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But Chocolate Beats Are Good For Me!

It's a fact of life – and perhaps even one of Murphy's Laws – that virtually anything you love to eat is bad for you and will ultimately consign you to a wretched demise. Conversely, anything you can't run away from fast enough (i.e., brussels sprouts) will invariably be proven to extend your lifespan by 145 years. We, therefore, respond with elation on those rare occasions when the medical community announces that items like chocolate and wine have positive health benefits. It's enough to make you want to hit the nearest grocery store, grab every candy bar and bottle off the shelves, and go home and consume everything at one sitting.

Similar mindsets prevail insofar as the nutritional facts listed on the side panels of cereal boxes or the number of doses advised on a cough syrup label. If the recommended daily allowance of riboflavin contained in a 1 cup serving of Cheerios is 25 percent, why not shoot for 100 percent by eating 3 bowls more? If 2 tablespoons of NyQuil every 6 hours can quell your congestion, why not put those pesky germs on the next express by pouring the full contents over a tumbler of ice and downing it all at once?

Interestingly, these word/math problems have application to the craft of screenwriting; specifically, the assumption that if "a little" is good, "a lot" must be really tremendous. While Mae West may have declared that too much of a good thing is wonderful, excess usually has the opposite effect on a fledgling script's chances of acceptance by an agent or producer. Here's why.

WE SHOULD (beat) MAKE A DECISION. (beat) A BIG DECISION. (beat) MAYBE.

A few weeks ago I found myself in an exhausting email conversation with a client who had inserted 479 "beats" in her script. This, I pointed out, was one of the contributing factors to her project being 157 pages long (well over the standard of 110). She defended the inclusion of all these dramatic pauses by saying that many of my fellow authors in the film business had clearly stated in their books that "beats" were perfectly okay.

"Yes," I agreed, "but not in excess. As written, you're averaging 3 beats per page." I recommended she go through and circle every occurrence in order to start breaking herself of the habit.

"But if I don’t put them in," she insisted, "the actors are going to talk too fast."

As wedded as they are to their words and their creative vision, it's a fairly common belief of new screenwriters that no one can possibly know how to deliver a line unless it's precisely spelled out for them. In addition to copious parentheticals that indicate how a line should be spoken (i.e., angrily, seductively, nervously), they waste additional line-space by explaining the amount of time which should elapse between syllables and sentences in order to breathe, reflect, stumble around, or collect thoughts before proceeding.

Example:


                                                            GARY
                                                         I love you.
                                                           (pause)
                                                            Really.
 
                                                          MARCIA
                                                    Um…er…I…uh--    
                                                       (sighs deeply)
                                                    The thing of it is—
                                                         (hesitates)
                                                        This is so—
                                                          (pause)
                                                          Sudden.

                                                           GARY
                                                 (after a few minutes)
                                                     That's all right.
                                                    ( extra long beat)
                                                         Seriously.

This is problematic for several reasons. The first is that all these cues a writer employs to emulate the ebb and flow of natural conversations eat up ink and turn the script into a 157 page tome. Secondly, it annoys actors because it implies the writer doesn't think they know how to act. Thirdly, if dialogue is well crafted, the context and tone of the scene make all of these "helpful" hints superfluous. Thus, while there's nothing wrong with using a "beat" in a script, the caveat is that it's justified only if its omission would skew the intent of the delivery.


THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS


Time and again, I review screenplays that are liberally laden with descriptors:

  1. The late afternoon sun slants at 37 degrees through the soot-smudged 4¾ foot dormer windows on the southwest wall and throws shadows onto a 9x12 foot Persian rug in red and purple with its northeastern corner badly frayed and stained.

  2. The Victorian breakfast room is painted in Manor House Vintage "Morning Rose 528-3"with Harmony Collection Rattan Palm wainscoting that compliments the 1897 English walnut sidebar and brocade draperies with 1 inch sage and cream stripes.

  3. Leslie, a 5'3" waitress with waist-length ash-blond hair and green eyes, waltzes around the meadow in a black and white gingham skirt, maroon peasant blouse, and beige Ugg boots and is being barked at by a 6 year old beagle with a spot over its left eye.


In the above examples, what are the most crucial pieces of information we need to have?

  1. It's afternoon and everything about the room is dirty and shabby. The color/condition of the rug should be included only if it's pertinent to the plot. Architectural references (i.e., a dormer window vs. a stained glass lancet) are permissible if an establishing shot – usually exterior - hasn't previously hinted at the era and locale.

  2. Would you believe I've actually had clients send me paint chips and fabric swatches so I'd know exactly what their expectations were? Weird but true. "A stylish Victorian breakfast room" is probably all the hint a savvy set designer needs and yet writers will go on ad nauseum with details that are not only irrelevant but – owing to acquisition and/or construction - also add to the cost of the show.

  3. Height, hair color, eye color, and costume specifications rarely have any bearing on a plot unless they’re going to be referred to by another character or reflect a specific aspect of the character's personality


Although film is a visual medium, this shouldn't be interpreted as a day-pass to describe each element as meticulously as if it were an entry in a novel. A script page that fills up every inch of white space with rambling exposition takes more time to read than one that embraces brevity. And when you consider just how many screenplays a reader has to go through in a week, anything you can do to endear yourself by practicing minimalism is going to be appreciated.

THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING

As frequent fliers, my husband and I have heard our fair share of updates from the cockpit by bourbon-smooth voices which inform us when we've reached our cruising altitude, what the weather's like at our destination, that the turbulence we're experiencing is nothing to worry about, and – for those sitting on the right side of the plane – that the smokestacks of New Jersey can be seen in the distance.

These functional equivalents of a film voiceover are both informative and reassuring, filling in blanks that we – as a captive audience at 30,000 feet – might not otherwise be able to figure out on our own. What if, however, he proceeded to fill up all of the air time with a retrospective on why he became a pilot, how he felt on his first flight, why he doesn't get along with his mother-in-law, what he's going to do when he retires, and how he feels about global warming? Many a passenger at this point would be asking for a parachute.

Just like beats, voiceovers in screenplays tend to be used in excess as a device to (1) explain who the players are ("The woman who just came into this scene is my nosy neighbor, Ruth"), (2) bring the audience up to speed on past events ("Mike's family had lived in Ravenna for the first 10 years of his life and then moved to Boise where his father raised cows"), (3) show off how much research the writer has done ("The decade of the 1990's was a period of transition in Chile with the departure of Pinochet and the arrival of a freely elected right-of-center government"), (4) act as a substitute for thought bubbles ("Something told me at that moment that Draco might be lying"), or (5) explain events that the writer either thought would be too cost-prohibitive to include in the production or was too lazy to figure out how to uniquely communicate them through action and dialogue.

Voiceovers – when used improperly - do two things that are detrimental to the flow of a script. The first is that they break the cardinal rule of good storytelling: Show, Don't Tell. While there are certainly occasions when a voiceover is the best thing that will work or – as in the case of TV sitcoms such as The Wonder Years (1988-1993) – is part of the show's trademark, it's important to assess whether the content imparts a crucial and expedient frame of reference. If not, delete it. Secondly, the periodic intrusiveness of an off-camera narrator is not only an ongoing reminder that we're watching a movie but also makes it hard to get back into whatever tone or momentum was in progress just before the interruption occurred.

Think about this when next you're peacefully snoozing high above the Atlantic and the pilot comes on the P.A. to let you know what good time he’s making.

LIFE IN THE PAST LANE

As of this writing, I'm laboring through coverage notes on a screenplay that has a pair of 20-minute flashbacks in its first 54 pages. Yes, another word/math problem that begs the question of why the writer didn't just start the story in the past if he was going to spend so much time revisiting it.

Aside from some of the script's more obvious flaws such as Roman soldiers drinking coffee the morning after the crucifixion and using words like "ramifications" and "accountability", the expense of set construction, casting, and costumes of the two Biblical tableaus far overshadows that of the contemporary premise that revolves around a handful of pals who rarely leave their perches at a Devon pub.

It’s not just the "epic" transitions that make excessive flashbacks a problem, however. Unless everyone in the plot is going to be digitally "Buttonized" so they can portray younger versions of themselves, a script that uses generational flashbacks requires the casting of extra actors of various ages and similar looks to portray the leads.

While the budget of a flashback makes a voiceover seem welcome by comparison, it inflicts the greater damage of the two by putting the plot's conflict on hold to serve up slices of back-story that could probably have been divulged over a latte at Starbucks.
 
CONCLUSION

As if often said about statistics, you can always find numbers that will happily accommodate whatever theory you're trying to advance. Just as predictably, I can always count on screenwriting clients and students to cite text that they believe grants them carte blanche to do whatever they want. Many of them even refer me to screenplays they've downloaded for free from Simply Scripts (http://www.simplyscripts.com) or Drew's Script-O-Rama (http://www.script-o-rama.com) and argue, "If Spielberg, Lucas and Cameron can use beats and flashbacks, why can't I?" Aside from the obvious reply that they can do whatever they want because they're who they are, the lesson to be learned is that moderation is the operative word for these tools if you don't want to compromise the energy of your storyline with too many surplus speedbumps.


ABOUT THIS AUTHOR:
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning writer whose credits to date include 26 books, 135 plays, 5 optioned feature films, and hundreds of articles that appear in trade publications throughout the world. She is also a ghostwriter for The Penn Group in Manhattan and a professional script consultant. Her website can be found at www.authorhamlett.com.

Written by: Christina Hamlett
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