One of the curious and annoying things about writing screenplays is their limitations. Yes, telling a story on the screen is very exciting and full of possibilities both real and imagined. You would think there were no limitations – and you would be right. The possibilities seem endless and the limitations are few. But, we’re not talking about movies right now. We’re talking about screenplays. We’re talking about those 90-120 page documents that are attempting to describe what will be on the screen. And, just as the script is not the story (see Tip of the Month below), the script is also not the movie. The script is, by its very nature a reduction of the story and of the potential movie to its most basic elements. What the script is saying is: “Here is what you will see and here is what you will hear.” That’s it. And we can define that even a bit more. A screenplay has four basic elements: location, character, behavior and dialogue. That’s it. In every scene, every moment you are limited to these four elements: 1. here’s where it’s happening (location), 2. here’s who is in the scene (characters), 3. here’s what they are doing (behavior) and 4. here’s what they are saying (dialogue). That’s it. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Wait a minute, there’s a lot more. There are all those parentheticals, all those descriptions of emotions and feelings, hopes and dreams, disappointments and despair!” Of course, you’re right. Any self-respecting screenplay writer is going to infuse the script with as much description of the emotional journey of the characters as possible. And there are hundreds of clever tricks and tools that can help you do that. (That’s what I call “the Fifth Element”. We’ll get to that later.) And in many ways it’s necessary to do that so the reader can be guided to experience the story the way you want.
Experience the story? So why can’t location, character, behavior and dialogue alone convey the story? Why isn’t that enough? Well, it’s not enough because it’s not the story.
Okay, now we need to back up a bit. We’re back to ‘what is the story’? Not, what is a story, but what is the story you are trying to tell? And if all this description of characters, behavior and dialogue isn’t the story, then what is?
The story you are telling is beneath the story you are showing. The story you are telling lives within the characters. The story you are telling is invisible, it is silent – unseen, unheard.
Here’s the storyteller’s Tip of the Month from August:
The Script Is Not The Story
Whether you’re an actor, writer or director, your job is first and foremost a storyteller. One of the fundamental mistakes actors, writers and directors routinely make is believing the script is the story. Nothing could be further from the truth. The script is not the story. The script is a suggestion of a story, a recording of the character’s public behaviors – what they will allow others to see and hear. The story, the real story, the one you want to tell, the one that holds all the power, lies beneath the script in the subtext, in those private needs, desires, objectives and expectations each character carries inside and is too afraid to expose. Uncover the subtext and the real story will reveal itself. And once you’ve uncovered the real story, your film is on its way from good to great!
Have a great day, thanks for following me on this journey.