Treat The Script Reader As A Viewer

There’s a script note I’ve given rather a lot over the years – to myself and other writers – and yet it doesn’t get talked about all that much (except for this week, when a post by the mighty James ‘Sitcom Geek’ Cary reminded me to write this). Since launching my Script Notes service a few months back, I’ve applied this note to a fair number of the varied and splendid TV and film scripts I’ve received.

Don’t tell the script reader things which the viewer won’t see or hear onscreen.

It’s easy to fall into this trap.  Why?  Because we’re keen to communicate with the reader and get them on board.  We want them to enjoy the script and get the story, without getting confused.  But our eagerness leads us to forget that readers enjoy scripts most when experiencing them as a viewer would – when they’re picturing the drama in their heads and gleaning all information solely from what’s ‘onscreen’. 

So if your script’s action lines start sidling up and whispering privileged information about offscreen stuff, you run the risk of snapping them out of their own imaginations.  You can remind them they’re reading a script rather than watching something.  Suddenly they’re no longer visualising, but processing purely written information.  You also make it harder for them to gauge how well the script is actually telling its story onscreen, where it counts.

Here are some examples of imaginary action lines which commit this cardinal sin…

Linda lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.  She’s been awake for hours.
How do we, as viewers, know how long she’s been awake?

Dan props up the bar, nursing a whiskey.  He’s thinking about what Susan told him this morning.
How do we, as viewers, know this?  Even an Oscar-winning actor would find themselves hard pressed to convey specific thoughts using only their facial muscles.

The massive and imposing Stornbecker 8 spaceship glides into view.  This vast behemoth is home to over 200 scientists who specialise in the latest cloning techniques.
How do we, as viewers, know it’s home to over 200 scientists specialising in the latest cloning techniques?  Sure, we’ll hopefully gather this stuff in subsequent scenes as we venture inside the ship, but why tell the reader up front?  It’s a waste of a line.  And more importantly, the reader is no longer wondering, ‘Hey, I wonder who might live in a spaceship like this’.  Let’s look at another example of robbing the reader of questions…

Pete runs breathless past the 18th hole, towards a pub called The 19th Hole. Something falls from his jacket. He stops to snatch it from the ground, then takes a moment to study it: a photograph of his dead wife HELEN.

How, in the name of all that’s holy and unholy, do we, as viewers, know that’s his dead wife in the photo?  This, by the way, is the first time we’ve encountered Helen in this imaginary script and so we have no idea who she is.  And crucially, we shouldn’t yet.  When we read the script we should have the exact same experience as the viewer, wondering who the woman in the photo might be.  So from this point on, the script reader and the potential viewer are having two completely different experiences.  And since the Mystery Photo Woman would have been a good hook, the script reader is actually less engaged.

Sometimes we writers fall into this trap by mistake, in early drafts.  Other times, we try it as a crafty cheat, to avoid having to find ways to convey information, either visually (ideal) or by dialogue (the last resort).  But it’s very much a false economy and can cause real problems.  If Helen is never established onscreen as Pete’s dead wife, she’ll forever remain a mystery for viewers.  The writer has told the script reader but never the viewer.  This is an outrage!

So, we need to watch ourselves when it comes to this stuff, especially when flip-flopping between prose and script (and it’s arguable that ‘show don’t tell’ still applies just as much to prose as it does to script, even though the prose writer gets to communicate directly with the ‘end-user’.  Depending on the narrator’s POV and story, we should still ideally be looking to convey things to the reader via characters’ surface lives – through their gestures, spoken words and actions.)  As a general rule of thumb, look out for these three warning signs:
  • You find yourself writing about what a character “feels” or “thinks”...
  • Or using the word “clearly” or “obviously”, which often tends to be code for “I’m not sure how to convey this visually”, eg ‘Tim is obviously finding this new bar job a struggle’, instead of something like, ‘Tim, caked in sweat, pours two drinks at once.  He glances over at a row of frustrated, waiting customers, then knocks a stack of glasses over.  Smash!’
  • Or naughtily delegating work to the director and/or actors. One example of this might be starting a scene with ‘Lisa, Colin and Tom are chatting on the sofas. Suddenly, the door bursts open’.  Guess who has to supply the actual words these people were chatting?  That’ll be you, unless this is some kind of crazy arthouse-improv show.

Are there exceptions to the above?  Should we never write little asides for the reader’s sole benefit?  Yep, there are always exceptions.  When introducing new major characters, it’s more of a matter of taste as to whether you tell the reader their relationships to each other (‘TED holds the door open for his elderly mother IRENE’) – provided, of course, that you also remember to establish these onscreen.

Another example might be giving the reader a brief reminder of a smaller character’s identity, eg ‘Rob, the homeless guy from earlier, stares menacingly up at Tara’s window.’  The viewer will have the advantage of instantly recognising Rob from earlier, but the reader will thank you for a prompt.

Such small exceptions aside, scriptwriting is all about visual storytelling.  And that’s why we must treat reader and viewer as one and the same.

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