Generally after teaching a screenwriting class, I feel a sense of positive accomplishment, however meager. Something's been learned, even if it's as trivial as the proper formatting of sound effects. But after my last class, I felt like I was leaving a trail of fire and brimstone in my cloven-footed wake, the air thick with the stench of sulfur. I had become the screenwriting instructor Devil incarnate.
Call me a heretic, call me a hack, here's the horrible reality I'd preached, the one that sent my students screaming into the night: The surest path to getting your screenplay sold is to write it badly.
One of the cardinal rules of the screenwriting craft is "Show, don't tell." Good writing, we all are taught, doesn't over-explain, doesn't pander and pre-direct the action. Parentheticals, the script writer's equivalent of "indicating," are frowned on: If you need to add (sadly) after a character's name before a line of dialogue, then you haven't written the dialogue right -- the line isn't inherently mournful.
Same goes for characterization work. "What you see is what you get," another bit of screenwriting gospel, says that you don't talk about a character's emotions and thoughts when you're writing their actions. The character moment should be self-evident. Actions speak louder than indulgent inner-voice aping: If you need to explain how a character is feeling, or fill in his reaction to someone else's action, you haven't written the character right -- their personality hadn't been properly articulated.
Good screenwriting is supposed to appeal to a reader's intelligence. Be clear, be precise, and they'll get what you intend in a given scene. Your prose should be as spare and smart as a Raymond Carver story.
But as a writer who's been a story analyst and script consultant in the studio system, and thus has read something like 6,893 screenplays over the past 17 years, most of them agented, many of them since sold and developed, I say:
I can only report to you what's actually going on, speaking to you from the belly of the industry beast (where the gaseous air, come to think of it, is often sulfurous). Here's what most screenwriters don't want to hear: In the working industry, these rules of "good writing" don't apply. Most of the scripts that sell are loaded with what's thought of as bad, with telling-not-showing, and I'm talking about the big boys. Eric Roth does it. Stephen Zaillan does it. Robin Swicord, Richard LaGravenese, James L. Brooks... Highly paid Oscar-winner Ron Bass (or his massive "research" staff) does it.
Now let me define this it. The Big Boys and most of the less heralded writers who get their movies made observe a less well-known rule of the screenwriting trade: The fundamental job of a selling screenplay is to get the reader to empathize with its protagonist.
Paraphrased for emphasis: The most important task a screenplay must accomplish is to get whoever is reading it to identify with the lead character. It's really that simple, although often tricky to pull off. If you can't get an executive, an actor, a whoever the hell is reading the thing to see the story through the eyes of its protagonist, to experience your story's emotions as they're experienced by the person in the starring role... then you are dead in the water.
This is, after all, what we all do whenever we see a movie. As we watch the leading man or woman, we're subliminally doing a lot of emotional math in our heads: Why's she doing that? Oh, she's outsmarted him (she's smart). Wait -- is she nuts? Oh, no, that was funny (we like funny). Hmmm, I don't get why she reacted that way (now I'm curious). Wow, I didn't see that coming! (This is intense). Etc. And the sum total of these largely unconscious lightning responses to a character in action is meant to be: We get them. We're with them. We are them.
Like it or not, the savvy screenwriter, ripping up rulebook pages to fuel her audience-identification fire, gets right to the heart of this process. Here, for example, is Oscar-winning original screenplay writer Dustin Lance Black, early in his script for Milk. Young Harvey is trying to pick up a guy named Scott who's just caught his eye on a subway platform:
HARVEY MILK: I'm part of the big, evil, corporate establishment that, let me guess, you think is the cause of every evil thing in the world from Vietnam to diaper rash.
SCOTT SMITH: You left out bad breath.
Falling for it, Harvey covers his mouth. Scott laughs. They both smile, realizing they share a wry sense of humor. A TRAIN IS COMING, Harvey has to work fast.
HARVEY MILK: So... You're not going to let me celebrate my birthday all by myself, are you?
SCOTT SMITH (gently teasing): Listen, Harvey, you're kind of cute for a suit... But I don't do guys over forty.
OhmyGod! The telling, the explaining and even (gasp) the parenthetical!!! A doctrinaire screenwriting teacher would cut that "realizing..." clause, question that "has to work fast," probably damn the "gently teasing." They'd probably have problems with this bit from a little further in:
HARVEY MILK (an idea, half-jokingly, half-seriously): Why don't we run away together?
SCOTT SMITH: Where to?
INT. FLASH FORWARD - HARVEY'S KITCHEN - NIGHT
Harvey speaks to the tape recorder. (Throughout the film, these scenes should feel intimate, as if Harvey is telling us things no one else knows.)
HARVEY MILK: In those days, San Francisco was the place where everyone wanted to go...
That last parenthetical in the narrative is the epitome of a tell-don't-show. But it sure makes a difference in our understanding -- our "feeling the story," does it not?
Sometimes the "you are the character" POV work is more subtle. As Simon Beaufoy brings us into the world of Jamal in the first flashback of Slumdog Millionaire, note how succinctly and eloquently the action in this first flashback is pitched from Jamal (and no one else's) point of view:
SALIM: Jamal! Catch it! Catch it!
The seven-year old Jamal stares up at the ball, jinks around trying to get into position. He pays no heed to the rest of the children who are scattering fast to the edges of the tarmac. The ball seems suspended in the blue sky. Shouts from the other children seem very far away. He doesn’t notice that they are screaming for him to get out of the way. Jamal adjusts his feet for the perfect catch. Then out of nowhere, a light aircraft almost takes his head off as it comes in to land on the tarmac runway.
This is actually good writing (it avoids the interior editorializing while vividly transcribing a "you're a camera in Jamal's head" trajectory in the reader's mind), but the principle (make us be him) still applies. Here, conversely, is an extreme example from another screenplay, describing a daughter talking to her elderly mother, who's on her hospital deathbed:
CAROLINE: I wanted to tell you how much you’ve meant to me. I’m going to miss you so much...
They hold each other for some time... They separate... And there’s an awkwardness. They have nothing left to talk about... nothing left to say to each other... a hole in their relationship... Caroline fills it with the eternal question...
CAROLINE (CONT’D): Are you afraid?
As a screenwriting instructor, I'd be tempted to throw this maddenly ellipse-riddled schmaltz right out of class... except... it's painful to acknowledge... this is an Oscar-nominated screenplay (Benjamin Button) from Oscar winning scribe Eric Roth (Forrest Gump).
Bad or good (and such terms begin to lose their bearings on this turf), getting across exactly how a character is feeling, in its varying degrees of subtlety or on-the-nose excess, is the coin of the realm in professional screenwriting. When it's done deftly (e.g. Beaufoy) you barely notice it, and it's hugely effective. Personally, I find Roth's end of the spectrum hard to stomach, but I can't knock his agenda.
"Telling the story from inside the character" is what sells the story to prospective stars, directors, producers... and while it's absolutely Wrong as a supposedly proper approach to screenwriting craft, it's employed by ostensibly A-list writers on a daily basis. That's because with this kind of neon indicating on the page, nobody reading such material can misunderstand or fail to comprehend the emotional beats in a character's arc. And these screenwriters know that getting the reader on that same page with their protagonists is their fundamental task.
I ain't sayin' I like it. I'm just saying... it works.
Now maybe you can understand why in preaching such heresy, I felt like I was telling my students to sell their minimalist-sophisticate souls to the studio devil the other night. But this is my story and I'm sticking to it: bad writing, shmad-writing -- don't shy away from doing some "telling" in your show, if it'll put your reader more vividly and palpably into your protagonist's shoes. It's a dirty job, abusing (i.e. over-using) the technique may get you in trouble, but writing your movie from inside the character will get you further with that spec script than most of the rulebook do's and don'ts ever written in stone.
Let the hissing begin.