It should go without saying that there are different types of writing. We all seem to instinctively know the difference between a poem and a novel even if we have no understanding of the structural differences between the two. Yet, yet when it comes to screenwriting there is one thing I notice many filmmakers misuse in their scripts that really doesn’t do any kind of service.
What is Narrative?
Narrative is really any sequence of words or pictures that tell a story. Your film is most likely a narrative and the way you edit it together results in a cohesive story. The same goes for writing, the way you combine a sentence like “Bill reached down, picked up the big stick and threw it to his dog.” tells us enough about Bill, a stick, his dog and how they are all connected to envision it as a story. Now keeping with the three subjects but changing it around, “There is Bill, a dog and a big stick in the air.” really doesn’t tell a story as much as just describes what’s objectively present.
How It’s Used Incorrectly In Screenplays
Although a film in its entirety works to create a narrative, the narrative I’m specifically referring to is the type that takes place in the “Action” element or narrative description of a screenplay. It’s the big, block of words that you probably skim through quickly to get to the dialogue. It stretches from margin to margin rather than kept to the center of the page like dialogue.
An example would be:
Suddenly there’s banging and growling at the gate. The group huddles into the corner. Chad aims his gun at the gate. Suddenly, the banging stops. Chad turns to Bernie. He speaks to him slowly, like you would a child.
Are you ok?
I’m not deaf.
What were those things?
I don’t know.
What some writers don’t realize is that there are certain narratives that specifically don’t read well on film. In regards to acting, narratives describing the past or the internal emotions of characters oftentimes are worthless because we can’t show those types of things. It’s important to make sure that all narrative is, what is sometimes referred as, “Actable”, or in other words, something that an actor can physically portray and strays away from exposition or what the character is thinking.
Actable vs. Non-Actable
Novels read much different from screenplays for the simple reason that they are written be read, not acted out. In them, the writer often must describe the feelings or past situations of a character to tell the whole story. It is not uncommon to read a line like, “Danny loved cheesecake. Every Christmas Danny would make help his mother in the kitchen, preparing the crust as his mother mixed the cheese and milk. It was his fondest memory of her. Since then, every cheesecake he ordered, in every town he visited, was his way of honoring her memory.”
This sentence makes plenty of sense and tells the story of Danny, his mother and why he loves cheesecake. In a novel that requires our imagination to fully envision the story this type of description is fine, but if we were to film this scene we could only do so in pictures or have it explained within the dialogue. There is no way you can expect an actor to portray this. I don’t care how good of an actor someone is, there is no way you can act out cheesecake being your “favorite” food. You can act out that you enjoy a cheesecake (commercial actors specialize in this), but to act out that level of detail is simply impossible.
Still there are many scripts I read where a writer takes up six to seven lines of action to describe something like a character’s look that’s a result of his father’s physical abuse toward him that haunts him to this day, forcing him to punch kittens on the weekends etc., etc. In the attempt to describe a pivotal event in the character’s life, the writer spends an unnecessary amount of time and space on a page writing out something that can’t be filmed.
How this Effects Actors
I previously joked about how the Action element is the part of a script many people skim over to get to the dialogue. If there is any person that is going to pay a load of attention to this these sections it’s going to be the actors, because it tells them what they’re going to do. There are many actors, especially seasoned ones, who recognize non-actable narrative as useless and frustrating.
As someone who used to act long, long ago, nothing brought me greater joy then to connecting with a character written well, namely because a good script makes for a good production and I was a horrible actor. Now on the other hand, if you give a good actor a well-written character, the result is almost always a thing of beauty. So imagine how an actor must feel when a writer has created a great character, but has given them nothing to work with. It’s like handing someone a million dollars that they can only spend on socks. Sure socks are great and all but the best things are just out of reach, like high-powered sports cars and sex toys.
Actable narrative isn’t really hard to recognize. A good rule of thumb is to go by the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing, keeping in mind that filmmaking literally requires us to show things to an audience. You could also ask an actor to go over your script to point out anything that isn’t actable. Most importantly though, always keep in mind that film is a visual medium and that a script should always be written to represent that.