Happy New Year!
It’s a new year. Time to refocus our attention on our work and put to use the things we learned from our past endeavors. Continuing that theme, here are some things to remember when constructing the narrative for your screenplay.
Stories happen in real places.
Even when the worlds are fantasy, futuristic or other imagined, they are still very really to the people that populate them. To the characters that exist in your story, this is all they know. As such, the world you create must contain all the details that affect your characters and shape how they see themselves and their environments.
Root Your Characters in a Place
When situating your characters in a location, make that place specific. It is the details of that world that make it unique and memorable. Not specifying the surrounding environment runs the risk of pulling the reader out of your script while they try to figure out where your characters are supposed to be.
If they are in a house, what kind of house? Who’s house? Which room? If they are in a city, where is that city located? What do the buildings look like? The people? What kind of weather occurs there? (Think about it. Weather dictates how we dress in the morning. Knowing whether it’s hot or cold, wet or dry, will inform your descriptions of both the place and the people.)
While specificity matters, you want to avoid clichés. If you don’t know a lot about the locations in your story, do the necessary research to understand the details.
Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” That applies in location description as well as physics.
The Devil in the Details
Whether it’s characters or locations, the details that you provide need to be relevant and essential to the story. If not, they are unnecessary.
Everything you show to your reader must forward your story in some way. If not, you’re distracting your reader’s attention and asking them to spend their imaginative energy contemplating an idea or unraveling a confusion in your story. When this happens, you risk having your readers attention tired before they get to the end of your script.
Another danger of unnecessary information is the expectation that information creates. If that expectation goes unfulfilled (because it’s tangential to your story and you don’t address it), your reader will feel cheated.
A story is a puzzle unraveled for an audience. It is human nature to want to figure out that puzzle. When false expectations are created in a screenplay, your reader can easily be distracted trying to guess what those bits of information might mean. In the process, they can miss story elements and events that you want them to think about; or they can be left disappointed when your story doesn’t meet their expectations.
As the playwright Anton Chekov said, “If you put a gun in act one, you have to use it in act three.” If you’re going to point out something specific about a character or a location, make sure that there is a reason for it and make sure that you use it.
Making It Work
How do you decide what are the important elements for you story? Do you plot them first? Or do you write out the scenes then go back and trim what’s unessential?