Not on the screen? Not on the page!

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

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

8 thoughts on “Not on the screen? Not on the page!”

  1. It’s interesting to me how hierarchy works in screenwriting. It’s okay to mess around with the imposed rules for putting the script on the page if you are well-known and make money for the industry. Their scripts don’t end up on some enormous pile waiting for a student reader to get past the title page. And it’s that real old school, good old boys feel that I find myself wanting to rebel against and yet if I want to get a foot in I have to play by those rules. Yep, that’s the way it is.

    I think different rules apply to different people and situations, indie or big business, but it is good to know those rules and to focus on the action, and what’s on screen in the script. I also believe, however, that getting that deeper character information shown on screen needs different treatment and allowances that we should all be privy to.

  2. i believe every example you have given is on screen anyway. they are character descriptions which are concise and expressive and help “paint the picture”. this is very different to saying “John enters the room even though in his mind he know he shouldn’t” – this is definitely not going to be visible on screen – but the character descriptions in the example you have provided are actually quite visual – they help the reader hone their imagination in on how the characters looks, not what they are thinking.

    but on the other hand if you make your character descriptions very specific then you may find it hard to attach a name actor to your script that doesn’t fit the description. it’s perfectly acceptable if you are writing for someone specific. but a no-no if you are trying to keep the possibilities broad.

  3. I disagree with this article. The majority of professional writers break this rule… It’s part of making it a “good read” you just don’t break it every page. The first audience you have is a “script reader” or a producer. So you need to write it for them. Scripts that don’t break this rule are bland reads

    • I don’t think the majority of professional writers do break this rule, and I poured over a lot of scripts to find (unsuccessfully) examples of the breaking. But I think you might be onto something. I am sure there is a way to make scripts more entertaining and readable by gently breaking the “on the screen/on the page rule”.

      If you write “Jack knows Jill wants to kill him” then I think I know exactly how the “Jack” and “Jill” actors would play this, even though Jack and Jill’s intentions are (apparently) unknowable. You should develop this idea, Brendan, but also look at scripts that adhere to this rule that are great reads.

  4. I think Brendan is very close to the truth. “you just don’t break it every page” and “The first audience you have is a script reader”.

    All the above examples are effectively character introductions. I believe this proves the point that not only are you allowed to break the principle of ‘don’t write what’s invisible’ but – as Brendan rightly puts – ‘Scripts that don’t break this rule are bland reads’.

    Every great (main) character introduction cheats a little bit.

    My question: are there other areas in the script where we consistently find this rule broken?

    I can’t think of any.

    • Lately, I have been strictly following this rule, e.g. facial expression can be described but not the working of interior of the head, appearance should be described but the character’s bio and the reasons he/she feels a certain way is not given. Looking at Jack’s examples, it does look like even the senior pros ONLY break the rule in character INTROS. No actor guidance afterwards. Thus in reviewing a script aren’t we still correct in objecting to ‘interior of the head’ descriptions that appear later? – and where the visual description is not enough to make it clear to reader as to exactly what happens on screen, eg she threatens to jump off the cliff means only that but if the writer intends for the jump to be seen it must be written in.

  5. I often make this mistake during first drafts when its about getting something on the page and i just write stream of conscioussness. It happens, as i imagine it would for others who partake in other forms of writing – novels, poetry, prose – that a lot of the work goes into this colorful unseen aka ‘the psychology’ of the character and the world.

    Of course many of these wanderings are reigned in during rewrites and yet some are hard to let go of. Since reading Goldman who once began one book ‘screenwriting in hollywood’ i think, with the very clear statement, ‘there are no real rules to screenwriting’ i have never had qualms about including a few rule-breakers like these being discussed.

    The example by Sorkins rule-breaking provided by Jack ‘the master’ Brislee in his article illustrate perfectly these psychological aspects of a character, sometimes ‘historical’, that i try to include. I find they speak more to the actor and the director than the student reader or studio exec, because they add a dimension you can never get from a ‘mr x likes blue sneakers and wears a permanent smile on his face’. And i figure, hey, if studio heads are into expecting, nay allowing, these rules to be constantly broken by Goldman and Sorkin and whoever else we deem legendary enough to get away with such rule-breaking then the art has already evolved but as usual, the education system in place to perpetuate the art has stagnated.

    There’s nothing wrong with feeling confident enough to get away with the occassional piece of psychological/historical wordplay if its going to enhance the emotional comprehension of the character. I’d rather have my script full of broken rules dumped on the pile of scripts by goldman and sorkin for consideration than the other pile by writers who write like they’ve just stepped out of ‘scriptwriting by correspondence’, obviously too afraid to cross the occassional line, bend the occassional rule, or do something totally original and inspiring because the text book said you shouldn’t.

    As a side note, revisit Dead Poets Society’ – RIP, SHRED, TEAR, RIP IT OUT, GET RID OF THE INTRODUCTION and so on and so forth.

    I would love to get feedback on true story adaptations (as against a fictional book adaptation) for screen. Sometimes a writer gets approached to adapt a true story. If the true story does not conform to the hero’s journey structure but is well known to the public at large, then the writer must either be true to the true story or true to structure. The latter choice may involve risk of libel lawsuits and criticism of how facts have been twisted but the former involves loss of box office revenue & libel anyway. Adaptations of fictional books are easier (eg Slum Dog Millionaire) because the book is fiction to start with and may not even be popular (as Slum Dog published as Q&A wasn’t a bestseller before the movie made it famous).
    How have other writers danced around this little minefield?


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