"…they're more than just words, they're real, and they matter. I'm going to prove it to you." –Metal Garurumon “Digimon: Digital Monsters” 1999
Many scriptwriters see scene description as the "yadayadayada" of screenwriting. In between dialogue it sets up props and other visuals and fills in details. But narrative is not the script stepchild and it deserves as much attention as any other element in the scriptwriting process.
How many times have you heard, “you don’t have to be a literary genius to write a screenplay?” The fact is, it’s the truth. That’s why so many cardiologists, bookkeepers, roofers, pipe fitters, and dog walkers have a completed script they carry around in the trunk of their car. Everyone believes they have a saleable story, people who can’t spell the word “narrative”, people who wouldn’t know a plot point if it pierced them in the eye.
The number of scriptwriters who send their work out for consideration by studios and agents prematurely rises each year. The streets of Hollywood are littered with high concept loglines written by people who are unable to execute their hot plot idea between the covers of a script. The reasons they fail are varied and about as countless as the pints of pseudo “blood” spilled in Kill Bill. But you can be sure, when a good story fails to capture attention, it ultimately stems from poor scene description. It's the vehicle used to convey most elements of a screenplay. Story may be king in pitch sessions, but on the page, it plays second fiddle to the narrative.
A screenwriter strives to affect the reader, to pull them into the world of the story, to make them feel. They do that by appealing to human senses, by creating situations readers will want to try on like a rented tux on Rodeo Drive. The writer beckons the reader to see what it feels like, to imagine what they would do behind the hero’s shiny black lapels. The objective is to push the envelope of emotion, to assail the reader with conditions to which they must respond. While readers may forget the words on the page, they’ll remember the underlying emotion. When all is said and done, of the many useful and magical tools in the screenwriter's toolbox, dialogue and narrative are the only ways to connect emotionally with readers.
Novice writers often daydream their way into screenwriting with the delusion that the writing itself isn’t that critical, if they have a good story concept the script will be purchased and the flaws will be fixed. The reality is, script readers won’t wade through inadequate writing to get to that strong concept. Good writing is the only vehicle powerful enough to carry readers deep into the world of the story. If a writer is serious about their craft, they will see to it that the vehicle is fueled and the tires are filled with air.
The Hollywood script reader is the gatekeeper, the first person in a long line of decision makers who will judge a script. His or her final “pass” or “recommend” will be based on how the material reads. While the script reader’s name may not be at the top of Spago’s list today, don’t under estimate his or her power. Many movie executives have been known to climb to the top after a stint at the reader’s desk.
Script readers wield a level of influence that can sufficiently impact a writer's success. Positioning themselves between the writer and the green light team, they applaud or negate the months, maybe years of work devoted to a project. Their only mission is to seek out that seismic story capable of shaking up former box office numbers. It is not their job to struggle through lifeless narrative or to be forgiving of crude or careless writing skills.
To improve the chances of wowing the reader, write great narrative that unequivocally, explicitly, and faultlessly nails the emotion of the story, narrative that propels script readers to run at their bosses crying, “You have to read this!”
Our reaction to a painting may be influenced by the colors chosen by the artist, the play of light, or the subject matter. While listening to music we may be swept away by the melody or the lyrics. Our understanding and reaction to any kind of artistic endeavor is not deliberate, but rather insightful. The artistic medium of the screenplay is no different.
The way a story is perceived can vary widely from person to person. For proof of that, sit in a circle of friends. Whisper a short story to the person next to you. You may have done this as a child. Let everyone do the same, passing the story around the circle. When the final person reveals the story out loud to the group, it will probably have become a different tale. It may have ripened like a sweet fruit, been made richer and more interesting. Or, it could have become a story you no longer want to claim as your own. For better or worse, no doubt, it will have undergone changes. While that could have something to do with poor retention by your friends, it’s also a result of the way the story is interpreted by the listener. Even when two people agree as to what they have heard, there may still be a discrepancy as to the precise meaning of the message. This is out of the storyteller’s control because our interpretations are shaped by the fact that we all connect to story the same way we write – based on our unique life experiences.
The film Mystic River had a powerful effect on me, as it did for many viewers. But my involvement differed slightly from most of my friends. My closer, deeper connection to the film had to do with the neighborhoods depicted in the story. I was awed by the visual look of the scenery and would have bet anyone that it was filmed in the city where I grew up. Even the characters spoke and behaved like people from my past. For days after seeing the film I was haunted by the similarities. Then I read a magazine article about the movie and learned that the screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, based the descriptions for his script on the city where he had once worked as a fisherman, which was my hometown. Helgeland wrote the script as any writer does, drawing on his personal background. Similarly, life experience shaped my perception of that film.
Without intention, and almost inevitably, we all put our own spin on the stories we tell. In your circle of friends, your original idea becomes someone else’s vision, and the end product becomes barely recognizable. This is similar to what happens to a script when it leaves the writer’s hands. Audiences might view a film and wonder why it was ever made, why the screenwriter would tell that story in that way. Unless the screenwriter accompanies his work to its final stages, there’s no guarantee the scene descriptions on the script page will get translated to film with their original intention intact.