The varying degrees of “unfilmable” information

I once worked with a writer “Dante” who hated unfilmables beyond reason. He proudly told me the story of a time he was working with a partner who wanted to describe a character as angry. Dante changed the line to “his brow furrows” because a furrowing brow is literally filmable, and he didn’t think angry was. Dante was surprised when I came down on the side of the writing partner, because anger is a universal emotion that you can read in body language, and “brow furrowing” could represent anger, confusion, arousal or anything else. In the pursuit of avoid an unfilmable, Dante made the script harder to follow, not easier.

I generally dislike unfilmables, but I invariably end up debating the nuances of what unfilmables are.

Take this passage from CRATER, which placed 3rd on the 2015 Blacklist.

CALEB O’CONNELL (14), introspective and intelligent, there’s a sadness about him, a heavy weight on his shoulders. Like the other boys we’re about to meet, he’s rough around the edges, blue collar, a miner’s son.

BORNEY(13), undersized, earnest and prone to fits of stressful imagination.

MARCUS is the gentle giant of the group. A big, slow-witted kid with a heart like a mountain. Fiercely loyal. He’s the oldest by almost a year, but you get the sense he’d be lost without the friendship of the three younger boys.

Character introductions start with a major unfilmable: their name. One might be tempted to avoid unfilmables by showing them with nametags, or have every character introduce themselves by name, but please don’t. Beyond that, the information in these intros falls into a few general groupings.

Information that isn’t unfilmable:

  • All three characters are boys. We can see that (or we can infer the heteronormative traits of their cis-gender if you insist on pedantic political correctness).
  • We get the ages of the characters, Caleb is 14, Borney is 13, and if I do the math, Marcus is 15. Age can be deceptive, but its good to know. Occasionally you’ll see a script where a character is 31 but looks 26. I hate these, unless that’s going to be a significant plot point later on.
  • Physical characteristics: Borney is small. Marcus is big. I can see that.

Emotional detail that informs physicality. These are traits that the camera would pick up.

  • Caleb has a sadness about him. I can see that in my mind’s eye. Sadness is a universal emotion that reads the same across language barriers.

Information that becomes more “unfilmable.”

Character traits. Some readers like these more than I do, as they create a pattern of expectation for the character. I tend to hate them, because they don’t read on camera without the use of stereotypes, and I’d rather meet a character behaving smartly than read about a character being described as such.

  • “Introspective and intelligent.” What, does he wear glasses? Introspective conveys certain mannerisms, but I’d consider this tag optional or unnecessary. His actions and dialogue are going to read as introspective, or they won’t.
  • Slow-witted. I can see his struggle to comprehend the world around him.
  • “Earnest.” I feel like there’s a synonym that would be truer to the author’s intent, and wouldn’t rely on our definition of earnest, which will vary from reader to reader.

Backstory I dislike backstory in scripts. I call it “bible shit,” because it reads like an author combined the story bible and the first draft in the same document and then forgot to separate them.

  • Miner’s son. We already know he’s blue collar and “rough around the edges.” If this information is important, we’re going to see him with his miner parent in a couple scenes anyway, so why do we need it here?
  • “You get the sense he’d be lost without the friendship of the younger boys.” is arguable backstory, because it seems to be suggesting that the implication is the truth, which conveys a pattern of behavior in the past that amounts to backstory.

Purple prose. I hate this kind of stuff the most because it tends to be unfilmable, and also lacks the semantic clarity that a simpler description might have.

  • “A heavy weight on his shoulders.” Unless the author literally wants him to slouch, this is optional detail. If you want him to slouch, add (he’s hunched, as if he has…)
  • “Rough around the edges.” As opposed to all those starched, polished, 14 year old boys who are on point in everything they do. This seems like coded language for “blue collar,” which is literally said a word later.
  • “With a heart like a mountain.” Seems to imply “kind” which would be a trait. The writer is probably working to avoid the cliché of “kind-hearted” but I’m not sure if this is better.
  • “prone to fits of stressful imagination.” I don’t know if that means he’s manically creative, prone to daydreaming, or if he worries about nothing, i.e. neurotic. This might also be backstory.

Stray thoughts:

  • “prone to fits of stressful imagination.” Is the least clear to me, and therefore my least favorite.
  • Miner’s son is the most unfilmable of this, and that information is either unnecessary at this point, or will be more dramatically illustrated in action or dialogue later on.
  • When I read for agencies, I love when scripts gave a lot of unfilmables because I can just cut and paste that information in the “character breakdown” section and it makes it easier to skim the script when I get bored.

Obviously, none of these choices hurt the script any. It’s a good script and the writer has a much better career than I do, so more power to him. He also didn’t need to sell his writing as hard as many novice writers do, because he already had the cache of winning the Nicholls and having high powered representation. If anyone has a copy of “Dream Before Waking,” I’d love to take a look a it it.

That said, I hope this provides fodder for discussion of the various degrees of unfilmables, and makes people think about the standards they hold their own scripts to. There are no rules beyond the ones we set up for ourselves, so it’s always good to think about them.

If anyone’s interested, I’m thinking of writing a post about externalizing character traits, which makes a lot of unfilmable information optional or unnecessary by showcasing that trait via behavior, dialogue choices, and the gorgeous immediacy of action.

Five common mistakes that can sour a reader on the first page.

People tend to give performers the benefit of the doubt. When a new speaker takes to the lectern, when a singer approaches the mic on America’s Got Talent, when a dancer begins their first steps, the natural human reaction is to shut up for a moment and see what they’ve got. The same holds in writing. When I read a script, a flutter of hope invariably cuts through my native cynicism. “Gee, I hope this is good.”

You can count on a modicum of good will from the average reader. Unfortunately, beginners tend to write in a way that burns out that good will almost immediately.

I’ve been experimenting with Youtube Live. My show format is simple, it’s just me and a friend reading screenplays line by line and pointing out the things that confuse us. This is both fun and cathartic for me, because it allows me to illustrate common, simple problems that people tend to make, problems that can sour a reader on even the most promising of stories. Here are five common problems that you should strive to avoid.

ONE. Unorthodox formatting

Some people will tell you that a great script could be written in crayon and still get bought. Those people haven’t thought that scenario all the way through. While a script’s greatness is unaffected by the medium used to write it, if it looks like the work of a lunatic, a reader may be prejudiced against seeing it’s greatness. A writer ought to have a solid enough grasp on what looks “right” so that any breaks from expectation look like intentional artistic flourishes, not moments of ignorance.

A few years ago, there was a version of Celtx were the font looked slightly off. I always winced when I had to read these scripts because I had been burned by experience. There was nothing that precluded a script written in that format from being great, but experience had taught me that scripts with that font were less likely to be any good.

TWO. Egregious spelling/grammar mistakes

I’m really guilty of this one. People tend to be much better at spotting the mistakes of others than their own, as we tend to judge others by what we see from them and ourselves by our intention. I’m actually way more forgiving of spelling mistakes than a lot of people because I’ve spent a lot of time reading the works of writers who are too established to give a shit about the little stuff. Still, try to keep the first ten pages free of mistakes, especially if you lack any other cache. Once the reader is hooked on the story, you can get away with a lot more.

I’m almost positive that I’ve made at least one glaring typo/usage mistake in this very article. It’s a bad look, isn’t it?

THREE. Introducing characters with unfilmables

Unfilmables are bits of scene description that convey information that couldn’t possibly be conveyed without dialogue. The camera can show me someone’s age, race, and physical attributes. It can’t show me that they’re the oldest of sixteen children, that they have just stopped believing in God, or that the young woman with them is their step-sister.

Bad scripts introduce characters like this: JANE (30) enters. She’s the foreman of the company, but she’s off duty today. She’s a snarky, aggressive spitfire who always quotes Raymond Chandler. Today is her birthday. All the camera sees is a woman entering. Everything else will have to be externalized via behavior, well chosen shots, or dialogue.

FOUR. Needless choreography

Choreography is a term I use to mean unnecessary description of common actions. If someone is lying on the couch eating chips, my brain can fill in the blanks. If the script spends a quarter of a page describing exactly how they’re positioned, how they bring the chip to their mouth, there had better be a really good payoff for that information and soon, otherwise I’ll feel like the script has punished me for paying attention and I’ll be tempted to start skimming.

FIVE. Vocabulary and Jargon that requires Wikipedia

When I read a script, it’s like I’ve Quantum Leaped into a new scenario. Some people might catch that reference, and know that I’m refering to a Scott Bakula sci-fi show about a guy who keeps jumping into different people’s bodies in different time periods. Other people won’t, and they’ll be shut out by that analogy unless I go out of my way to explain it.

This is a roundabout way of illustrating that people need context on the openings of scripts. When I start reading, I’m trying to create a working understanding, a who/what/where. I want to be let into an imaginary world, not shut out. If a first page is laden with SAT vocab words, neologisms, or things I can’t picture, I’m probably going to go to Google to look it up. That puts my attention outside your story, where you don’t want it to be.

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All these mistakes are easier to avoid by empathizing with the reader. Often we get so eager to tell our stories that we forget someone has to read the damn things. By considering the point of view of other people, it’s becomes easier to avoid these common pitfalls, and more rewarding to make our scripts reader friendly.