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.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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