Meet the Reader: A Few Things We’d Really Like You to Stop Doing

by Ray Morton

I was talking with some fellow script analysts recently and the conversation, as it often does when readers assemble, turned to those things that spec script writers do in their screenplays that sometimes make us a little nuts. These bugaboos tend to come in waves – certain problems that haven’t necessarily been an issue before will suddenly start popping up more and more until it seems that they are in the majority of scripts one reads before until they eventually fade and are replaced by the next wave of head scratchers. With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the things that are currently vexing many of us readers:

1. Extended backstories.

This one is an issue in approximately 75% of the specs I read these days. Its ubiquity leads me to believe that some big script guru out there has been urging writers to do this thing and so everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.

writer mistakesThis thing is to incorporate a really long backstory into a script – either as a prologue or a flashback – that details either the biography of the protagonist or a history of the story’s central dramatic situation. These past-tense segments tend to go on and on and are usually mostly irrelevant. I recently read a script that devoted twenty-three of its ninety pages to a prologue that detailed every moment of its protagonist’s life from birth until the start of the primary story. The problem – apart from the fact that this epic length run up kept the main story from getting underway for what seemed like forever and because it was all expositional with no drama or forward momentum and thus really boring – was that there was only one beat in all of those twenty-three pages that was relevant to the main storyline. So, with the exception of that one beat (which could have been delivered in a simple line of dialogue in the body of the main story) the rest of this material – approximately a quarter of the entire screenplay — was pointless.

Like every other element in a properly conceived and constructed screenplay, backstory should be used sparingly – only elements from the past that are absolutely vital to the primary narrative should be incorporated into a script, and it should only be incorporated via backstory if there is no absolutely better, more efficient, and less distracting way of working that information into the narrative. If you find that you cannot tell your primary tale without spending page after page in the past, then you have probably begun your story too late. If that is the case, then you give serious thought to backing up and starting your narrative at an earlier point in time — in other words, make the back story your main story (since apparently it already is).

2. Spelling the words in accented dialogue phonetically.

A lot of spec writers love to do this – if, for example, a character with a French accent is meant to say “Hello, may I see the menu please,” the writer will type “Allo, may ah zee za menu plis?”

If these lines appeared in a comedy script, then the writer might be able to get away with it. Might. Unfortunately, most of the phonetically spelled dialogue I encounter is in “serious” scripts, which is a problem because such an approach is always (unintentionally) comedic. And I am choosing a relatively innocuous example when I cite French-accented speech, because the majority of dialogue that I read that is spelled out in this fashion is intended for (stereotypical)African American – e.g. “It sho iz a fine day, innit miz?” (“It sure is a fine day, isn’t it miss?”) — or Latino characters — “Jew wanna go to dee sto?” (“Do you want to go to the store?”). [Sadly, these are real examples from actual scripts.] It’s hard to imagine that anyone in this day and age could think this sort of thing is okay, but even if the author’s intentions are completely altruistic and benign, there is no way that this sort of thing can ever come across as anything other than horribly, horribly racist.

Dialogue is written for actors and actors are extremely professional people who have a lot of training and know how to do their jobs. If you want a character to speak with a certain regional or national accent, then simply indicate that he or she has the accent and then write out the words you want him or her to say in plain, correctly spelled English. The actor will do it well and you will save yourself a lot of embarrassment.

3. Having characters tell each other stuff they already know just for our benefit.

JOE

Hey Fred, do you remember that time
we went camping up at Bear Mountain
and found some hidden treasure in a
cave?

FRED

I sure do, Joe. And I also remember how
we sold it for a lot of money and then
bought two high powered Ferraris with the
proceeds.

JOE

Wasn’t that great. I’m still sorry that
I got into an accident and wrecked mine.

FRED

Well, that wasn’t as bad as me forgetting
to pay taxes on mine and having it taken
by the IRS.

Writers write dialogue like this because they are looking for an economical way to deliver exposition, but it never works because it never sounds real (if these two characters actually existed, they would never have a conversation like this because they would already know all of this information). If you need to deliver exposition, find a way that is less awkward and ham-fisted, even if it is less economical.

4. The inappropriate crafting and use of slugs.

Scene slugs (a.k.a scene headings) serve a very specific purpose – they are a production management tool designed to identify the location of a scene, whether the scene takes place inside the location or outside of it, and if the scene takes place at night or during the day. This is what a slug should look like:

INT. MALL – DAY

That’s it. Occasionally, if you want to indicate a more specific area within a bigger location, you could extend the slug as follows:

INT. MALL – FOOD COURT – DAY

but that’s all. Slugs are not used to indicate time changes:

EXT. WHITE HOUSE — TEN YEARS LATER – NIGHT

They are not used to advance the narrative:

INT – PETE’S CAR – DRIVING ON I-95 – FAVORING PETE AS HE SPEEDS FROM HIS PARENTS’ HOUSE IN STAMFORD WHERE HE HAS BEEN LIVING SINCE HE WAS KICKED OUT OF HARVARD TO BECKY’S APARTMENT IN NEW YORK CITY WHERE HE INTENDS TO ASK HER TO MARRY HIM – DAY

They are not used to indicate shots:

EXT. AERIAL SHOT – DAY

(Is Aerial Shot a place? Can I find it on a map?)

And they must be clear. Not

INT. CHRISTMAS TREE – DAY

I think the author of this slug meant to indicate that the scene took place in a room with a Christmas tree in it, not inside the Christmas tree itself, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.

5. I’m going to let my good friend, the great Maureen Green, explain the next one:

“My biggest annoyance…is directing actors through parentheticals, creative spelling and punctuation, including ellipses, like:

Joe puts his hat back on. He sits down and cocks his head sarcastically.

JOE

(puts on hat; sarcastically)
Well whaddaya knoooooow?????

Adverbs are another one. I would make a no adverbs rule. And half of them are made up, I swear: “astoundingly,” “conspiringly,” “gloweringly.” My biggest objection is when ellipses are used to indicate dramatic pauses:

MARY

Joe, I don’t know…what to say…I mean…
you’re married!

JOE

But, Mary…I…love…you!

If I could have nickel for every one I strike-through, I could retire.”

Maureen’s point, of course, is that you should not be attempting to craft the actor’s performance for her or him — that is the job of the actor and the director. Your job is to tell the story and to create the dialogue. The actor and the director will figure out how to say that dialogue. (Note: if you do attempt to direct the line delivery through the use of parentheticals, adverbs, and punctuation, the actor and director will more than likely ignore your hints and do it the way they want to anyway, so you might as well not bother.)

6. Misuse of the word “lifeless.”

I see this one all the time (recently in three scripts that I read back to back in a single day). Lifeless means exactly what it says: without life. No life. In other words: dead. However, many screenwriters use it when what they really mean is “very still.” For example:

Cheryl is thrown from the car and lands on the pavement. Crawling from the wreckage, Pete hesitantly approaches her lifeless body. She slowly opens her eyes and sits up.

So, is Cheryl a zombie or was she just knocked out by the accident? If you mean the latter (as the author clearly did), then the correct way to write is:

Cheryl is thrown from the car and lands on the pavement. Crawling from the wreckage, Pete hesitantly approaches Cheryl’s body, which lies very still upon the ground. She slowly opens her eyes and sits up.

If you want to use “lifeless,” then

Vito shoots Vinnie in head. Vinnie falls to the ground, lifeless.

is the correct way to use “lifeless.”

7. This is an oldie but a goody, but when you want to abbreviate “you are,” the word is “you’re” not “your.”

So there you go – a few things not to do if you want to avoid irritating your readers (and believe me, you don’t want to irritate your readers, since we are your gateway to the industry). But, more importantly, these are things not to do if you want to craft better, more effective screenplays. Good luck and happy writing!

Thanks to Maureen Green for her input into this piece.

Shameless Plug: Check out my new book — A Quick Guide to Screenwriting. It’s a quick, easy-to-read primer on the nuts and bolts of the craft that will provide you with a simple, understandable introduction to the core concepts of dramatic writing and their application to the screenwriting process; a summary of the important principles of writing for the screen, and some handy advice about the art, the craft, and the business of creating scripts for the movies. The book is published by Limelight Editions and is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com and in bookstores.

Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
All Rights Reserved
No portion of this article may be copied, reprinted, or reposted without the permission of the author
However, feel free to link to this piece to your heart’s content

Related Articles:

Tools to Help:

4 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: A Few Things We’d Really Like You to Stop Doing

  1. NealWiser

    Love the post. Got a questions re, Dialogue. I get your point about not directing actors, but what about “local” accents. For example, a Bronx or Philly accent can be a very distinct character trait. Writing it in standard English would read as very on the nose and not capture their voice.

    Also, what about things like saying “gonna” for “going to” or “noth’n” (did I spell that right?) for “nothing?” I see these all the time.

    Finally, re ellipsis… I know they’re often over/misused… but can’t they be used to convey speech patterns or emotion in order to avoid parentheticals?

    Looking forward to the feedback.

    1. Ray MortonRay Morton Post author

      Hi Neal,

      If you want a character to speak with a specific local accent, it is best to indicate that the character speaks with that accent and then write the words out plainly. If you write it out phonetically, it will read as either comedic or condescending. Trust me, it NEVER looks good on the page. Never. And actors and directors hate it when you do this. Certainly you can use slang and specific idiosyncratic phrases and that will help get across the local flavor. But avoid phonetics at all costs. “Gonna” and “Noth’n” and the like are okay in VERY small doses, but don’t overdo it for all of the reasons mentioned above. And the same goes for ellipses — if you absolutely need them, use them, but otherwise really try to avoid them. You have to let the actor and the director do their jobs. If the story, character, and dialogue are right, they will do it the way you hope (or better). If not, all the gimmicks in the world aren’t going to help.

  2. MSteele

    Thanks Ray for sharing your POV to help screenwriters understand the reader’s perspective. As someone who has read hundreds if not thousands of spec scripts over the years, I’m with you for many of your points. And it’s great that you are trying to get writer’s to consider the reader more. Total agreement that a common pet peeve is when the writer tells us explicitly that the character is dead then they come back to life (especially where the bad guy or monster is dispatched in that classic faux final resolution where the audience is to think they are dead to set up a final scare beat when they turn out to not be dead), and a good one to point out to writers. However, you may want to double check your definition of “lifeless” as a quick check shows that several dictionaries (online as well as print) indicate that it means ‘dead or appearing to be dead’. And since, the effect that most writers are trying for in that moment is to have the reader believe or assume the character in question is dead, that would appear to fall safely, if not squarely, under the apparently dead part of the definition. So, it would seem that “lifeless” is exactly the right term to use. It might be that sometimes we readers need to be more careful, when we get annoyed by things in scripts, that we aren’t the ones out of line.

COMMENT