Alex Freedman: Welcome to Paper Team, a podcast about television writing and becoming a TV writer. I’m Alex Freedman, @TVCalling.
Nick Watson: And I’m Nick Watson, @_njwatson.
Alex: And today, we’re gonna be talking about why prose and description in scripts are so important with some good and not so good examples, as well as what you can do to improve your own TV writing prose.
Nick: Before we start the episode just a couple of housekeeping announcements that we wanted to make.
Alex: First we’ve began adding transcripts for certain episodes, specifically the more traditional episodes that we record without guests, i.e. the ones that carry more specific topics. We started with the TV world-building one which is PT44, and new transcripts will be added usually about a week after these new episodes are gonna be released. And you can access those transcripts either through the show notes, i.e. paperteam.co/the number of the episode or by going directly at paperteam.co/number of the episode and then transcript. So for example, paperteam.co/44transcript for the TV world-building transcript.
Alex: Also in three weeks we’re gonna be releasing our 50th episode of Paper Team. Nick, can you believe that?
Nick: No, I cannot.
Alex: [chuckle] Well, it is true. And we’ll actually be revisiting moments from the past year, as well as catching up with some of our guests. So if you have… Listeners who are listening to this, if you have any specific moments or topics you’d like us to highlight or revisit, give us a shout-out either on Twitter or you can send us an email at [email protected].
Nick: Yeah. We’re gonna be doing a bottle episode.[laughter]
Nick: But also in celebration of that 50th episode, we would love if we can get up to 50 reviews on iTunes. Right now we are at about 20 but we know we have more listeners than that. So we would love it if you could take a moment to hit pause right now or go back later once you’re done driving to work and leave a review on paperteam.co/itunes.
Alex: Go back in time and leave us a review.[chuckle]
Odds-and-ends: Shonda Rhimes’ TV writing masterclass
Nick: Alright. Welcome to our very first on take segment or as I think we are gonna call it Odds and Ends.
Alex: I don’t even know now…
Nick: We’ll figure something out. Maybe if you have any suggestions you can send them in to us. But Alex is gonna take us through a little review of the Shonda Rhimes Masterclass.
Alex: We actually received an email by fellow listeners of the podcast Saevar Halldorsson. Sorry if I butchered your name. The email said, “Hi, I just discovered your podcast and really love it. You present great wealth of information in each episode. You covered TV writing education in episode 19, but I was wondering if you guys had taken the Masterclass in TV writing by Shonda Rhimes? Could you perhaps cover her class in upcoming episodes and see if the class is worth taking.” Well, a few weeks ago I actually took the Shonda Rhimes’ Masterclass and now it’s time to review it.
Nick: So I have not listened to this. I wanna know what’s in it.
Alex: So the Shonda Rhimes writing for TV Masterclass is $90. And the way the class is set up is you get these pre-taped segments with Shonda Rhimes as well as a workbook which is basically just a PDF guide that summarizes her points as well as gives you some exercises to do for each section. And you can go on the website to find out all the different chapters, but by and large, I feel there were kind of three main categories to those lessons. One were more lessons on general TV writing which includes writing a script obviously. The second category is kind of more lessons on general TV business. The TV business itself, breaking in and stuff like that. And then the third kind of categories of lessons were more case studies of two of Shonda Rhimes’s own pilots, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal where she kinda broke down the acts of each pilot.
Nick: And then at the end she comes to your house and becomes your best friend, right?
Alex: Please, yeah. Let that happen in real life.[laughter]
Nick: Cool. That sounds interesting. What were your thoughts on the lessons?
Alex: Well, each lesson is about 10, 15 minutes. So they’re kind of short compared to some of the topics discussed. There’s about 15 minutes spent on structure and about the same on dialogue. Just compare that to what we ourselves did on Paper Team. It’s like a tenth of what we’ve actually done. And I think that’s the main problem is, on one hand you do have great advice, that’s a given, but it’s not something you couldn’t find outside of the class, right? As I just said, take a look at any of our earlier Paper Team episodes about dialogue or structure for comparison.
Alex: And on the other hand you do have those interesting kind of lessons about the TV writing business but they’re not as actionable especially if you’re trying to write a script or pilot right now, which is obviously a problem for a class trying to teach TV writing. An example of that is, Shonda mentions a role in the pilot of Scandal that turned into regular character thanks to how compelling and memorable the actress was in that role. And so the lesson is not to short change those second or tertiary characters and especially the possibility of those characters long term. Now I can’t obviously fault that advice, but it’s not really actionable to someone who’s writing a pilot right now.
Nick: Yeah. It kinda reminds me of some of the Children of Tendu stuff which is incredible, incredible advice from very experienced people but not all of that is really applicable to people at our level or the level of our listeners.
Alex: I think the workbook is also not super-practical either. It tells you to look at great pilot scripts for example, and see how they work. Great advice. But they mention take a look at Shonda’s favorite like “The Crown”. Is anyone taking the class right now have access to a Netflix script of “The Crown”? I feel like that’s not a given for everyone.
Nick: Yeah. Unless they include it with it.
Alex: Which they don’t.
Nick: Alright, so it sounds like some positives and negatives, but what was worthwhile out of it?
Alex: I did find that the sort of reverse engineering and breaking down of her own pilot grant process through both “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” were actually awesome. But, and there’s always a but, and I cannot lie, I don’t find either of those pilots actually successful in of themselves. Shonda herself admits that, for example, the fourth act of “Scandal” is overstuffed. And there’s contradictory advice within the class itself, “No character secrets before you start writing,” is one of the lessons or the teachings, even if you’re not gonna be revealing them in the pilot, which is her advice. But Shonda Rhimes outright states that she purposefully wrote the “Scandal” characters as blank slates initially, so she would have legroom within the show later to sort of bring in and answer those questions. So she herself didn’t even know the answers to these questions while writing the pilot, even though the lesson is, “You should know them.” So it’s kind of a double standard there.
Alex: The bottom line is this: I’m not sure who this class is addressed to; some of the tips that Shonda gives are good; but it’s honestly not something you will only find in this class. And the other advice is not very relevant to writing a pilot there and then. If it’s a 101 kind of introduction to TV writing, there are a lot of free resources that give similar advice.
Alex: But if it’s a course about the TV business or running a show, then I feel like it’s kind of way too broad to be informative on that level. So if you have the $90 to spare then ensure you’re gonna spend it on the Shonda Rhimes class. But, and that’s my argument for most of the master classes offered, they’re kind of really broad advice that is kind of a fun 101 introduction to the subject; but is it worth $90 to anyone kind of curious about the subject? I honestly think there are books out there that tackle that subject in greater detail.
Nick: Right. It’s literally the opposite of a master class. A master class is meant to be very specific and focused on one thing, whereas this seems more like a broad 101.
Alex: It’s like a broad class thing.[chuckle]
1 – What is screenwriting prose and why is it important
Alex: Now let’s talk about prose writing. Alright, Nick, can you inform us, what is prose?
Nick: When we refer to prose, we’re talking about the description of a scene and the visuals and the action in the script. The prose is usually anything that’s not dialogue or scene headings, transitions or character names. Other common names for prose are Scene Description, Action or Big Print. So we know what it is, but why is prose important?
Alex: Well, prose is a delivery mechanism to convey the image or the action that is happening on screen. All of the work you’re doing is still at that first level for the reader. That means that prose should be clear and concise, while still being compelling and enjoyable to read. Even though both are prose, description in a novel and description in a script are not the same. Prose in a script is almost always meant to be something visual or perceptible to the viewer. In other words, you have the ability and in fact, the duty to write the same way that an audience member would experience things. So “Six Feet Under” has a lot of the specific perspectives, where the writer’s describing how a scene unfolds from the literal point of view of characters. For example, David is at a wake and something someone is doing is starting to really irritate him. And then he jumps out at the person and starts to get physical with them. And then we cut back to reality showing that David was imagining getting physically angry with the person. And those are examples of ways to make the reader feel as if he’s watching what is happening on screen as a viewer.
Nick: And we will discuss a little bit later that age-old argument of a script as a technical kind of instruction document, versus an immersive narrative experience for the reader.
2 – Why scene descriptions need to be efficient
Nick: So then, what makes good prose and what makes bad prose?
Alex: The key advice for writing good prose is writing efficient prose. You write however much you need to, so you convey your point. It’s kinda like haiku; efficient prose is usually a fairly compartmentalized style of writing, since it is about being efficient. The classic example in screenplay form, is the original “Alien” screenplay, which had a single line of description for each shot of the movie. And when it comes to scripts, you’ll have issues if you’re writing kind of a David Foster Wallace-type sentence that goes on for paragraphs. Unless that is the actual intended purpose of your description in that specific moment, as in it is a concerted effort in your part to do that and not just word vomit.
Nick: That might be okay on your first draft, but when you’re getting something ready as a script that’s when you trim it down and you really make it as efficient as you want. It doesn’t have to come out perfect, but once you’re sending it to people, it should be.
Alex: Exactly. I think this is usually when you’re rewriting the draft that you’re trying to be as efficient and specific as possible. With all that said, don’t confuse efficiency with being boring. Prose should set the overall tone for the script. It needs to be short and sweet overall, but if you can give it a matching sense of flavor to it, then it does bring the entire world to another level. Shane Black is a great example of that. Although personally, I don’t think it’s necessarily a voice I would emulate if it’s my first script ever. But look at examples of existing pilots and contrast how they use description. Historical dramas have often detailed, sometimes lengthy description blocks, because they do need to paint a more precise picture since the reader may not be familiar with the mechanics of that time. And the same with science fiction, or with genre pieces like “Game of Thrones”. Whereas shows that take place in more familiar TV settings, like a precinct or a courtroom will usually use description of the environment to specifically highlight how they differentiate themselves from other procedurals. Not just to re-explain to you what a courtroom looks like.
Nick: It’s really easy to fall into that trap of being overly poetic in your scene description. But honestly, even poetry is efficient while it’s being evocative. Like Alex said earlier, try not to write your screen prose like you would a novel or a poem; it should be clear and intelligible. You don’t wanna obfuscate the meaning of your words. You really don’t want the reader stopping and thinking on the deep artistic meaning of what you just said or having to piece together an interpretation of what you wrote. The goal is to keep the reader immersed and engaged in your world and your story. If you do wanna be poetic then similes often tend to work better than metaphors. For example, “Does X like Y.” “He fights like a wild animal.” Metaphors do have their place, but only when it’s not going to interrupt the flow of the read and make the reader stop and think, “Wait, what are they referring to?” For example, this might be okay. “They get into a 69 Impala and turn it on. The beast growls. Sarah and Kate look at each other.” But if you said, “Sarah fires her gun, the beast growls.” That kinda lacks context and it’s confusing. Is the gun, the figurative beast, which is growling, or is there a literal beast in the scene she’s shooting at? All that kinda thing.
Alex: I feel like I read that in a draft of “American Gods.” [chuckle] I can definitely see “the beast growls” in the description.
Nick: Well, that’s the thing in “American Gods.” It could be a God or a beast growling at them, or it could be a metaphor. So you never know.
Alex: But you need to be specific in the actual script. Now, there’s also something to be said about, sort of, streamlining that prose. You also want to make the prose and the description as seamless as possible on all levels. That means reminding the reader of things they may have forgotten. If we haven’t seen a character in a long time, usually, I’ll write a very quick reminder like, “Melissa (from the opening scene).” And typography can also play a visual role. I like to adjust and rewrite any sentence that doesn’t quite fit within the margins of a page. If some words are weirdly hanging off a cliff, it also saves some space both in the script document and visually. So you know what to expect overall. Similarly, in my rewrites, I’ll try to make things so efficient that the acts actually end sort of towards the end, or near the end of the page instead of the middle or the top and waste three quarter of a page.
Alex: And then there’s also kind of a separate discussion we can have about fonts. That’s not a huge deal, but there’s a reason why John August introduced Courier Prime, because visually it’s much easier on the eyes than the Final Draft Courier.
Nick: I’m super big on formatting in my scripts as well. I will sit there and rewrite a sentence ad nauseam to make it fit better on the page, or cut down those hanging lines, etcetera. And yeah, sometimes I will tweak a ruler margin here or there if it’s gonna help. But it’s kinda like having to a craft a joke in 140 characters on Twitter. Ultimately, it does make your writing better and more effective.
Nick: That said, don’t forsake the use white space. Make a paragraph break when you need it. Don’t just jam everything in to save space ’cause it’s gonna be a difficult experience for the reader. If you’re introducing a new character or action or a visual that should be separate from that block of action, then do it. And also don’t ever change your script to tight or super tight formatting, or put it on A4 paper instead of letter.
Nick: Those kind of cheats. Scripts take a certain number of pages for a reason. It’s so that line producers and ADs and the production team, if and when your script gets made, know roughly how long it’s gonna take to shoot, and how they can schedule those scenes, and how many minutes that’ll eventually take on the screen.
Alex: This isn’t a college essay, guys. This is a script. [chuckle] So you should fit within the boundaries. Also when it comes to formatting emphasis like using all caps, underline, bold, stuff like that, it really depends on your own style. There are technical rules, like putting all caps or emphasizing new characters when they first come on screen. These are things that you can learn pretty much anywhere, but when it comes to what you think deserves to be in bold or all caps, it’s kind of entirely up to what you think is important to the story. Some popular writers have actually, entire paragraphs written in all caps to emphasize an extremely intense action sequence. Now, in my mind, that kind of drowns out what actually matters within those moments and defeats the purpose of using caps, but you can look at scripts from “Lost”, especially, ones after the first season when they kind of get into their groove, for examples of how extreme some of those descriptions can be.
Alex: And in fact, let’s read an extract from the 20th episode of the second season of “Lost”.
Nick: This is all in caps. “SUDDENLY A COMMOTION CAN BE HEARD FROM THE HALLWAY.” Wait, should I yell it?[chuckle]
Alex: That is what all caps do. So you can sort of fake yell.
Nick: All caps. “SUDDENLY A COMMOTION CAN BE HEARD FROM THE HALLWAY — MUFFLED. VOICES — SEVERAL PEOPLE ENTERING THE HATCH — KATE’S VOICE –”
Nick: “Locke looks towards Kate’s VOICE, but quickly turns back to Henry. And we are SUPER TIGHT on him as he softly says –”
Alex: “I was on my way here, John, because I was coming for you.”
Nick: “HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT. NOW JACK’S VOICE –”
Alex: “LOCKE! Get out here!”
Nick: “ON HENRY. Laid bare. Not a shred of the Lecter bullshit — he’s as GENUINE as we’ve ever seen him. ON LOCKE. Head SPINNING. Doesn’t know whether he’s being fucked with or he’s just been given the meaning of LIFE.”
Alex: Wow! That was quite an experience, wasn’t it, Nick?[chuckle]
Nick: That’s exactly how you should read it.
Alex: And write all of your scripts.[chuckle]
Alex: But that’s an example of kind of the extreme, a very informal way of writing that you can go, but again, they do emphasize certain elements and not others. So keep that in mind.
Nick: Yeah. I’m sure that was a very climactic scene and the rest of the script wasn’t just interspersed with massive caps.
Alex: That’s the teaser of the episode.
Nick: Oh really?
Alex: No, no. [chuckle] It’s deep in the episode.
Nick: I think very similarly caps are often used to call out, for example, sounds or important actions or visuals in the scene, but you can use them however you want as long as you don’t overuse them, or are completely inconsistent with how you use them. I personally will often use italics or bold, very rarely, underlines, etcetera, to mean different things in different scripts. As long as you are consistent within the same script and readers can clearly pick up on what you’re doing with it and why.
Alex: That’s what we mean by streamlining the process, is that you gotta have some coherence within your script. Between scripts it doesn’t really matter, but if you’re writing a pilot, if you’re gonna be bolding characters in the first act and you’re gonna be introducing a new character in the second act, then that character should also be written in bold because you’re introducing that new character. And as we mentioned also, I think that is mostly what you should be doing in rewrites. I don’t know if you agree, but that’s usually when you, sort of, finesse those stylistic elements. Because in the first draft, you are kind of in the vomit draft mode, right? You’re just vomiting stuff on the script.
Nick: Yeah. I find that on my first draft I will start deciding that I’m gonna cap X and Y and I’m gonna italic X and Z, and then I end up changing half way through, or feeling like I’ve overdone it or I haven’t it done enough. So really when you do go through and do that rewrite, you can make those decisions about how consistent your roles are gonna be or how much you wanna do it or not.
3 – Script: technical document or reading experience?
Nick: So we mentioned before that we’re gonna discuss the notion of screenplay as a technical document versus an experience for the reader?
Alex: Don’t forget the practical nature of a screenplay. It exists to be shot and produced. Especially in TV, it’s not a bunch of people trying to decipher the meaning of your words or how to translate the abstract emotion you’re trying to convey in your fluent language. It’s, “What do we need on set and when do we need it by?”
Nick: Yeah, that said, if you can write that in such a way that the reader understands what’s going on and it’s clear how it would look on the screen, but you also make it an enjoyable ride, even maybe if it requires using some elements that won’t translate like if you’re writing your prose and you’re swearing at people in it, then that’s the best of all worlds.
Alex: Which brings us to a more of a technical aspect of writing in a script.
Nick: It’s important to remember that TV is a writer’s medium as opposed to film being a director’s medium. TV directors by and large are there to serve the showrunner, who is the head writer and producer. So while directors will still put their stamp on it, they’re working to an established look, and feel, and format that’s already been dictated for the entire series by the showrunner. And as such, TV writers are gonna have more say in how things will be shot and look on screen, than say a film writer has a big-name director come in to helm a spec script they just sold to a studio.
Alex: And because TV is such a writer’s medium, TV is more forgiving of stage film directions within scripts. However, they still need to be warranted within the narrative. We keep saying it because it is true. It still comes back to taking the reader on a journey similar to that of a viewer. It’s useful specifically when you want us, the reader, to pay particular attention to detail and often for point of view type shots. For example, “Patrick hears something buzzing, he’s annoyed and jogs around trying to find the source of the noise.” Closeup shot of the fly hovering around his boss’s head. Now, you could have said, “There’s a fly buzzing about the boss’s head.” But it’s not quite as evocative or useful since you’re trying to convey Patrick’s annoyance and discovery of where the noise is coming from. Now sometimes conveying your point to the reader is cleaner when you use those directions, again only because it is warranted in the experience of the piece.
Alex: Another good example is Breaking Bad, where in the pilot, Walter White hears the news of his cancer diagnosis, and instead of listening to the doctor he focuses on a mustard stain on the doctor’s coat. And the script outright states, “Walt’s POV — We tilt down from Belknap’s face, his moving lips, to his doctor’s coat. On the pristine white of his lapel, there’s a spot of yellow MUSTARD. We fixate on it.”
Nick: Yeah, and you could have written that scene with everything that the doctor said and you’re like, “The doctor… Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue… And then Walt looks down at his coat and zones out or something,” but we really wanna force the reader into the head of Walt, in the vision of Walt, and experience that scene through him and how he’s feeling. And that’s an effective way to do that. But certainly, when I first started screen writing, when I was around 14 or 15 [chuckle] and terrible, I thought you had to direct everything. I was like, “Close-up of this, establishing shot of this.” But then after that when I was learning more about screen writing I went completely in the other direction. I refused to ever call a shot or use a ‘we.’ I would run in circles trying not to do that. And these days I’ve kinda come back around and I’m willing to use direction more liberally where it’s necessary or effective. And I think that’s the key. Does this shot or visual need to be directed for the audience to understand what you’re going for? In the same way that I’ll only use a parenthetical in dialogue if reading it the wrong way would pull a reader out of the scene or have them interpret it in the wrong way, for sarcasm or something, it’s important.
Nick: Especially in animation writing, particularly for kids, you’re often encouraged to present more heavily directed visuals because the artists and the production would wanna know exactly what they’re gonna have to animate in terms of the assets they already have, or they’re gonna have to create as opposed to live action. The world of the scene already exists around them on the set, so the director and actors can just play around with that on the day.
Alex: And there’s definitely a risk of going overboard with those, taking the reader on a ride by over-abusing the ‘we’ statement. I think you mentioned the ‘we’, “We cut to this thing. We see that… ”
Alex: And I know scripts from the Bad Robot School are very informal in how they write their prose, and I think it’s specifically because they want to convey that sort of backyard dude who’s telling you an effing awesome story. And ultimately it’s a lot up to each reader whether she or he will be turned off by that kind of informality in the prose. But if you’re not confident enough in your voice or in your writing, I wouldn’t usually recommend entering that informal route because it may just read as you trying to overcompensate for poor story or characters. And that’s why you have all the wannabe Tarantino’s who think fast-paced dialogue always makes a good script.
Nick: Yeah, I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t try to copy other people’s voices as your own voice, especially if that’s not how you would normally write. It defies the whole point of it. If you’re just trying to be Tarantino, then you’re not gonna do it as well as Tarantino, are you? So find your own voice and find a way that feels comfortable and natural for you to write and then play up the stylized elements of that if you really wanna convey a voice on paper.
4 – Describing versus telling
Alex: Now, let’s talk about the age-old question of “Show, don’t tell.” Well, we got this email by Priya S who said, “Are there any times when a screen writer must achieve a balance between showing and telling, or does that primarily apply to creative writing?” Well, you have to remember that TV is a visual medium. Maybe 50 years ago you could get away with doing radio play with limited imagery, but if you’re trying to write an interesting episode of TV right now, especially if it’s a drama or one hour, you do need to do interesting things visually. Showing, not telling basically means you need to do the exposition in an interesting way. We already covered the whole exposition thing in a previous episode so I do recommend you take a listen to it. But when it comes to scripts and descriptions, it’s important to have a balance between dialogue and description. Even a very minimalistic script like Alien, which has again, one-line description per individual shot, still conveys information visually, it doesn’t only bank on dialogue. And the same is true about the audience learning who the characters are by what they do not just what they say. But what about when you wanna convey information to the reader in a way that they’re not gonna be able to see it visually?
Nick: Yeah. I think that that is very contentious amongst a lot of people, but it’s definitely one of these rules that are made to be broken. And so much screen writing advice is more or less basic guidelines often aimed at beginner writers. And I think when you have a better grasp of the form, you can start to experiment and play with it a little bit more and take risks. For example, people often say, “Avoid voiceover or flashbacks.” When the truth is, they can be incredibly effective if they’re used well. It’s just that 95% of the time, they’re not. The same goes for telling people what they can’t clearly see on screen in prose. It can be a potent tool in skilled hands, but if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing and they’re still getting the hang of things, it’s most likely gonna be lazy, unnecessary, ineffective or, just plain bad.
Alex: Again, it’s like crutches instead of being an actual tool for your narratives.
Alex: This actually brings me to another point of Priya’s email specifically about this idea of text on screen. And she wrote, “So much of our lives happen online via screens. Screen writers develop stories that include these screens. Naturally, when developing a script, one is often told to refrain from, “Too much screen stuff.” I understand that a viewer may not want to just see screens and just read whatever is on those screens.”
Alex: Well, conveying textual information in an interesting way, meaning text, SMS, e-mail, things like that, is actually one of the biggest hurdles of screen writing right now, I believe. It’s kind of a catch 22 between showing and telling. And I feel that the BBC show “Sherlock”, was one of the first mainstream TV series to actually innovate on that front with how they were displaying information from phones and laptops visually onto our own screens. And in fact, there’s a couple of YouTube channels, Nerdwriter1 and Every Frame a Painting, who both talked about that topic in two of their video essays respectively, Thought in Sherlock and The Internet in Film, which we will link in the show notes.
Nick: Yeah. And there are a lot of ways around it. Shows like “Jane the Virgin” use a telestrator device to draw or write on the screen like how football commentators would show you plays on the field. We referred in a previous episode to how “Fringe” would insert their text, their chyrons and stuff, almost naturalistically within the scenery that was there. Sometimes you can get away with the voiceover of a character reading what they just texted or wrote, that’s pretty common. And sometimes you can get away with just not showing it at all. The character’s reaction can often be enough. It’s like how we can understand a scene where characters are speaking a foreign language on the subtitle just from the context clues, the reactions, the emotions.
Nick: So I feel like you never wanna read more than maybe a sentence of text on screen. You don’t want something up there for more than a few seconds max. And it is funny because these days our generation very rarely calls each other on the phone, but it’s such a staple of conveying information in film and TV. And I think we’re gonna run into this problem more and more. And I’ve seen shows doing stuff like using FaceTime, Skype more frequently maybe as a reaction to that.
Alex: I feel like a lot of horror movies are… The canary in the coal mine kind of those technologies where they try to find innovating ways of showing these technologies. You have so many horror movies now using Skype or the internet of things, and how do they convey visual information or textual information, in a visual way and unique way? And I think that’s what some TV shows are trying to match.
Nick: Yeah. Or, especially in horror movies, you can get around it completely by being the classic scene, they pull out the phone, “Oh, there’s no service up here,” “Oh, my battery’s dead. I guess I can’t call the police and solve the entire plot of this film in two seconds.”
Alex: Please don’t do that.[laughter]
Alex: But also don’t spend an entire page of your script just copy-pasting a paragraph of letter in italics. I have seen that once where it was half the script and the prose was just the content of a letter that a character would be reading or, not reading verbally, just in their heads. They would be reading it, we would just be seeing the letter for like ten minutes, I guess.
Nick: Yeah. We don’t need that. [chuckle]
Alex: This is not a book. This is a movie, guys. Come on.
5 – The screenwriter’s voice
Nick: So another thing that we really wanna talk about, in relation to all this, is the writer’s voice. Now, this is a much talked about concept, and I think that it largely comes out in the writing of your prose and description. We all know Quentin Tarantino’s voice in a screenplay, Shane Black, Diablo Cody, Kevin Smith, Wes Anderson. What makes up a voice? For me, I think it’s a number of things. It’s tone; is it irreverent or grim? It’s point of view, a unique take on things and interesting, bold choices. It’s pacing; is it rapid-fire? Is it slow and drawn out? Stylistic choices; are there short or long sentences? And formatting; is it lots of wide space, single lines, or dense blocks of description? It’s execution of characters and dialogue; are they snappy, intelligent? What’s the way that you build and paint the world for the readers? Is it colorful? Is it a heightened reality? Is it dark and brutal? Even there’s sometimes a recurring genre or, a subject or, themes in a writer’s scripts that can be attributed to their voice.
Nick: It’s this unique combination of all these elements and it’s like a fingerprint. A Guy Richie action movie looks and feels very different from a Stephen Spielberg action movie. You can give the exact same script to both of these directors and they will give you a very different finished product. Same goes with writers and their take on the execution of a concept. It’s reflecting almost your personality and your point of view in a unique way on the page. It feels like it could only have come from this one writer and no one else. It stands out. And often it’s confidence in that writing. The audience wants to feel like they’re in capable hands and they know exactly where they’re going.
Alex: Especially when you’re beginning to write or you’re first starting out, it’s really difficult to define what those things are to you. It’s easy to understand Tarantino’s voice or even Joss Whedon’s voice, but that’s because they have an ensemble of work that show those common traits being repeated. Obviously, you don’t have that when starting out, so working on your own voice is an ongoing process. Now, a lot of people start things by emulating the style of scripts from writers they like to read. Note that I said, “Like to read,” not necessarily watch. As mentioned, a script still needs to be an entertaining reading experience. So that means they read a Shane Black script and emulate that voice, not the outcome of the filmed piece.
Alex: Now, I personally find it more interesting to emulate the style of writing within specific genres instead of within specific people and see what my own spin on those are. For example, a cold police procedural is written very differently than a bubbly teen soap. So your voice will end up being the collection of everything we talked about here as well as what you bring to the story and characters and dialogue. It’s kind of a overall stylistic description of who you are as a writer, but it’s gonna take time to define who you are.
Takeaways and Resources
Alex: Alright Nick, what are some takeaways?
Nick: Number one, prose and descriptions are there to convey what’s happening on screen to the reader, simple as that.
Alex: Number two, it’s important to find a balance between efficient visual writing and an immersive narrative experience for the reader.
Nick: Number three, TV is a writer’s medium which means you can use any stylistic tools you have at your disposal, including directing the script as long as it’s necessary to serve the story and the characters.
Alex: And do we have any resources for our listeners?
Nick: Yeah, this is the one that mentioned back in, I think, PT28, Outline to Draft, but it’s worth our bringing back up. It’s called Hemingway Editor and you can find that at www.hemingwayapp.com. We’ll put a link in the show notes. I often find when I go back and reread my prose when I’ve been writing, it’s often unnecessarily convoluted or I’m using three sentences to say something I could’ve said in one. And so if you need a little tool to kinda give you a hint as to what you might wanna look at, this can be a helpful one.
Alex: Is it kinda like that software that tells you the reading level for your writing?
Nick: A little bit, yeah. It’s basically obviously, the idea is that Hemingway wrote very, very simple strong, bold prose and it wasn’t flowery and convoluted. So essentially, it’ll take a look at a sentence and say, “You could’ve used a simple word here. You could have ended the sentence three words ago.” All those kind of little analyses of how easy it is to read and how clear it is to the reader.
Alex: Cool. And my resources are gonna be thesaurus.com, which we both use, I believe, Nick.
Nick: Yeah, it’s actually really, really great.
Alex: And “The Synonym Finder” by J. I. Rodale, which is a book, and as the name implies, both are synonym resources. Especially when you’re writing or re-writing a script, I always find it useful to find more evocative words or language to showcase emotions or feelings or what is happening on screen in more impactful ways. And so those are awesome resources to find those words.
Nick: Yeah, or if you are repeating the same words too many times, you can find a different way to say it as well.
Alex: Yes, that too.[chuckle]
Nick: Cool. Well, thanks everyone, as always, for taking the time to listen.
Alex: You can get all the show notes for this episode at paperteam.co/48. Also, you can find in maybe a week’s time the transcript for this episode at paperteam.co/48transcript.
Nick: That’s right. And as we mentioned earlier, we would love some more reviews. That would feel very nice inside. So you can do that at paperteam.co/itunes. And all those reviews are gonna help us get new listeners, build our community and bring more great content to you.
Alex: We want 50 reviews within three weeks’ time. We make it guys. Let’s do it!
Nick: Now we sound like a hostage situation. We want 50 reviews in three weeks’ time or we’ll go off the air.
Alex: Oh boy.
Nick: But once again we would like to thank our sponsor, the Tracking Board’s Launch Pad writing competitions. Paper Team listeners can save $15 off the next purchase. Just use the code, PAPERTEAM, all one word, all caps, at the checkout to receive your discount. You can learn more about all of the Launch Pad’s current and upcoming writing competitions by visiting tblaunchpad.com.
Alex: And as always, I’m on Twitter @TVCalling.
Nick: And I’m @_njwatson.
Alex: If you have any thoughts, feedback, opinions, send them to [email protected] including any ideas for our 50th episode. And what are we doing next week, Nick?
Nick: I believe we are taking a break for Independence Day so we can fight some aliens.[chuckle]
Nick: And then after that we’re gonna bring in a very special guest, Dana Bramble. She is the current programming coordinator at the CW. And she’s gonna talk to us about what it’s like working in a TV Network.
Alex: And we’re gonna be renewed right, Nick? Is that’s what’s happening?
Nick: I kinda hope we’re gonna get the green light.
Alex: And that will be on Monday, July 10th. So see you then.
Nick: We’ll see you around.