If it’s not on the screen, it can’t be on the page. While most screenwriting books allude to this rule, Michael Hague probably best expresses it: “Nothing goes on the page that doesn’t go on the screen.
Screenplays are made up of action, description, and dialogue.”
by Jack Brislee
“That’s all. Nothing can be included that can’t be conveyed to an audience…With each scene, ask yourself, ‘How will the audience know what I’ve just told the reader?’ The reader can’t be told anything the audience won’t find out by watching the screen and hearing the sound track.” (Writing Screenplays that Sell. 2007. p 114)
Most professional screenwriters adhere religiously to this rule, but some break it, often with excellent results.
Here is William Goldman introducing one of his most famous characters.
“He is Butch Cassidy and hard to pin down. Thirty-five and bright, he has brown hair, but most people, if asked to describe him, would remember him blond. He speaks well and quickly, and has been all his life a leader of men; but if you asked him, he would be damned if he could tell you why.”
His age and his manner of speech can be conveyed to the screen, but people remembering him as blond and Butch not knowing why he is a leader of men? Surely that should not be on the page? Yet it is, and it just about perfectly describes the character we come to know so well in the film.
Aaron Sorkin is a serial breaker of this rule. Here he is introducing Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) in “A Few Good Men”.
“…She’s bright, attractive, impulsive, and has a tendency to speak quickly. If she had any friends, they’d call her Jo.”
We can’t see anything described in the last sentence, but it captures Joanne perfectly.
Here is his description of Lt Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise).
“Kaffee’s in his late 20’s, 15 months out of Harvard Law School, and a brilliant legal mind waiting for a courageous spirit to drive it”.
We can’t see that he is 15 months out of law school and we certainly can’t see his mind, but this description works well. We know that a lawyer one month out of law school is very different to one ten years out of law school, and the 15 months gives us a pretty good peg on which to hang his character. As for his mind waiting for something to drive it, this is probably the essence of his character.
Sorkin’s introduction of Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) also breaks the rule.
“Jessep’s a born leader, considered in many circles to be one of the fair-haired boys of the Corps”.
A great description, but we don’t see the “many circles”.
Flash forward eighteen years and here is Sorkin again breaking the rule, this time in “The Social Network”. He describes Mark Zuckerberg as
“a sweet looking 19 year old whose lack of any physically intimidating attributes masks a very complicated and dangerous anger”.
He even uses the word “masks”. This definitely cannot be seen on the screen.
Sorkin tells us something that we won’t see until later when describing Erica: “Erica, also 19, is Mark’s date…. At this point in the conversation she already knows that she’d rather not be there and her politeness is about to be tested”.
In introducing the Winklevoss twins who are rowing on the Charles River he tells us what is in their minds:
“They know the others aren’t in their class and even though they’re highly competitive athletes, they don’t like showing any one up, least of all their team mates.”
Once again, the rule is broken, but the indiscretion results in a screenplay that lets the actor, director and reader really see and understand the character.
I trawled through fifty screenplays looking for other examples of the breaking of this rule, and could not find any. So perhaps the rule should be, “If it’s not on the screen, it’s not on the page, unless you are a Goldman or Sorkin in which case you can do what you damn well like”.
For the rest of you, unless you are very confident that breaking the rule will enhance your script, don’t try this at home.
– Jack Brislee
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.