Breaking In: Writing Between the Lines

Spencer Tracy in Boys Town; Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved

A screenplay is really three different things. First, it’s a blueprint for making a movie: a set of instructions to the director, actors, cinematographer, casting director, set designer, etc., for how the movie should sound and look. Second, it’s a reading experience for the reader, who presumably will play a role, large or small, in deciding whether the screenplay ever sees the light of day. The writer’s style, format, pacing, and other factors determine whether the script is what we in the business call “a good read.” Writing style will never really be seen in the final product: the movie made from the script. But style is an important factor in whether those who read the script and make buying decisions enjoy it.

Third, a screenplay is a story told in dramatic form, plus something almost indefinable found in the “white space” on the page, and will either “play well,” or not, on the screen. It is what goes on in this “white space” that is the subject of today’s column.

There is a certain, mysterious “something” that some scripts have, which makes them much more than the sum of their parts. On paper, they may not look like much, but magic happens when they are made into movies. It’s part of a reader’s job to be able to spot scripts like this, and to understand that some screenplays that don’t look like much on paper are actually huge opportunities for actors and directors to bring something extra to them that will result in magic on a movie screen. Some readers may mistakenly dismiss a story as not having “much there,” when actually it’s all there — in the script’s structure, but also in the white space on the page and the opportunities it presents for those making any movie based on it.

Great screenplays are not densely packed with information, dialogue, or unnecessary details. Instead, they use precisely chosen, evocative words in small doses, and give actors, directors, designers, and crew room to do their work and make their own contribution to the final product: a movie.

Many of the old classic film stars — Spencer Tracy and Ronald Colman, for example — were masters at “thinking” on the screen. In films like Tracy’s Boys Town (1938) or Colman’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935), the screenwriters created a context in which the actor could do his job. In other words, they let the actor act. There was breathing room in the script. The directors of those films were smart enough to know this: that if you’ve got a good script and a screen actor of Tracy’s or Colman’s caliber in your movie, you can focus your camera on his face, and just leave it there for five, 10, even 15 seconds or more. And we’ll be fascinated, watching the wheels turn in the actor’s mind while the seconds tick by, without a single line of dialogue. And we will know exactly what the actor is thinking, which moves the plot forward.

But this never works unless the writer has first set up the context and characters so clearly that a good actor can convey what he’s thinking without, in some cases, having to speak any dialogue. And if you don’t believe that it’s possible to provide a great context in which a really good actor can “act his thoughts” in the clearest possible way, without speaking a word, watch Spencer Tracy’s face near the start of Boys Town — right after he (as Father Flanagan) counsels a Death Row prisoner who is moments away from being taken to the chair. After hearing the prisoner’s heart-wrenching lament that he could have been steered to a better path and saved, if only someone had cared enough to intervene and help him back when he was a troubled kid, Tracy/Flanagan gets the idea to create Boys Town. Without a single word said aloud, we can “hear” every one of Father Flanagan’s thoughts as he forms the germ of his idea to create a place where troubled boys can go, so that they can be saved before it’s too late.

Or study the long, dialogue-free camera shots in A Tale of Two Cities, when Colman (as Sydney Carton), a lawyer with a drinking problem and a secret unrequited love for Lucie Manette, who is in love with another man, steals shy, longing, hopeless glances at her in church. Take a look at the scene right after that one, in which Carton declines Lucie’s offer to come in from the cold and attend her Christmas Eve celebration, instead standing outside her home, alone, thinking, in the falling snow. He wonders if he dare hope that her offer of friendship might become more than that. Could he straighten himself out, stop drinking, and win her love? But then we can see in that beautiful Colman face Carton’s emotional pain and every regret, every self-recrimination. We know what he’s thinking: That he longs for Lucie, and for the home and children that he knows he will never have with her. All he loves in this world is inside that house, and here he is standing outside, inebriated, alone — forever an outsider, who is not good enough for her. Christmas carolers stroll by, singing. He yearns for the life he might have had, if only he’d been a better man, and had the courage to tell Lucie how he feels about her. Of course, we know that Carton is a much better man than he thinks he is, and soon will have an opportunity to prove it (as well as his love for Lucie), at the cost of his life.

How do you write a movie like that, in which silences can communicate so much? Your job is to learn your craft — especially story structure. You need to write a script that works on all three levels: as a blueprint for a movie, as a reading experience, and as dramatic storytelling. And you need to remember to give your actors room to act.

But what if a lousy actor ends up in my movie?, you ask. After all, Tracy and Colman are dead. The film actors today can’t fill their shoes. Not your problem. Write a movie for great actors and give them all the tools they need to do their job: superb story structure, great dialogue, great action, and revealing behavior, and great “white space” on the page.

One other thing bears mentioning. The vast majority of scripts I read which require us to “read a character’s mind,” don’t provide enough context (in what will be seen and heard on the screen, rather than in words of explanation directed solely at the reader) for us to accurately guess what the character is thinking. Most of the time in cases like that, my script notes to the writer say something like, “The film audience can’t read minds and won’t know what he is thinking here. An actor can’t convey this thought simply by using a certain facial expression. Give us more context or dialogue.” Conflicting feelings are particularly difficult for actors to convey using facial expressions alone. You need to be very cautious about expecting any actor — even a great one — to be able to convey complex thoughts, ideas, or reactions without dialogue.

But with those caveats, it is a highly desirable thing to put scenes in your script in which a lot of the acting is done “between the lines.” In fact, I would argue that many of the greatest movie moments ever written are ones in which the actor brings something special and unique to the role that only he could provide, which don’t require any dialogue, and which may or may not be spelled out in the screenplay. Just make sure that you provide enough context so that everything will be perfectly clear to the film audience, who won’t have to work very hard to figure out what the character is thinking, and that your script gives the actor and director a chance to do their jobs.

Keep pitching. See you next month!

8 thoughts on “Breaking In: Writing Between the Lines

  1. Pingback: Best o/t Web 30 Oct | The Story Department

  2. Justin

    I am a bit lost here. Not much, but perhaps a bit. Is it unnecessary to describe the character’s actions/reactions to situations? Rather leave it to interpretation by the actions conveyed through dialogue? in ether wards:
    The man regretted slapping the women the moment his hand
    left her face.
    MAN
    I shouldn’t have-. I’m sorry

    So basically, The Dialogue would be written without the Action above it?

  3. Laura M

    This article comes at a perfect time. I had not heard the term “white space,” but it makes perfect sense. It is what I was trying to create without knowing it. Now that you have spelled it out, I can more consciously work on “white space.” I especially enjoyed learning about how the context of the story and how well it is shown is a crucial building block for the effectiveness of the white space. Thank you!

  4. Shirley Ann Shelden

    I like this article. It reinforces every thing I have been told about whie space. As I do my rewrites I will ask my self am I am saying too much or not enough.

  5. Iseult Healy

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. I had always known somehow that it wasn’t always about what was on the page. There was that indefinable element. And your article defined and expressed that beautifully.

    The LIFE of the story had to be found somewhere and thanks to your article I can see how to ‘put the actor’ on the page.

    Thank you very much.

  6. Pingback: Breaking In: Writing Between the Lines | writewhatyoudontknow

  7. Rick Meyer

    What a wonderful article. Spencer Tracy, arguably the greatest film actor who ever lived, and who starred in so many wonderful films, was better at utilizing the white space than any other. He was magnificent in The Old Man and the Sea which had a huge anount of white space for him to utilize. Ernest Hemingway once supposedly wrote a short story which maximizes white space: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

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