Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
There are no absolutes in screenwriting. If I tell you to keep your drama to 110 pages or less you’ll tell me The Social Network was 162 pages and won three Oscars. If I tell you to never write CUT TO you’ll remind me the Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid script written by Oscar-winner William Goldman has no sluglines and that he used CUT TO indicate each new scene. If I tell you to not write camera angles, you’ll remind me of the dozens of scripts where camera direction is specified. Never mind that many of those scripts have director involvement or are already funded shooting scripts. You would think this is kindergarten stuff. Even freshmen at Columbia know enough not to tell the director how to direct by writing in camera angles but hey, you saw it in the Leprechaun script, so it must be OK!
As he lays there, breathing heavily... then we begin to HEAR STRANGE "IRISH MUSIC" coming from the crate. Then his MOTHER'S VOICE begins to sing the Irish song "Danny Boy" in the most beautiful voice we've ever heard...
Now we CRANE BACK... and...
SMASH CUT TO:
TIGHT ON A CAR'S TAPE DECK
that is playing the song that brings back memories of a summer in the seventies.
This is why my hating on parentheticals is pointless. It’s a stylistic issue and yeah, parentheticals litter a lot of scripts. Just think about this though…
When you write a parenthetical, you’re telling the actor how to act. You’re giving a line reading. Only the worst directors give line readings. And make no mistake; you ain’t the director (unless you actually are)—you’re the writer! It’s not your job!
Do you really believe an actor is going to remember that at the bottom of page 66 you want them to smile when delivering the line “Please, pass the poi?” They won’t remember because it doesn’t matter how the writer wants them to say the line. It might matter if the director asks them to say it that way, but do you think Scorsese spends much time giving line readings? This isn’t High School drama class.
You don’t write in parentheticals for another good reason. You’re taxing the reader’s eye for no reason. You want the script to be a clean read. That means including only what’s necessary to make the reader see the movie. 9.5 times out of 10 you could get away with not using one.
How can you tell? Take it out. Does the scene fall apart? If the answer is no, it stays out. Simple.
When do you need a parenthetical? When it impacts story…
Colonel Mustard drags Miss Scarlett into the Conservatory.
(pulls out a wrench)
And now, my dear…
Gotta have “pulls out a wrench,” ain’t no scene without it. Same general rule as ever: If I need it for story, it stays. If not, it goes.
If someone (pulls out a gun) it’s likely that it will impact the scene. So it stays. Could I be a little more specific about what can go? Oh yes…
(wryly, smiling, laughing, sarcastically, waving with his right hand, waving with his left hand, lifting his beer, emotional, cautiously, mumbles, whispers, loudly, surprised, loudly and surprised, standing up wearing her white patterned shirt, going inside with a dish of food, picking up a pear and chewing, kidding, joking, amused, indifferent, nervous, excited, pertinacious, walking in to the room placing left foot in front of right, pointing to the taxi, pointing to the mini-van, pointing to the can of peas….)
I could go on, but why ruin a perfectly good Sunday?
When you find yourself about hit the Final Draft parenthetical tab, take it from the Parenthetical Hater…
While we’re hating, can we talk about adjectives a moment? Occasionally I’ll have a fiction student invade my film and video class. Their “head” is different. I’ll look at their action lines and see liberal use of adjectives. Dense detail, terrific stuff. Because, in the fiction world, a novel can be 300 or 800 pages, they have the freedom to embellish not just description but dialogue. They can also throw in internal narration; put us into the head of the character through the verbal.
Thing is, screenwriting isn’t about the verbal. Here’s where the disconnect comes in for fiction students… Film is a visual medium. Manipulation of images for emotional impact. Words compliment the image, but they follow the image in importance. You’re writing a screenplay, not the Great American novel. That means not killing the reader with purple prose. Just because you can write effective adjectives doesn’t mean you should. When it comes to pumping up action lines, ask yourself: Do I need it?
You have to pick your spots. If it’s a scene where a character grabs a coffee at Starbucks, as a reader, I really don’t care about the faux fireplace flame warming the caramel Brule latte drinkers. If, however, my protagonist has been estranged from his father for a decade, some extra detail about the scene where they reunite will be welcome.
See the difference? It’s really common sense. Please don’t write this…
INT. ABBY’S APARTMENT- NIGHT
Amid the thundering din of lightning, Abby’s hissing cat Algernon moves from the window, down the long, twisting corridor and up the steep, curving staircase by the delicate, pink porcelain Ming vase away from the dark, deafening storm and toward his powder blue, freshly-cleaned, minty-smelling litter box.
INT. CLIVE’S APARTMENT- DAY
The gentle, happy-go-lucky, porcine, roly-poly fat man Clive moves one last bite of food onto his fork, and toward his mouth--a miniature, teeny-tiny, wafer thin mint.
Folks, I don’t care! I don’t care if the litter box is minty clean! Or that the staircase is curvy or the Ming vase is pink! Not unless it impacts story or character. You’re not impressing the reader with these verbal gymnastics. You’re actually pissing him/her off. Because before your magnum opus he/she read two other scripts because the production company he/she works doesn’t pay s(*@, so they read a lot to make a living. The tired eyes of the reader knows what a fat man looks like. They don’t need the roly-poly or porcine. They get it. Less is more.
Same deal with adverbs. Let me demonstrate by borrowing from the list of S adverbs:
EXT. WILFRED’S HOUSE- MORNING
Solemnly closing his car trunk, Wiliford stealthily looks toward the swaying backyard elm. He walks slowly toward the sleepily standing mansion left to him in his Father’s will. The hoot owl’s shrilly singing feels like no welcome at all. He sadly lifts his single bag, sheepishly moving toward the front door.
Walks slowly? C’mon! A 5th grader can write that, not someone who gets to the Finalist round at Nicholl. Not someone who gets agency representation or has her script optioned. Pick your verbs well and you won’t need the adverb!
Try this: Before you send that script out, highlight every verb, go to thesaurus.com and find a stronger choice for each. Is that a pain in the ass? Sure it is! It’s also what differentiates you from the 50,000 others writing spec scripts. Control what you can control. Verbs, you control them.
Become a hater especially when it comes to parentheticals, adjectives, and adverbs. It’ll make you a stronger writer, promise.
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- The Wide Margin: Parenthetically Speaking...
- Why Spec Scripts Fail: The 'Wrylie' (Parentheticals)
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