by William C. Martell

Novelists, short story writers and poets are free to use all six senses in telling their stories. They can use hearing: the sound of a far away foghorn, dialogue between characters. Smell: the pleasant odor of a pine wood fire on an autumn day. Sight: showing an incident or a character doing something that moves the story forward. Touch: the smooth feel of velvet, hot asphalt on bare feet on a summer day. Taste: sweet and sour pork, that strange aftertaste from hot Ovaltine. Even that sixth sense can be used: there's a weird telepathic link between the characters and the reader in a novel... we often know what they are thinking and feeling.

But screenwriters are limited to only two of the senses to tell our stories: Sight and Sound. That's what makes screenwriting so difficult. We only have a third of the tools of a novelist to tell our stories, and we don't even get the good tools! This means that some stories that can be easily told in a novel are impossible to tell on the screen. Some scenes that are used to explore character or move the plot forward in a novel or short story are impossible to use in a screenplay. For example....


Our leading lady Jane may have finally met Mister Right, a guy named Ken who she has had numerous phone conversations with. Ken is intelligent, witty, charming considerate, and tender. On the phone they can talk as if they are old friends. Jane was a little nervous when they swapped photos, but Ken is fairly attractive. Not Mel Gibson perfect, but a very handsome man. So they arrange a date.

Ken arrives at Jane's apartment well dressed, well groomed, and with a bouquet of flowers... overpoweringly sweet smelling flowers. Perfumey. Jane puts the flowers in a vase to get rid of them, then realizes that strong perfume smell is coming from Ken, not the flowers. The guy must be wearing a gallon of cheap aftershave. In the apartment elevator, the aftershave is deadly. Jane moves away from Ken, but there is no escaping that sweet smell! Ken may look and sound like the perfect man, but he stinks!

In a novel this scene works. On screen, it won't work. We are limited to what we can see and what we can hear. If we have Jane mention the strong aftershave smell, the scene is over. Ken becomes offended, and the date doesn't continue.

So let's come up with ways that we might SHOW Jane's predicament in the elevator. We can have her wave her hand in front of her nose to dissipate the smell... but we have no way of knowing what the smell is. The majority of the audience is going to believe that Ken may have a flatulence problem. We can have Jane hold her hand over her nose and mouth, but this still doesn't identify the SOURCE of the odor. Ken is a well dressed, well groomed man. We don't have any VISUAL INFORMATION to tell us what the smell is. If we take Ken out of the elevator and place a ragged, unwashed Homeless Man in the elevator with Jane, when she waves her hand or covers her nose and mouth, the audience will assume the source of the odor is the unwashed homeless man. The homeless man creates VISUAL INFORMATION for the audience - we know what unwashed people smell like and we call up that odor in our imaginations. But Ken is a clean, well groomed man. What could possibly be the source of his odor? One way to give the audience the necessary visual information is to SHOW Ken pouring on the aftershave before the date. But this telegraphs the punch line to the "flower gag", ruining the joke. The scene no longer works... but at least the audience will know that Ken doesn't have a flatulence problem! You can't see a smell. You can show a character's REACTION to a smell, but without the VISUAL INFORMATION that identifies that smell to the audience the scene won't work.


You could write an entire novel about a character who travels the world tasting every exotic food he can find. But let's stay closer to home and look at a scene where Margie cooks a gourmet meal for her husband Larry's 35th birthday. She taped a show off The Food Channel showing how to make the very meal they had on their honeymoon at a five star restaurant. Margie has secretly bought all of the ingredients, prepared the dinner, and now surprises Larry. Wow! The food looks great! Larry takes a bite, chews... but doesn't swallow. Somehow Margie has mistakenly used ground cinnamon instead of ground oregano. The food tastes terrible! Larry doesn't want to offend Margie, so he cleans his plate... one agonizing bite at a time. Yech!

The problem with this scene on film is that we don't know that anything is wrong with the food. Margie serves dinner, Larry eats the dinner with a smile. Any actions on Larry's part that tip us off that the food doesn't taste good will also tip off Margie. Ruining the birthday celebration and maybe even leading to the end of their marriage. We can't see what Larry tastes, we can only see his reaction. We can show him take a mouthful of food, smile at Margie, then bring his napkin up to wipe his mouth... and secretly spit the food into it. When Margie goes to the kitchen for something, we can have Larry quickly scrape his food back onto the serving tray. "That was delicious!" he says when Margie returns. "Would you like some more? There's plenty," she says as she scoops up the same food Larry just returned to the serving tray and puts it back on Larry's plate. Because we are dealing with physical actions, VISUAL INFORMATION, we now understand that there's something wrong with the food... but we will never know what. We can't SEE the taste of cinnamon instead of oregano. For all we know, the food tastes like sweat socks, or is poisoned, or is spoiled, or is just a dish that Larry doesn't care for. Scenes that deal with taste just don't work on film.


What about touch? Though we can see texture on screen, we can't feel it. In a novel you can write a scene where Chuck is dancing the night away with a beautiful girl named Bobbi. The romantic sparks are flying. Finally Chuck and Bobbi step outside. They kiss in the moonlight. First tentatively, then with increasing passion. Chuck feels himself becoming aroused. When they kiss once more, Chuck touches Bobbi's face, caressing up her cheeks... feeling the bristles of beard stubble below the freshly shaved skin... realizing that he has been making out with a man! Chuck pulls away, feeling sick to his stomach.

That scene works in a novel, but has no chance of working on screen. We can't show what Chuck feels. If we show that Bobbi has beard stubble, we have ruined the scene. The audience will know that Bobbi is a man and wonder why Chuck can't figure it out. Is Chuck stupid? Is he cruising for a transvestite on purpose? But if we take away the VISUAL INFORMATION of the beard stubble, we have Chuck feeling her cheek and pulling away. Why? We don't know. There is no cause for the effect. For all we know, he just regrets kissing her for some reason... or maybe she has a flatulence problem, too. Movies can't show what something feels like. We can't know that he's feeling aroused (okay, maybe we can, but not without being vulgar). We can't know that he's feeling sick to his stomach unless we have a physical action of some sort. He can vomit. He can clutch his stomach. He can hold a hand over his mouth... but what if we want Chuck to subtly pull away from Bobbi? The viewing audience can't see the stubble under Bobbi's cheek. We can show a texture, but we can't feel it.


The best tool a novelist has is that sixth sense, and it's the one completely unavailable to screenwriters. Novels often take us inside the minds of characters. It's called omniscience. We know their emotions, their motivations, their thoughts, their memories of things past. Entire novels have been written where nothing physically happens, but the character's thoughts and opinions tell the story. The character may be eating a cookie and remembering the events of their life, or calmly dealing with life while they slowly descend into madness. Our character may take a bite of exotic food and remember the woman he was with the first time he tasted the dish.

In a novel, Joe may absolutely hate his boss Clayton. Clayton may be an imbecile whose poor business decisions have lost the company millions. Joe doesn't trust Clayton - he knows that if things go wrong, Clayton will blame Joe for the mistake. Joe is afraid that Clayton's mistakes may ruin the company and Joe will need to find a new job. Joe may come up with a really clever insult in response to everything Clayton says, but his verbal responses are polite and reverential. All of these things may be going on below the surface during a business meeting where Joe treats Clayton with the basic level of respect shown to a boss. Or the conversation may be about something completely unrelated to business... like golf.

But remove our sixth sense, and we have a boring conversation about golf or business. We don't know any of the back story or motivations. We don't know that when Clayton comes up with an iffy idea and Joe agrees with it, that's he's secretly horrified. Screenplays deal with SIGHT and SOUND, not psychic abilities. This scene won't work on film because the information the audience needs to understand the scene can not be communicated in a film.

Watch out for words like "realizes", "thinks" and "knows".... all are sixth sense words and precede a section of description that is neither sight nor sound. Something that will NOT communicate on film at all. If you write, "George knows that Ralph will betray him", you create a situation where the reader knows something that the audience can never know. I have read scripts that were bought based on the story elements on the page that just don't transfer to the screen. They bought a beautifully written script, but all of the king's horses and all of the king's men could never make that script into a good film. The important information had to remain on the page because it could neither be seen nor heard.


There was a saying in the golden days of Hollywood that great novels made lousy movies, and lousy novels made great movies. The reason behind this saying was that characters forced to wrestle with moral decisions, or characters who make profound discoveries and characters whose problems can't be seen or heard on the screen, leaving us with a film that may have a simple plot and boring, inactive lead characters. The elements that made the novel great were going on between the character's ears!

So take care when choosing your story to pick a conflict and character growth that works on film. A story about an alcoholic trying to live his life a day at a time may be filled with constant conflict - walking past the bar he used to hang out in on his way to work, having a waiter ask if he'd like a cocktail before ordering when he goes out to dinner, dealing with a tense situation that might be "easier to get through with a little liquid lubrication". But these struggles are INTERNAL. The major conflict in this story takes place within the character... where we can't see it. The only way we can hear this conflict is through exposition - one character TELLING another what he's thinking. Remember, the first rule of film is Show Don't Tell.

Some stories work better for novels than screenplays. If the story can't be told using only Sight and Sound, you're better off telling it in another medium. Does this mean the stories you chose for screenplays have to be all surface? Simple? Dumb? Not at all! They just have to be visual. You have to be able to show the complex emotional conflicts through...


We can't know how someone feels, we have to SHOW how someone feels. We have to find the action that illustrates the emotion. That's easy if the emotion is sadness, and you can show the character crying... Or if the emotion is anger and you can show the character breaking something. But for subtle emotions, complex emotions, and combinations of emotions it can be challenging. How do you show disappointment? How do you show suspicion? How do you show a broken heart?

In NORTH BY NORTHWEST Cary Grant suspects that Eva Marie Saint has set him up to be killed in the cornfield. He never says this in the scene but his actions tell the story. When Saint races across the room to embrace him (after an awkward moment), Grant does not hug her back. Instead, his fists are clenched in controlled rage. He tries not to touch her, even though she has her arms wrapped around him. We SEE how he feels.

The key is to create scenes that illustrate the character. You may have to take every scene in your script and come up with an action or decision designed to show us each emotion the audience needs to understand. Turn each emotion into an action, and feelings into visual information.


Like every rule, the SIGHT & SOUND rule has an exception or two. Both exceptions have to do with an actor's performance: things that we CAN see... if the actor playing the role has the information. When you are introducing a character, you're allowed to give us some basic information - He's a nice guy, he's mean as a snake, he's sarcastic... These are things we may not be able to see, but they shade an actor's performance. Gene Hackman can play a friendly, likable guy who helps the hero or a double crossing villain -- the dialogue may be the same in a scene, but the actor's performance of those lines will be different. We will be able to SEE that performance. To HEAR the way the lines are delivered. If we don't give this information to the actor (and reader) they will eventually discover that Hackman is the bad guy... but it may confuse them. Adding a line in the character description that clears up the confusion is acceptable.

The same goes for actions used to illustrate an emotion. Some emotions are "playable" (an actor can show them through expression) and some are not. In my script BAKER TOUCH I have a police detective running her hand over the desk of her recently killed partner. There are a hundred ways for an actor to run her finger across a desk. We don't want the way that checks for dust, we want the way that's a caress. Some of this can be solved by word choice, but we want to make sure the actor knows what expression to put on her face. If we just have the character run her finger over the desk and frown, we may think it's because of waxy build up. So we cheat in the emotion to clarify what kind of frown the character has. We can't see the emotion, but we CAN see the action and the expression. No psychic abilities involved - we're still describing things that can be seen or heard.

Sight and sound. In a novel you can tell us the motivations, past histories, secret fears, and subtle relationships between characters... but in a screenplay we are faced with the challenge of only using two of the six senses. Finding stories that can be told through physical actions and dialogue. SIGHT and SOUND is more than just a British film magazine, it's one of the main things to consider when you are choosing your story.


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copyright 2006 by William C. Martell