The Economics of Information
The ability to use information and imagery economically and efficiently is a skill that comes with practice and revision. With careful attention, you can create a style of narrative that is effective as well as personal for you. As you hone this skill, you will create a unique way of telling your stories — “a voice” — that is specific to you and make your reader feel like you are in control of your craft and telling your story to that person alone.
Accuracy vs Clarity
There is a saying: “If you want to limit clarity, be accurate. If you want to be clear, limit accuracy.” In a screenplay, the plot is always moving forward. Much like the images on the screen in a theater, the information in a screenplay is coming at a reader with every new sentence.
A good screenplay gets its reader to imagine the movie they are seeing in his or her head. A screenplay does this by being clear. Characters, locations, images, expectations, metaphors — all the things that go into the narrative of a story — our easy to grasp upon the first read.
Sure, if you’re telling a mystery story, you’ll want to pace out the information. But the information that is provided moment to moment must be clear and understood.
Accuracy involves details. There is an obligation to truth. You want to create an image that is exactly like the thing you are describing. This is a mistake. You don’t have time in a screenplay — or a movie — to be that accurate. Instead, you must strive for clarity.
Let’s Be Clear About This
Clarity is created through distillation. We take all the facts we know about a place, time, person or thing and we try to determine what are the specific details that are essential for our audience to know in that moment. These details will include essential facts as well as necessary emotional truths.
Take a two story house in your neighborhood. Assuming, the homes where you live are in good shape, we can safely assume that every house has a roof, a front door, a yard, probably a driveway and some kind of garage and carport.
When writing your script, do you need to convey all this information? Of course not. So how do you determine what is essential? By asking two questions: What does the audience need to know? And, what does the audience need to feel and think about this?
A well-trimmed lawn with a BMW in the driveway is a very different home from a house with a yard overwhelmed by crab-grass and a beat-up Econoline Van on blocks in an oil-stained drive. A white picket fence says something different than a chain-link fence.
The words you use as descriptors will imply mood and emotions. A white colonial home with a red front door and roses lining the brick walkway is very different from a drab, ramshackle home in need of a paint and the dead lawn dug up.
The same applies to the objects that exist in your story. What does the audience need to know about an object, and what is the audience supposed to feel and think about that object?
Let’s take a wrist-watch. A beat-up Timex says something entirely different from a brand new Rolex. An engraved inscription on the back tells us that a watch has meaning and sentimentality. Jewels tells us the watches owner is wealthy. If the watch is broken but the character still wears it, that tells us something about it’s value to that person. If it always runs fast or slow, that says something else.
If you want to see a great example of how a watch is used in a script, read “Midnight Run.” From the description to the dialogue to the use as a plot device at the end, there’s no better example than Robert DiNiro’s watch in that script.
Using a Time Period
When writing historical fiction, it is easy to find yourself limited by the facts of that time period. This is a mistake. While you can’t make up things that didn’t exist back then (unless that is the point of your movie, like “Back to the Future”), you are free to change emotional interchanges within characters and create fictitious characters and and motivations.
So how do you determine what is essential?
By honoring the emotional truth of that time, that moment and those events. Who knows if there were a real Jack and Rose on the Titanic? Who cares? From a narrative standpoint, what mattered was that those two characters represented the emotional truth of that time — a time of wonder and awe and change in the world. The things they did and said were totally fictitious within the known facts of that time.
Futuristic and fantasy stories are a bit more challenging.
When writing stories set in alternative universes or futuristic times, it is essential that you give your audience the information necessary to understand the rules of that world. You don’t have to explain every last detail; but you must explain enough about this world so that the audience understands what drives the main characters and what limits them, physically, emotionally and legally.