‘Unfilmable’ has two distinctly different meanings for screenwriters. On the one side ‘unfilmable'(*) are those works that are impossible to adapt to the screen, Ulysses being an infamous unfilmable. But we’ll talk about something else altogether.
The inexperienced screenwriter, in an attempt to clarify what a scene, a shot, a line really means, will occasionally sneak in information that is not visible on the screen. It’s lazy, it’s confusing and it’s above all unprofessional.
As there are many types of filmables, let’s have a look at some and put them in a few categories.
Thoughts and Feelings
This is arguably one of the most common mistakes in beginners’ screenplays. After all, we want the audience to understand what are character thinks and feels! So the easiest – and worst – thing to do is to just describe it.
Bruce and Betty look at each other.
Betty... You know we should have done this ages ago.
A profound sadness takes possession of Betty. But she doesn’t show it. She is strong.
So if she doesn’t show it, how does the audience know? Find the subtext. Is she biting her lip? Or putting on a weak smile, while clenching her fist behind her back?
Intention or Goal
This is similar to the previous case, only the characters don’t always consciously think about the reason why they’re doing something.
Jack opens the door carefully, mindful not to wake up the sleeping guard.
Either we get it – there’s a guard, and he’s asleep – in which case it doesn’t need to be said. Or we don’t know it, in which case the viewer will still not understand John’s caution unless it is explained VISUALLY.
Because a character’s intention is usually the most important part of a scene’s subtext, it is essential you make this clear on the screen, visibly, filmably!
Past Events and Backstory
The engine dies. Ella steps out of the car. What she doesn’t realize: she has just broken down at the exact spot of her husband’s accident.
In this example, the audience may have seen the accident scene earlier in the movie. If so, you can describe a few easily recognizable details from earlier in the script.
Here’s an other example, which shows this type of cheating can be a lot more subtle – and an inexperienced reader may easily miss it:
Elizabeth and Lily enter the tea-room and head straight for their regular table.
If this is the first tea-room scene in the script, there is no way the audience can tell they are regulars from this description. So you need to clarify it in a different way … if it is really important. Otherwise, just leave it out.
This issue often occurs with the introduction of new characters. To understand the dynamics of a scene, it is important to understand the relationship of a character with the Hero. You can’t just write this in the description:
A loud knock on the door makes Anna jump.
It takes her a moment to recover.
In steps her ex-boyfriend ERIC (22). It’s been years, but he still cares.
Tell me you’re not dating Patrick. He can’t be trusted.
Leave her alone, son!
This scene better be clarified, as the reader gets a lot more info than the audience, who might even assume Eric is Anna’s brother.
It may seem obvious that you can only describe what is visible in the scene and on the screen, yet you’d be surprised how often beginning screenwriters take liberties of this kind:
INT. SUSANNA’S ROOM – DAY
While outside the kids keep drawing stick figures on the driveway tiles, Susanna sits in her room, alone.
Not only is ‘in her room’ superfluous, we can’t see the kids unless you clarify in some way that we can see the kids through the window. Now there’s another challenge as you can’t use ‘we see’…
Exception 1: Character Introductions
Often, even in great screenplays, the character introduction gives you information that is not immediately visible. I am not saying you shouldn’t try to avoid it, but particularly for the Hero it is an easy way to set up the character and give a flavor for the type of actor who could play the Hero.
Here’s the introduction of our Hero BAXTER in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment;
BAXTER is about thirty, serious, hard-working, unobtrusive.
He wears a Brooks Brothers type suit, which he bought
somewhere on Seventh Avenue, upstairs.
Or SANBORN, in The Hurt Locker:
SERGEANT J. T. SANBORN works the joystick on the laptop. He
is a strapping Iowa farm boy, with a thick back from bailing
Exception2: The Disappearing Act
Sometimes you want to describe that something has disappeared from a scene. To make this work, you focus on the item(s) in the previous scene in the same location, then describe how those items are no longer there. The audience will get it.
EXT. THE SMITHS’ DRIVEWAY – DAY
The car is gone.
Or better even:
EXT. THE SMITHS’ HOME – DAY
The driveway is empty.
The bottom line is really simple: read your scene. Re-read it. Is everything you’ve written down VISIBLE or AUDIBLE to the audience?
If not, you will need to cut it or rewrite and clarify in a cinematic way.
You are writing a screenplay, not a novel.
What other acceptable exceptions do you know?
(*)Any idea why some people spell it “unfilmmable”??
If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.
Check this 12p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec screenplay.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.