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Home » Archives » April 2007 » Don't Just Stare. Stare AT Something.
[Previous entry: "I Finally Get Why Some Joke Writers Don't Want To Talk About It"] [Next entry: "Getting Away From The Office"]

04/21/2007: Don't Just Stare. Stare AT Something.

Want to know a sneaky scriptwriting trick that will instantly make your work look deep while addressing a fundamental limitation of screenwriting? I thought you might.

One of the problems with writing in script format is that, unless you're getting very abstract and stylish indeed, you can only show what's happening on the outside of a character. It's not the best medium for really internal stories, because we can't see the characters thoughts. And the one thing that can take us right into a character's internal monologue -- a voiceover -- tends to be a bit devalued, because it feels like exactly what it is, an attempt to circumvent the limitation. So we give our characters other characters or pets to talk to, hallucinations or fantasies, or the tendency to talk to themselves, in order to help illuminate their inner thoughts.

But there is another way. It's a trick, but it's a good one. And with this one, you don't have to arrange to give a character a conversation partner. Plant a physical object in the script during an important scene. Later, when a character is alone, show them looking at that same object. Boom! We know what they're remembering. It's like magic. It's especially effective if the object stands for a person or a relationship. Remember the end of Brokeback Mountain? One of the men finds the two shirts, nested together, that had been saved by the other man. It was a detail from the short story that was perfect for the screenplay because it took us inside the character's head.

An article of clothing was also a memory trigger in my episode of Firefly. Kaylee looks at her fancy party dress, now hanging in her grimy quarters, and we know she's fondly remembering the party from earlier in the episode.

And the end of the Battlestar Galatica episode Maelstrom... oh, this one's a heartbreaker. Kara has given Adama a small figure of Aurora, which we clearly identify with her. After Kara has disappeared, Adama fastens it to a model ship as its figurehead. And then, in a genius moment, he destroys the model in a fit of frustration and grief. Holy cow. Compare this to a scene in which he sits at a window and stares into space. Both tell us that he's thinking, but the version with the previously-established physical object tells us exactly what he's thinking and feeling.

A silent solitary moment of contemplation is greatly helped by any little trick you can use to clue the audience in. Give it a try... drop that toy giraffe in there somewhere. You'll want to use it again later.

Lunch: chips and dips at my friend Michelle's house, where I was for a lovely Scrabble party


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