Thoughts from the Non-Pro Screenwriter – Spelling It Out

5 years, 8 months ago 0
Posted in: blog

A post with amazing nuggets of gold for everyone – focussing on the effects of an unrehearsed reading of a scene from my script.  This should be useful for writers and directors. 

And script readers. 

And actors. 

And warehouse managers.

 

I’ve just got back from a break in Wales, where I spent some of the time bashing away a draft of a TV pilot for the second round of the Red Planet Prize, and some of the time getting feedback on a new feature I wrote in January.   The writing seems to be coming a lot quicker at the moment, and I think I can attribute that to two things:

1)   Once you’ve written one feature length script, there’s no psychological barrier there – you know you can write something that long, so you just get on with it.

2)   The acting classes I’ve been attending have made a world of difference to the way I write the interaction between my characters.

So, as you may have read across multiple other posts, I’ve been attending acting classes.  The plan was that these would make me a better director, as I’d understand more about the process for an actor and how to give them what they need.

An unexpected benefit of these classes has been that my writing rate has improved quite a bit.  I’m bashing out scripts at a furious speed at the moment – with a short, a feature and a TV pilot written since January, and ideas for another short and feature planned out.  The acting classes have really freed me up in terms of really getting to grips with characters and relationships, and my scripts are improving.

The latest feature script needs a couple of redrafts, but I’ll soon be looking to get some actors together to start doing some read-throughs because of an experience at the acting classes….

A recent exercise went as follows:

Write a one-page scene (or take one from a script you already have). 

Take out any of the descriptions about the characters, and change their names to A, B etc.

 Also, be sure to take out any dialogue that tells us about their gender, appearance, age and so on.

Get two actors, give them the scene.

Get another two actors, give them the scene too.

Repeat until you’ve run out of actors.

Watch the different versions of the scene.

I gave the actors a modified version of a scene from my first feature script.  Fifteen minutes later, we watched the versions of the scene…   The relationship between the two characters generally wasn’t what I’d pictured in my mind.  They were good performances, but the dynamic was unexpected.  Different.

Okay, it’s under a time constraint, there’s no director and there’s no real direction in the script for the actors to use as a signpost… but still…

I slowly realised that it was my fault I wasn’t seeing what I’d expected to see.  The problem? – There was quite a lot (in terms of character dynamics) that I wasn’t communicating clearly enough through dialogue alone.  I was relying too much on stage and character descriptions.

Before I continue, here’s the scene (with no descriptions, as the actors saw it):

 

A:  GCSEs, A-levels, Degree.  Jesus, you’ve got the Holy Trinity.  Y’know, you’re not of the normal sort what we get through here… As long as you won’t be expecting me to tug a forelock at yeh… eh?  Heh heh heh…  And reliability?  Are you reliable?

B:  I’m never late.  And I always leave on time.

A:  …Right… Yep, that’ll do.  Good.  This day and age you’re lucky to get that.  Great Britain my arse.   You think we’re great?

B:  My time on the warehouse floor has… disabused me of that notion.

A:  Christ, you’re a fan of long words?  Can’t be doing with them meself.  You happy down there, on the floor?

B:  Not particularly.

A:  Good.  Ambitious.  Wanting to scramble up the ladder I ‘spect… eh?

B:  You could say I believe I deserve better.

A:  Well, nothin’s for certain, what with these uncertain times, but you’ve learned the ropes quick – what there is to learn – and you’ve worked hard enough.  I like that…

(He waits)

Quiet.  I like that too.  Any luck and I won’t even notice you’re there.

B:  With any luck I won’t be.

A:  What’s that? Yeah… So… We’ll get you off the floor then, eh?  No more warehouse work.  Promotion.  Start tomorrow, up here in the office, wear a shirt.  What do you say to that?… Eh?

B:  This is too much.

A:  Eh?  Excellent.  See you tomorrow.

It was based on my experience after university, where – having just graduated with an MA in (ridiculous title…) ‘Renaissance and Enlightenment Literature and Thought’, I then went on to fulfil my promise by working in warehouses for a while.

The character of ‘B’ was intended to be a bit arrogant – a young man who considers himself superior.  He’s definitely not keen to climb the ladder at this place.

‘A’, I envisaged as a fat, middle aged warehouse manager… strong regional accent, bit unaware, proud of his position, thinks this is a great place to work.
Now, all that can be conveyed pretty easily with a few words of stage direction (and was, I think, in the original script).  However, strip it away and you’re left with an interesting situation – does it all still come across clearly enough?

Why does that matter?  Your script has the stage directions and descriptions… Well

Who is reading your script?  When you send it out, who is the person that’s sitting down to flick through your pages?  Are they in a rush?  Are they adept at script-reading (an art in itself).  Are they going to pick up on all the little pointers you’ve left – the things that convey X,Y,Z characteristics?

The truth is – they’re just another person, with a pile of other things to do, and they can’t be expected to look into your brain and figure out exactly what you were intending.

My lesson from this experience – even though it may pain you, sometimes there’s nothing wrong (and everything right) with…

SPELLING IT OUT.  CLEARLY.

Particularly in the dialogue.  Stage direction and character descriptions tend to get skipped over (I’m basing this on experience of watching other people read scripts).  If you’ve loaded your ‘action’ bits with stuff that’ll bring up subtext in the dialogue, you might just find that the reader rushes past that, gets to the dialogue and sees  ‘text’… with no ‘sub’.

So, my tip (primarily for me in the future): Put a couple of things into the dialogue that spell out the situation clearly – as you want it to be read.  If you hate the lines you can always take them out at a later date, but in the early stages they might just help you connect with your readers a little bit more – whether they’re actors, script readers, or producers sitting on a big bag of gold.

 

Alex.

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