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Quick Screenwriting Tip: Redundant Parentheticals Apr 28

Quick Screenwriting Tip

If a parenthetical provides obvious information, it should be removed.

Example of UNNECESSARY parenthetical usage — (angrily):

JAKE

(angrily)

I’m going to kill ALL of you!

We know Jake is angry because of what he says and how he says it. The parenthetical is redundant and slows down the read.

Have you eliminated all of the unnecessary parentheticals in your script?


Want me to personally read your script and let you know if it’s ready to go out? Please take a look at my professional script services.

Show Don’t Tell: The Revenge! Dec 18

Preamble

In a previous post, I discussed some of the concepts and examples behind the expression, “Show don’t tell.”

A picture says a thousand words — imagine how many words motion-pictures say. That’s why it’s a well-regarded rule to follow when writing your scenes.

But one should also be cautious of following rules blindly.

Adherence to the rule

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a screenwriters group in L.A. that is hosted by a local screenwriting guru. The guru, who I actually respect very much, was discussing Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (Amazon | IMDB). He made an offhand comment about how the script made some Hollywood Company’s “Wall of Shame.”

Apparently they have some type of algorithm which plots common script problems or something, and because it broke so many rules, it received an abysmal grade. Anyway, the guru was in sync with their assessment and remarked that the scene with the watch was terrible.

Never one to worry about looking stupid, I interrupted him with a question. Here’s how our conversation went:

TREVOR

I’m sorry, what exactly is wrong with the scene with the watch? It’s one of my favorite scenes.

GURU

What happens in the scene?

TREVOR

Uhhh... Christopher Walken’s character tells the--

GURU

He does what?

TREVOR

He tells--

GURU

He what?

TREVOR

Oh, I get it. He’s breaking the “show don’t tell” rule.

Some rules can be broken

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a scene in a movie that really works, I focus on why the scene works — not what rules, if any, it’s breaking.

The watch scene from Pulp Fiction is one such example. It may break the rule of “show don’t tell,” but I feel there are several reasons why the scene works brilliantly:

1. He’s Telling Us A Compelling Story

Humans communicate and learn via stories. Ever since Grog told the one about how he killed the mighty mammoth with his bare hands, humans have been enjoying well told tales. It’s in our DNA.

So sure,  a story is by definition telling us something and not showing us the event, but it’s something we’re hardwired to be receptive to — especially when it’s delivered by a raconteur like Christopher Walken.

2. We’re experiencing the story from the protagonist’s point of view

In the watch scene, Captain Koons (Walken) talks almost directly at us (the camera). We’re meeting that character for the first time — just like the protagonist is. Tarantino does a fabulous job of putting us in the young boy’s shoes — feeling what it would be like to have this strange man come into our living room and tell us such a crazy story.

3. The story is a punchline

We get to find out why Butch (Bruce Willis) freaks out over the watch, and we learn this new information in a very humorous way. So in actuality, this scene *is* showing us the importance of the watch.

What would the alternative have been? There’s nothing Butch could have said that would have come close to the poignancy of actually experiencing that moment with Captain Koons.

4. We DEFINITELY don’t want to see what happened to the watch

Grimy men in a Hanoi pit shoving hiding a watch… Probably better left to to the imagination.

Summary

What the guru failed to realize, in my opinion, was that sometimes there’s no substitute for a well told story. In the right hands it can make us laugh, horrify/thrill us, advance the plot and develop a character.

How less powerful would Jaws (Amazon | IMDB) have been without Quint’s monologue about the ill-fated USS Indianapolis?

Or what about when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) told Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) the story about Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (Amazon | IMDB): “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” It sets up the stakes and the world of the movie.

In another Tarantino classic, Reservoir Dogs (Amazon | IMDB), the telling of a story spanned several scenes and was used very effectively to reveal character and context.

While it’s important to follow the “show don’t tell” rule to eliminate expository scenes or on-the-nose dialogue, never lose sight of the goal — to entertain the audience. Sometimes that means knowing when to break the rules.

What’s your take? Do you have a favorite scene where a character is simply telling a story?


Category: Dialogue  | 6 Comments
Pop Quiz: Using Numbers in Your Dialogue Dec 17

Pop QuizTime for a pop quiz about using numbers in your dialogue.

Part 1 – Regular Numbers

Is the following usage correct?

MARK TWAIN

I can live for 2 months on a good compliment.

It’s actually incorrect. Numbers should always be spelled out, as follows:

MARK TWAIN

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

Part 2 – Times

How about this example? Is it correct?

BITCHY BOSS

You are going to bring me my coffee at precisely 8:45 A.M.  Is that clear?

Nope, that’s wrong too. All times need to be spelled out in dialogue. A correct version would be written as follows:

BITCHY BOSS

You are going to bring me my coffee at precisely eight forty-five A.M.  Is that clear?

Hey don’t get mad at me, I didn’t make up the rules. Actors don’t like to read numbers inside of dialogue. They can disrupt the visual flow of words and make the dialogue harder to memorize… or something like that.

The Exception – Years

In The Screenwriter’s Bible, Trottier says you can use numbers for years. So the following would be correct:

YOUNG GIRL

No, my brother is nineteen, not twenty. And my grandpa was born in 1920.

How’d you do on the quiz?


Category: Dialogue, Formatting  | 3 Comments
10 Rules For Using Parentheticals Nov 23

First, what are they?

Parentheticals, or actor/character directions, or “wrylies,” are those little descriptions that sometimes appear after a character’s name, in dialogue blocks, to spell out tone, intent or action.

In the poorly written example below (see Rule #1), the parentheticals are “(breathlessly)” and “(confused)”:

The Loyal Squire bursts through the door. Collapses on the ground. Pulls a bloodied envelope from his pocket.

LOYAL SQUIRE

(breathlessly)

I may not live... to see tomorrow my liege... But I die knowing... that I have served thee well.

KING

(confused)

I’m sorry. Who are you?

10 Rules for Using Parentheticals

1. Don’t use parentheticals when it’s redundant or obvious

It’s a common mistake to use parentheticals in places where the emotion or intent of the dialogue is already obvious (my example above, for instance).

Many actors dislike parentheticals — it’s their job to interpret the emotion, etc. of the scene based on the dialogue provided. So it’s very important to use them sparingly for emotional cues, and only when it would otherwise be unclear…

2. Use parentheticals to avoid confusion

Take the following dialogue, for example:

GRANNY

How did you like my stew? It’s an old family recipe.

BILL

I hated it.

That’s very different than the following (especially when developing a character):

GRANNY

How did you like my stew? It’s an old family recipe.

BILL

(sarcastically)

I hated it.

3. Don’t use parentheticals  to direct minor actions

Similar to Rule #1 (where you’re needlessly directing an actor’s emotions), it’s also a faux pas to overuse them for an actor’s actions.

Example of POOR usage:

DOUG

(index finger massages his right temple)

There must be a way out of here. We have to think.

ELANOR

(purses lips)

I can’t come up with anything.

DOUG

(scratching neck)

Have you tried opening the door?

ELANOR

(shaking head)

No, not yet.

Leave the decisions of those minor actions up to the actor. In the example above, all of the parentheticals should be removed.

Note: If your character has a specific quirk, that’s pivotal to your story, you have a bit more leeway in this regard. But even then, you may be better off including such mannerisms in a line of description.

4. Use parentheticals for quick, significant actions

Often times, you can save several lines by slipping quick and significant actions into the dialogue block. And since some execs only read the dialogue blocks of a script to save time, this practice can even provide some much-needed clarity.

Example of GOOD usage:

GARY

Son of a bitch. You got blood on my shirt!

(kicks the body)

And now my shoe!

5. Parentheticals should never come at the end of a dialogue block

Example of INCORRECT usage:

SCOTT

I told you not to disturb me!

(throws pen at the door)

If the action follows the dialogue, simply pull it out and make it a separate line of description:

SCOTT

I told you not to disturb me!

He throws his pen at the door. It rebounds. Hits him in the eye.

6. Don’t use parentheticals for the actions of a different character

While one actor is speaking, you can’t describe another actor’s actions.

Example of INCORRECT usage:

PETE

There are ninjas all over the place!

(Bruno steps to the window)

What are we gonna do, man?

Instead, you would use:

PETE

There are ninjas all over the place!

Bruno steps to the window. Stares bug-eyed.

PETE

What are we gonna do, man?!

7. Don’t use parentheticals for sounds or camera directions

Example of INCORRECT usage:

FRED

(WIND HOWLS)

We need to get to that house on the hill!

SHAGGY

(steps INTO FRAME)

Like, you mean that creepy one everyone said was haunted?!

Instead you would write something like:

The WIND HOWLS. Whips at the group’s hair and clothes.

FRED

We need to get to that house on the hill!

SHAGGY

Like, you mean that creepy one everyone said was haunted?!

I left out the “steps INTO FRAME” part. Don’t specify camera directions (in your spec script) unless they’re critical to the comprehension of your scene. Leave that up to the director. (See The 5 key differences between spec and shooting scripts)

8. Don’t capitalize the first letter of parentheticals

Example or INCORRECT usage:

BRAD

(Gritting his teeth)

I couldn’t be happier.

Example of CORRECT usage:

BRAD

(gritting his teeth)

I couldn’t be happier.

9. Use correct punctuation in parentheticals

In those rare cases where you need to specify multiple actions in your parenthetical, don’t use periods, dashes or ellipses.

Example of INCORRECT usage:

WOLFGANG

(looks up from clipboard... smiles -- waves them through with gun.)

Don’t worry. I will not waste my time with you.

First of all, that’s a lot to put in the parenthetical. The first two parts, if not all the parts, should probably have been written as scene description. But for purposes of this exercise, semi-colons are the answer…

Example of CORRECT usage:

WOLFGANG

(looks up from clipboard; smiles; waves them through with gun)

Don’t worry. I will not waste my time with you.

10. Don’t use a pronoun to start the parenthetical

Example of INCORRECT usage:

DAVE

(he winks at Betty)

Sure, Sarah, I’ve always thought you were the prettiest.

Instead, you would simply write:

DAVE

(winks at Betty)

Sure, Sarah, I’ve always thought you were the prettiest.

For an expanded investigation of the correct way to use parentheticals, I highly recommend the following Amazon books:

Show, Don’t Tell Nov 06

Show, Don't TellThere’s an old adage in screenwriting — show, don’t tell.

If there’s a key character trait, event, or setting that the audience needs to know about, provide that information visually.

Why?

  • Humans are visual — we learn things more quickly and readily by seeing.
  • Showing is quicker than telling — after all, a picture says a thousand words right? Screen time is precious. The quicker you can convey the necessary information, the better.

Show, don’t tell is an important rule for the screenwriter to follow. Each of the following scenarios, presents different challenges:

Dialogue

Usually the show, don’t tell rule means that you should eliminate clunky, artificial, “on the nose” dialogue that tells us what a character is feeling in a direct way. Instead, try to write action that shows us.

In ABC’s Flash Forward last night, Mark (Joseph Feinnes), and his wife Olivia (Sonya Walger), each say to each other: “I trust you.” However, when Olivia exits moments later, Mark throws something across the room. He doesn’t trust her. And by allowing his his actions to speak louder than his words, the scene feel more authentic.

It was a prime example of show, don’t tell and is one of the seven ways to ensure your scenes are lean and mean that I’ve previously covered.

Scene Description

If you’re describing something on screen, that ensures you’re showing and not telling, right? Well, not necessarily.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of describing something, without telling us how that translates to what we see on screen. An example of BAD writing:

Marlene exits the elevator overwhelmed with thoughts of her heated conversation that morning with Chad.

That may work in a novel, but what the heck am I seeing on screen? Does she wonder around like a zombie? Does she clench her fists? Do tears well up in her eyes? As much as possible try to write description that allows us to divine a character’s emotions from what we see.

(Note: Be careful not to get too detailed with your actions. Capture the moment succinctly, and in a way that doesn’t lock the actor and director in a box of specificity. More on this another time…)

Similarly, when describing settings, don’t skimp on the description. An example of BAD or limited writing:

Van Helsing approaches a spooky castle.

Spooky, on its own, doesn’t tell us too much. What makes it spooky? Do ghosts of dead monkeys soar overhead? Does blood drip down the stone walls? Does a hollow-faced girl with a missing arm and red eyes glare at him from the tower? Make sure to paint the appropriate word pictures (and again, don’t get lost describing every little detail).

Flashbacks

While using extensive flashbacks in your script is frowned upon (they tend to slow down the pacing and momentum of your story) it’s a much better option than burdening your script with pages and pages of dialogue to accomplish the same thing.

However, if you’re considering a flashback scene, first ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is it necessary?
    If I have a character who’s a 50 year old drug addict and the story deals with his recovery and redemption, do I really need to show the audience the scene where he smokes his first joint? If the scene isn’t offering new information, or surprising revelations, then it should probably be scrapped.
  • Is it going to take less time to tell?
    Don’t create an elaborate flashback just for some tiny piece of information you need to get across. A clever single line of dialogue can do the same thing. Of course, it depends on the story you’re trying to tell, but having a line like: “My father was some kind of war hero” — is probably more efficient than showing a multi-million dollar sequence where the protagonist’s father storms the beaches of Normandy and destroys three Nazi bunkers.
  • Is it going to break the fictive spell of my movie?
    Since we live in linear time, a flashback has the potential to remove a viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
  • Is it going to make my movie feel disjointed?
    Jumping around in time can be jarring to an audience. Care must be taken to orient the audience as quickly as possible following a flashback. You don’t want the viewer (or more importantly, the script reader) to feel like your story is hard to follow.
  • Is it funny?
    Sometimes it’s all about the laugh. Some of the best scenes in Austin Powers III — Goldmember, were the flashback scenes with the young Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. If there’s a hysterical gag that requires a flashback and fits within the construct of your storytelling objective — go for it!

What About Voiceovers Chump?

Voiceover narration, by definition, is telling, not showing, and is usually considered the hallmark of lazy writing. However, voiceover narration has been handled to great effect in many movies and is therefore a topic of discussion for another time, along with other instances where it’s okay to break the rule…

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