Micromanaging your screenplay comes from inexperience and fear…
January 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
Many beginning screenwriters work so hard at keeping a tight grip on every line of dialogue and action that it results in micromanaging at the highest level. It comes from inexperience and the fear that actors, the producer or director will not understand the scene or the dialogue properly so the screenwriter feels the need to overwrite and hammer the ideas home. The writer doesn’t trust his or her writing and this insecurity sucks the air out of the script. It’s obvious the writer is directing from the page and that’s not our job. We should stay the hell out of the way of the characters and story. When reading a really amazing screenplay, it’s like you don’t notice that someone actually wrote the script. The same goes for a really believable acting performance. The acting appears effortless because it’s not obvious and looks easy. One of the hardest abilities to master as a screenwriter is to stay out of the way and not handle every line or action with a stranglehold as you still need to put your unique imprint on the script.
I recently read a screenplay where the writer described every bit of action between most lines of dialogue and also added emotional descriptions to help give the dialogue a “line reading” for the actor or script reader. This will result in an overwritten screenplay, but also one that showcases the writer’s inexperience and insecurity. If your character must exit or enter the scene of course you need to describe that action, but not the excruciating details that include: “rolls eyes, shrugs shoulders, grits teeth, blushes, folds arms, blinks, breathes heavily, smiles, and even stands “up.” Are you laughing because you’re guilty of this? Trust me, actors do not enjoy reading this heavy-handed writing and it’s a bit insulting to their craft. It’s the writer directing from the page on how to play the scene if a character is upset: “Jack walks to the window, looks out, inhales deeply, thinks for a beat and folds his arms as he’s upset with Harold’s unexpected news.” This is not screenwriting.
Trust me, the actors will find the right emotional business that will come out of the scene and the dialogue—and what is not written. The subtext beneath and between the lines is the actor’s playground and allows them the myriad of actions the character takes based upon their motivations and emotional state at the moment. You set the scene and let the other artists elevate your material to a higher level. I’ve been the recipient of this when an Academy Award nominee co-starred in one of my films. He added some improvised lines to a scene and it became the biggest laugh in the movie. I still get people asking me if I wrote that line of dialogue and I reply that it was not me, but his improvised line.
I’ve been lucky to work around Academy Award and Emmy nominated actors who have starred in some of the films that I’ve written and I’ve learned so much watching them on the set. If you give them a well-written scene they will elevate it and add more than you’d expect. Imagine telling your Academy Award nominee or winner that he or she needs to “blush” on cue when saying a line of dialogue. It’s like you’re training a dog to sit on command. Avoid this because it does not give you the image of a professional screenwriter, but a nervous and inexperienced aspirant.
I’m reminded of a famous Spencer Tracy acting story from director Stanley Kramer. He tells of directing Tracy in the classic comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Tracy did not like heavy-handed direction and only wanted Kramer to tell him where he was needed at the end of the scene. Kramer told Tracy the scene ended with him at the door of the office. The camera rolled and Tracy started off behind his desk and said his dialogue as he made his way around the office toward the door. He paused at points along the way and created every action himself as part of his “business” in character. He didn’t need a screenwriter telling him to pause next to the chair, glance out the window, look at his hat, consider his wife, or scratch his nose.
In my experience, the micromanaging can come in the production draft when the producer or director needs you to really punch things up and the specific details are necessary for them to actually make the film. I once worked with a producer who wanted me (in my opinion) to overwrite and micromanage the script, but there was a good reason, he was not going to be on location in another country so he really wanted to make that important details not be overlooked during the fast production schedule.
So, I had to adapt my screenwriting style to facilitate the job, but it was in a protected bubble of development so it’s okay. The script was not a spec out there representing me and my ability. It was a green-lit film and I was now part of a team and my job was whatever it took to help get the film produced. When you write specs you want to put your best image forward and your screenplay represents your talents if you are an unknown entity without credits. You can break all rules after your screenplay is purchased. That is why I tell writers to be careful when reading the “Oscar nominated” scripts, as they are written in a protected bubble and have been through the development process. By the time you read the script it’s the final production draft or the scripts were written by the directors, so all bets are off because they can do whatever they need to create a working blueprint to shoot the movie. Nothing is left to chance.
When you’re starting out writing your specs, avoid having a white knuckle grip on the scenes, every line of dialogue or too much description where you tell us rather than show us. Don’t tell an actor to “blink” as an emotion, not unless it’s some type of secret code system worked out between characters and two blinks means danger. You have to find more effective ways of screenwriting to get your point across without micromanaging the work.
Keep writing and learning because if you stop you are guaranteed never to have any shot at success.
Scriptcat (Mark Sanderson) out!
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“Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly. Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal. You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.”—Robert McKee, “Story”
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”—Stephen King
“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of a writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have. It is learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and utter lack of sentimentality.”—Alexander MacKendrick, The Lady Killers, Sweet Smell of Success.
“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.”—Ernest Hemingway
Your first draft is dangerously important. Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve already gone in another direction. The longer you can hold off putting a word down on paper, the better you are. ” Rewriting is largely cleaning up things that aren’t clear to you, or trying to shorten a scene that’s too long, or realizing now that you’ve written scenes at the end of the story, maybe the scenes at the beginning should be a little different to help set up a scene that comes at the end.“—Ernest Lehman, Screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?