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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Q & A: Writing the "Unshootable"

At my Expo seminar on writing active sequences, "Verbalizing the Visual," one of the things I pointed out was that many successful scenes of this nature will include some "unshootable" material as punctuation. For example, in the battle at Stirling Field, from Braveheart (by Randall Wallace), I looked at the portion of the battle when the Scots kill many of the English cavalry with their long wooden spikes. He wrote:

The Scots stand and watch them [the English horses] come on. It's difficult to imagine the courage this takes; from the POV OF THE SCOTTISH LINES we see the massive horses boring in...
But how would one film, "It's difficult to imagine the courage this takes?" You can't, and typically, beginning screenwriters are told to only write what can be seen or heard.

Another brief example, from Any Given Sunday (revised shooting script, dated 5/1/99, credited to Jamie Williams & Richard Weiner, John Logan, Daniel Pyne, revisions by Gary Ross, Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans, John Logan, Lisa Amsterdam & Robert Huizenga, current revision by Oliver Stone (whew, that's a hell of a list, and no, it wasn't the way it was finally credited -- check with Craig Mazin about how credit is assigned -- nor will I even try to link to all of those people)). In one of the football sequences, a player fumbles the ball. It is described as "a spectacular fumble -- the kind of fumble all running backs have nightmares about." After the fumble is run back for a TD, the running back "drops his head, the loneliest man in the world." All that is filmable in each of those lines is the initial phrase (the spectacular fumble and the dropping of the head). But the other phrases are used for literary embellishment, a general no-no in screenwriting.

My point with these excerpts was that, at times, it is okay to "break the rules" during these sequences. Such rule-breaking should be done sparingly and carefully. But it is certainly okay at times. This piqued the interest of my audience, and I recently received a follow-up question from one of my students. Nathan Flood asked me the following:

In adding a bit of unshootable description to set the mood, is that also acceptable for character intros. I've read to add a mood to the character as well, but I've also seen people react negatively (the jerks) when I write something that's not 'on the screen'.

Example: ...assistant district attorney JEFF WOODS, 45. A pit-bull in a business suit, he's only happy when he hears the word, "“guilty"”.

To me that conveys the character I'm looking for, but should I leave out the '...happy when he hears..."? I like it as I think it better describes the type of guy he is more than the pit bull in a business suit.
It is an interesting question. And before I answer, I should restate something, in case it is unclear. I am not a stickler for format. I don't want to read something that is completely off, as it indicates someone who has no idea how to write a film. But I'm not measuring margins, or tossing something out simply because there's a flashback in the first 10 pages.

I will also say that I can only speak based on my own experience, and may not have the same reactions as all or even most readers. That being said, I know most readers will overlook some "broken rules" and pay much more attention to whether or not the script is well-written and tells a good story. That being said, on to my answer to Nathan's question.

The unfilmable in a character intro is one of those things that I wouldn't mind, but that others might. The reason I don't mind the example you gave is because it really is a description of character. What I definitely DO object to is when I see actual facts that are unfilmable included in character intros. Stuff like "Carol has just lost her father, but is slowly getting her life back on track." (As in the script I just finished, that was written by two people who should have known better how to write a script and adapt a beloved children's book. But which I also can't speak about by name, due to confidentiality. Hopefully some day I can, but I was shocked at how bad the script was, and pray they find a way to improve this screenplay and make the film this book should be. But anyway...)

So basically, I'd be careful with using it, and be aware that you MAY piss some people off. Plus, I'd keep it to no more than a single phrase, as you did. And only then, occasionally.

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Blogger Danny Stack said...

Absolutely, good points all.

I don't mind a bit of info about a character (but I prefer to make up my own mind) but stuff that's given should be clearly dramatised soon afterwards. For example if the script introduces JEFF as having a corny sense of alternative humour, he better show it in the story and not just be bland info on the page that never gets dramatised.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous chris said...

Hear, hear. The character stuff, yes, should be PROVEN on the same page. The Braveheart one is a good example as it is easily decoded as "whatever's coming at them MUST look really scary, Mr. D.P.", so, in it's own way, it IS a visual, if a bit of a cop out for not actually describing the shot itself in a scary fashion. But...as described through the lens of their characters...

...and didn't it win best picture or something?

Puny blogger (me) takes potshots at Oscar Winner at 4 a.m. on a Monday morning...


2:05 PM  
Blogger shecanfilmit said...

...assistant district attorney JEFF WOODS, 45. A pit-bull in a business suit, he's only happy when he hears the word, "guilty".

If I were reading this description, it'd take me out of the story. Why? Because it conveys no visual information whatsoever. I'd suggest adding some visual tics to the description, i.e. "a beady-eyed pit bull in a business suit, he shakes with excitement when he hears the word 'guilty'."

And I don't know why you hyphenated 'pit bull'?

4:29 PM  
Blogger Iain said...

I agree with shecanfilmit - The line might even read better if it were given to a character as dialogue.

I was always advised to write what you need to get the character in your own head and then go back and take the stuff out when the first draft is finished. You shouldn't get precious over lines of description - or any lines really - if you agree with david mamet - it all comes doown to telling the story ...

interviewer: What makes a good movie?
Sam Fuller: A good story.
interviewer; And what makes a good story?
Sam Fuller: A good story.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Matt Waggoner said...

Re "It's difficult to imagine the courage this takes;"... You know, I think that is shootable. It's direction for the actors; despite what we're always told about not directing the actors from the page, it's an instruction for the actors who make up the line of Scots, indicating that these men are feeling courage, which shows outwardly. If they were trembling with fear, or just bored and resigned to death, there could be something different there, which indicates that it is something shootable.

This isn't to say that such lines are always shootable, but I think we might be underestimating the utility of a line like that.

7:03 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Great and informative post, Joel - one question, you mentioned that some readers have problems with flashbacks in the first ten pages - can you elaborate on this just a bit?

And by flashback, do we mean character flashback or story flashback - for example, in one of my scripts, I start with an event in the story that actually happens near the end, then I go back to the beginning and follow it to the coda I began with - am I right to assume that's different from what you're referring to?

Thanks man -

3:04 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Joshua --

Re your first question, not having flashbacks in your first ten pages is one of those "rules" you always hear people mention as being a "no-no" of screenwriting. It is generally seen as weak storytelling.

Which I think also helps me address your second question. I don't think that the opening with a scene from later in the film is the same as a typical flashback, but I do think that in most cases it is weak storytelling as well. Frequently, it is a cheap way of creating a hook. As in, were we to open at the beginning, we'd bore the audience, so let's start with something later on in the story and get them wondering what it means or how we got there.

Just my $.02

7:55 AM  
Anonymous David Anaxagoras said...

Oh, excellent post FJ. Knowing when and how far to go with the unshootable is part of developing your own voice as a writer. Some writers take if much farther than I would, but it works for them because they have developed their own style and tone and are consistent with it. I think where new writers get into trouble is when they try to copy someone else's voice (or several writer's voices) and the writing becomes garbled and clunky.

8:01 AM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

This is worth more than $.02, FJ. Good comments, too. I’m somewhere between FJ and Iain: a short description when we meet a character is hopefully not a mortal sin—but dialogue might be better (safer).

Seeing your coverage of scripts, though, makes me completely rethink for whom I’m writing. Thanks, man!

Hope the rain has let up.

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Okay - next question -

Why are flashbacks seen as poor storytelling?

I never mind when a story bounces around as long as its good and let's face it, LOST is living large in flashback land (which, I know, is television and not film) - but I know that it could just be me and my personal preferences - it is good to hear what someone who reads A LOT more scripts than I do thinks -

What's the bad rap?

2:22 AM  
Anonymous Eddie said...

I think it's okay if you do it as a device and not a crutch. If you can't tell the difference, don't do it.

3:19 AM  
Blogger Matt Waggoner said...

Flashbacks get a bad rap because they're a specific, easily identifiable device, not because it's easier to write bad flashbacks than it is to write bad dialogue or story elements. Flashbacks aren't automatically bad. I mean, come on: Citizen Kane. Casablanca. Sunset Boulevard.

On the other hand, I've only used one flashback in the five (six?) screenplays I've written, so it's not like I think they're the bees' knees.

Re the "starting a movie with a scene from the middle/end, then flashing back to earlier and catching up to the starting scene": The worst example I ever saw was in Daredevil, where (for no apparent reason) they start out with a scene near the end, with DD clinging to the top of a church, having apparently just taken a severe beating. We end up there an hour and change later, and then continue on... but why there? It was pointless. It almost felt like they were giving away spoilers. Great, now we know he ends up nearly dead atop a church.

3:42 AM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

The story in Eternal Sunshine was all over the place and I loved it for it - started with what seemed like the first meeting for the couple, but was really their second such first meeting -

6:23 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Matt -- thanks for the follow up to Josh's. I agree with your delineation. Still, I must take issue with your mention of flashback in Casablanca. I know I'll piss a lot of people off with this, but in all honesty, I think the whole flashback to Paris is the WORST sequence in the movie. It is largely (though not exclusively) pointles and unnecessary, and it definitely goes on for way too long. The film would have been MUCH stronger without it, IMNSHO.

But yeah, that Daredevil scene is a prime example of what I'm talking about. Start with a weak and boring opening, but recognizing that, take a "tense" moment from later and throw it at the beginning as an "artificial hook." Maybe I should find a few of those and do a post about just those!

Joshua -- Eternal Sunshine worked great, but that's a unique example with very unique structure. Largely this is a device, and it is used to mimic the structure of memory. The reason it worked so well and beautifully (and I love the film) is that Kaufmann, of course, committed so fully to the device. It wasn't just a one-time thing.

Overall, however, flashbacks can more frequently be dealt with better in other ways, or cut out entirely.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

I was more bothered by other things in DD than the flashback - I didn't even remember there was one until Matt brought it up, but I definitely remember the badly lit and choragraphed fight scenes that no one could see, and I remember . . . ah, I gotta stop. The film may have needed MORE flashbacks. Something.

Then again, Batman Beyond will built throughout upon flashbacks (can we call them flashbangs, or is that too much) and it seems to work quite well.

Both are cartoon movies, though, so it may be a question of genre.

Seriously though, Fun Joel (just wanted to say that) if you are looking for a post subject, would love to hear more of your thoughts on this matter and the ways flashbacks ccan be dealt with more effectively - it's interesting to me to hear that from you - I had no idea FB's had such a rep - are flashbacks like voice-overs, which got a bad rap but really not the kiss of death once thought, or are they lazy writing, or are they possibly a good tool if used correct?

thanks man -

1:55 PM  

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