Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro, a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood screenwriters, speakers, and consultants. Through their actionable script coverage and hands-onscreenwriting course, Alex and his team provide a road map to take screenwriters out of the often confusing land of screenwriting advice, and toward a place where they’re confident of what works on the page and what sells. Twitter: @ScriptReaderPro
A reader at an agency or management company can tell whether they’re in the hands of a great writer after reading the first few script scenes in a spec screenplay. Or even the first scene. And one of the ways they’re able to do this is because great writers never write the obvious.
They never make their characters say or do things the reader already knows they’re going to say or do; while amateur writers do.
Let’s Take An Imaginary Scene By Way Of Example.
Say you want to write a scene in which Emily has to tell her neighbor who’s just arrived back from vacation, Joe, that she accidentally ran over his cat. And now it’s lying semi-conscious in the local animal hospital.
An amateur writer may approach the situation like this:
Emily frets about telling Joe. Finally she knocks on his door and tells him she ran over his cat. Joe’s really angry and shouts at her before jumping in his car and roaring off.
However, this would be writing the obvious.
Both characters here are saying exactly what they mean and doing exactly what we expect them to. Emily’s worried, so we see her fretting but then just tell him. Joe’s angry so he shouts at her and races off to the animal hospital.
Let’s take a look at the two main ways you can avoid writing the obvious.
Make Your Characters SAY The Unexpected
A big giveaway of an amateur writer is the fact that their script scenes contain characters who always say what they mean, never hide their true feelings, and baldly state up front what they want.
Using the cat crisis scene as an example, one approach could be to have Emily knock on Joe’s door and talk about everything but the fact she almost killed his cat. She could ramble on about his vacation, her new job, the weather, etc. but in doing so the audience would know what she really wants to say but can’t.
What immediately makes script scenes like this more interesting is the fact that Joe is in the dark.
Joe could then ask her “By the way, where’s Felix?” And from here she could either blurt out the truth, or lie. Either way, the scene will feel much more alive and real because it will contain subtext and not just be going through the motions of what we expect.
When Joe finds out, rather than doing the obvious — angrily shout obscenities at Emily and drive off — he could say bitterly something like “I knew I shouldn’t have left him with you” and then drive off. The subtext could be “You’re hopeless” or “I know you don’t like me”, depending on the story.
As soon as characters are talking around subjects rather than hitting them directly on the head, things start to feel more real because this is how people actually communicate in real life.
Make Your Characters DO The Unexpected
In Sideways, an amateur writer may approach the scene in which Miles learns that his book isn’t being published, by having him say “I can’t believe it… My book’s not being published."
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, though, don’t make Miles say or do the obvious. They make him unexpectedly act out by knocking back shots of wine and then emptying the spit bucket into his mouth.
Using the cat crisis scene as another example, another approach could be to make the characters’ actions tell the audience what they’re thinking or trying to achieve without them doing the obvious.
For example, Emily could knock on Joe’s door and start flirting with him.We would know she’s trying to distract Joe from what’s happened to his cat, but he wouldn’t. And probably quite an amusing scene could follow.
Or maybe Emily knocks on Joe’s door and when she tells him he starts uncontrollably sobbing? The subtext to his reaction could be that he’s upset because he just spent $2,000 on a holiday for singles and didn’t meet anyone. Again, we could know this, but Emily doesn’t, opening the door to increased character conflict, confusion and hilarity.
Having your characters say and do the obvious in your script scenes is one of the easiest ways to let a reader know that you’re still learning the craft of screenwriting.
Making a character get mad when we expect them to, or tell another character up front exactly how they’re feeling, or punch someone when we expect them to, quickly grows tiresome.
This isn’t the way we behave in real life and it’s not the way your movie characters should behave either.
A reader will soon check out while reading behavior like this because the art of screenwriting is all about the non-obvious. It’s about making characters say and/or do something surprising and interesting in each and every scene.
So be sure to brainstorm all the different ways your characters could act and react in any given moment and never just write the obvious. This is what the great screenwriters do and it’s what you need to do too if you want to join them.
Writing Great Scenes