FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
HOW DOES IT PLAY?
We all hope that our scripts will eventually end up on screen. That our words will be
spoken by actors and our images in our imagination will be realized in Technicolor.
For most pre-pros, writing is theoretical rather than practical. The story is anchored in
our imagination with little or no thought to how it might work in the real world... and
that can be a problem.
Dialogue that plays on the page may not "play on the stage". This is often true with
dialogue that looks fine... but becomes clumsy when spoken aloud. If possible, you
should always try out your dialogue with a reading of some sort. Playwright Sam
Shepard says, "A good actor always sets you straight. If you've written a false moment
and thought it was probably pretty great, the actor's gonna show you (whether it it's
great or not) when he gets to that moment. They are the great test of the validity of
material." Contact a community theater group in your area, or draft a group of fellow
screenwriters. Listen to how your dialogue really sounds, and identify any problems
while you're still in the script stage. The higher your script moves up the ladder of
production, the more likely it will encounter someone who knows how it will play on
screen. Readers often have no experience with how a script will play on screen, but
directors and producers know what works... and what doesn't. Eventually those lines
that won't work on screen will be discovered, so let's try to solve the problem before
anyone notices it exists.
Here are some common dialogue problems that only appear when the script goes to
1) Long sentences that don't provide any place for an actor to breathe.
2) Tongue twisters or lines with similar sounding words that might be transposed by
3) Word combinations that accidentally form puns - If a character in a bathroom says
"You're in!" the audience may misunderstand. Some sentences look perfectly innocent
on the page, but when you read them out loud they provoke laughter.
4) Homonyms back-to-back like "They're there!" Anytime you have two words that
sound the same in a row... or even the same word back-to-back in a sentence, you
have a problem.
5) Multi syllable words that just don't fit in an actor's mouth like, well, mutisyllabic. Similar to
tongue twisters, these words are easy for an actor to trip over.
6) Words that create facial expressions at odds with their meaning. This is one that
you may miss in a reading. I had a story meeting on one of my scripts where the devo
wanted me to change a line of dialogue. My lead character didn't want to get involved
in a situation where he might be killed and said, "It looks dangerous." The devo
wanted me to change the line to: "It looks risky." She didn't understand that when you
say the word "risky" you smile... and a smile would change the meaning of the line.
Instead of the lead being afraid, he would end up looking as if he were happy to walk
into danger. She didn't understand what I was talking about until she said the line
while looking in a mirror... and realized she looked HAPPY to be risking her life!
7) One sided conversations where the other person just stands there. That may look
okay on the page, but on screen that other actor has nothing to do.
You want to make sure that dialogue that looks great on the page can be spoken by an actor, and *works* when spoken by an actor.
DO THE VISUALS PLAY?
Part of our job, and the reader's job, is to *imagine* the story playing on the screen... and the visual portion is something that you can't really get in a staged reading - yet is the most important element in a visual medium like film. We need to imagine what will be seen on screen while writing our screenplay, and *know* what can and can not be seen on screen and consider what the best images to tell our story will be. This is not directing on the page, it is thinking about how what we write will be seen on screen. Some scenes that seem great on the page may not work at all on screen.
Let's say you have a story where a couple who are deeply in love get torn apart by the circumstances of the conflict, so you want to establish their love at the beginning of the script. You decide to show them calling each other from work during the day - a great way to show that they do not like being apart, right? But what does that look like on screen? That great phone conversation? Instead of showing your couple together, it will show them apart! They will be in separate shots, never shown on screen at the same time - as if they are different people and *not* a couple. There can be no "two shot" of people having a phone conversation. But wait, you say, what if the director uses a split screen so that they can both be on screen at the same time? Well, there will be a giant bar coming between them that splits the screen - which may even be worse that two different shots! Now you have a visual that *shows* something is always between them. That *shows* they are not together at all. On the page this phone conversation can be a great scene, on the screen we give the audience the subconscious message that these two are only pretending to be a couple when they are really two separate people. The better scene is one where they can be in the same frame, in the same shot. A scene at home before work where they can actually touch each other and actually be together. You want to think about how the visuals will play - some things work on the page but don't work on the screen at all!
DOESN'T PLAY ON THE PAGE
There are also things that work great on screen, but not so great on the page. Since the only purpose of a screenplay is to become a movie, or show that you have the writing skills to be hired for an assignment that will become a movie, what is most important is what works on screen rather than what works on the page. We are *screen*writers, not *page*writers, so the most important thing is how what we write will work on that screen.
The famous Hitchcock example of suspense is the two guys discussing baseball statistics while a time bomb ticks away under their table. They don't discuss something exciting and important, they discuss *baseball statistics* - probably the most boring subject in the world. As I pointed out in my blog entry on suspense and dread in the film THE LEOPARD MAN, one of the critical elements in the dramatic irony that builds suspense in this situation is that the more boring and mundane the conversation as the seconds tick away, the *more suspense on screen*. If the characters are discussing something important, they are *not* just wasting their time as a bomb ticks away under the table. But if they are discussing something completely trivial and completely unimportant, the suspense is ramped up because they are doing something pointless as the bomb ticks away under the table. Unfortunately, a bunch of pointless and mundane dialogue may look like filler material on the page. Readers who skip the action or don't see how it will appear on screen may think this dialogue can be cut, or replaced with something more interesting... and while that may play better on the page, we are not writing novels - we are writing *movies*. And that means we must write what plays best on screen... even if it does not play well on the page. The key here is to be brief with the boring stuff. Here's an example from THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR - the elevator scene where bookworm Turner is trapped on an elevator with assassin Joubert and tension builds with every moment they are together...
In the filmed version there is more boring small talk (gloves, grandpa's birthday cake, lots of other mundane things) but this section of the script introduces the idea of mundane conversation in the the elevator to heighten the suspense. Leaving it out, or making the conversation interesting, would kill the suspense on screen, even if it improved the read. So we *need* to establish that there will be boring conversation that has nothing to do with Turner and the Assassin trapped on the elevator. Unexciting dialogue.
If we wrote a scene that plays great on the page but would not work on screen, and that got us an assignment; we would just be continuing that bad habit in a script that actually will be filmed. Which is one of the ways bad movies come to be. Though we have no control over readers or development executives who skip or skim on a script (except writing riveting stuff) or executives who lack the imagination to see what will end up on the screen; doing our job wrong will not change anything. The solution here is to take those executes out to the Hollywood city limits and tell them not to come back. That's not our job, either, by the way. But I would hope an executive who wanted dialogue that played on the page but would screw up the scene could see your point if you discussed this note with them.
There are other things that play well on the page but don't play well on screen at all. Some things that we can read might be repulsive to see. This happens sometimes in comedies, where a joke that works in our imagination just becomes gross when the elements are shown on screen. It's better to be outside the stall when explosive diarrhea strikes in DUMB & DUMBER and just hear the sounds. This is also true in horror movies - sometimes we are better off in the next room imagining what is happening.
Part of our job is to think through what we write on the page, all the way to the screen. To imagine what it looks like up there in front of the audience and make sure what we write will work once the film is made. Developing the skills to know what will play, whether it is dialogue or visuals, is critical to the screenplays we write that actually do become movies. When someone in your screenplay says "You're in!" you don't want the audience to think the character has just stepped in a suspicious puddle in the restroom.
A script that reads great on the page but creates problems when you actually make
it into film defeats its very purpose. A screenplay isn't theoretical, it is a precision
crafted component of a motion picture. A screenplay exists to be made into a film.
Your lines of dialogue have to work on the page AND on "the stage".
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