Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
When aspiring screenwriters send me scripts to assess, they often send along additional explanatory material: a synopsis of the script’s story; lengthy written backstories for the narrative, characters, settings, and situations; research material providing justification or exposition for the story’s premise, setting, or plot development; a statement of intent laying out the themes or ideas the author hopes to convey in the piece and the emotional response he/she hopes it will provoke in the audience; illustrations showing what the author feels the characters and or settings in the story should look like; and so on.
I read none of this material.
I don’t even look at the genre designation (romantic comedy, period drama, thriller, action, sci-fi, etc.) a screenwriter gives her or his screenplay.
Movies are self-contained entities. Their stories unfold continuously from beginning to end without breaks or pauses. Viewers are meant to watch films with their attention focused completely on the screen. They do not have the time nor should they be expected to stop watching the movie while it is unfolding to consult any supplemental material. Nor should they be expected to do any pre-screening prep or post-viewing homework in order to comprehend what is happening on screen. Everything they need to know should be up there already. (When Interstellar came out a few years back, the many viewers who found the narrative confusing were advised to consult a particular book about quantum physics which, it was claimed, would make everything clear. This was a well-meaning but absurd suggestion – why should the audience have to put effort into clarifying what the filmmakers couldn’t or wouldn’t?)
Because movies are self-contained, screenplays must be as well. Therefore, all relevant explanatory material must be contained in the body of the script.
- The story must make sense scene-to-scene as the narrative unfolds. The reader should not have to consult a synopsis in order to follow the plot.
- Backstories and exposition must be incorporated into the narrative. However, these elements cannot just be typed straightforwardly into the descriptive passages as they might be in a novel or non-fiction book. (E.g. TIFFANY  was born in Georgia and raised in Los Angeles. She entered her first rehab at 16 and has been in and out of seven different programs since then. Tiffany married a pro football player on a whim in Las Vegas when she was 19 and is now thinking about enrolling in nursing school]. In a screenplay, all exposition must be dramatized using a combination of action, imagery, and dialogue (although ideally not too much dialogue).
- Themes and ideas must be suggested to the reader by the characters, situations, events, dialogue, and structure in the narrative, not laid out in an external statement.
- The characters, conflicts, situations, and dialogue in a script will provoke emotional responses in readers and viewers. Hopefully these will be the responses the writer wishes the audience to have, but if they aren’t then having the author explain what reaction he/she hoped you’d have won’t change anything.
- Illustrations are a complete waste of time. When evaluating a screenplay, all that matters to the reader is if she/he cares about the characters – if she/he likes them, finds them interesting, and becomes emotionally invested in their plights. When it comes to settings, all that matters is if what happens in those settings is interesting and dramatic. What the author thinks the characters, costumes, and sets should look like is irrelevant. Look only becomes important when the film is made, at which point the director and designers will determine how the people and places will appear and they won’t care a whit about what the writer originally had in mind.
- A script is considered part of a particular genre only when its story employs narrative conventions specific to that genre, when its content is appropriate to that genre, and if it fulfills the expectations audiences have for films in that category. So, when called upon to identify an individual script’s genre, I ignore what the writer says and let the script itself tell me what it is. Besides, aspiring screenwriters are notoriously bad assessors of their own scripts’ genres. I cannot tell you how many author-identified romantic comedy scripts I receive that contain neither romance nor comedy (hint; if your script includes a bloody decapitation, it’s not a romcom); how many purported action scripts feature two guys sitting around in one location having long conversations; how many supposed “family” movies contain graphic rape and murder sequences; and so on. Up-and-comers are also notorious for trying to enhance their script’s commercial prospects by over-identifying their scripts genre designations to include any and all categories they think potential buyers will find commercial (“My script is an action/adventure/slapstick/romcom/sci-fi/fantasy/thriller/biopic/musical”).
Because of all these factors, when I assess a screenplay, the only material I pay attention to is the script itself. It is the only thing that counts. So, instead of wasting time and energy preparing explanatory material, pour all of your energy and effort into the screenplay – make sure that the story makes sense, that the piece explains itself completely, and that the finished product generates the responses you want it to generate.
Give Your Screenplays to Someone You Trust…
The best way to do this is to give the script to people whose taste and judgment you trust. After they have read it, ask them to describe the characters and setting and summarize the story for you. Next ask them questions about the backstories and exposition and then ask them to tell you what themes and ideas the script suggested to them and what emotional responses the piece provoked in them. If your readers’ answers line up with your intentions – awesome. If not keep, then keep reworking the script until they match.
If you do this, then you will not need to write any explanatory material because your screenplay will speak for itself. As it should.
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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