense, which is a different red flag in that this particular instance sends the reader looking back over what they just read instead of continuing to move their eye down the page. But, for the purposes of looking at the use of “clearly,” this line misses out on the chance to establish the cues and rhythms that would come from a story where fantasy and imagination play a part. There are any number of ways to set a dream or fantasy sequence apart from reality (consider the vast difference between how Scrubs and Inception handle this concept).
We are not inside your head. Everything the reader understands about your story comes from the page. You must convey, specifically, every element you want to make sure that we understand.
There are plenty of fantastic movies that have extended scenes of dialogue. There are incredibly tense and engaging moments that can be created using little more than conversation.
However, a conversation isn’t just about what’s said. There are pauses, gestures, and actions that also play a part. This is why, when a screenplay page is full of dialogue and has no action or description lines on it, it raises a red flag.
Film is a visual medium, and if a writer is only focusing on what the characters are saying, they’re leaving out a key component. What are these characters doing while they’re talking? What are we seeing during the conversation? What can their actions do to build upon the dialogue and deepen our understanding of what’s taking place in the scene?
When looking at a page like this in your own writing, consider how something visual can stand in for some of the dialogue. Look for places where an action, gesture, or glance can convey what’s being said. By making part of the conversation visual; by making it something that needs to be interpreted by the viewer, the conversation becomes more engaging to the audience. Instead of being an eavesdropper, they’re now an active participant, working to unearth the full meaning behind the words the characters are speaking.
This is going to be the first of what will be several posts on Red Flags. What do I mean by that? In this case, they are elements that frequently appear in screenplays that, while not a major problem on their own, are symptomatic of larger issues.
One such red flag is the Montage of Sadness. Usually occurring after the main character has been dumped or fired, this is a series of brief moments that show the character moping about. Sometimes they sadly make dinner for themselves. Sometimes they sadly burn that dinner. Or they sadly walk through a nondescript park, sadly watching people. They might also stare out windows, at pictures, at old home movies… Whatever’s handy.
What do we as an audience get from this? We learn that the character is sad. Very sad.
If time is being spent on generic beats of despair, it’s saying several things about the script. It says that the writer didn’t dig deep enough to find the specific things that this character would do in this situation. It says that there may be other pacing problems, because the script is wallowing in the moment instead of moving forward. It may even suggest that the character’s overall motivations are unclear, because there is a lack of motivation in the moment.
Can a character be sad? Sure. Can a character feel like they don’t know what to do with themselves? Absolutely. But it’s your job as a writer to make sure it doesn’t last too long, and that the way they deal with their sadness is specific to them.
Think about the relationship between a protagonist and a viewer/reader as being like a relationship between friends. If someone you care about is feeling sad, you want that to be a temporary state. You want them to pull themselves out of it or help them out yourself. It’s a similar reaction when we attach our hopes and fears to a fictional character. If we care about them; if we sympathize in some way, we want their suffering to end.