Thursday, February 17, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #39: Writing things the audience can’t see or hear

One issue that I see in a lot of scripts is people writing things that the audience won't see or hear, such as what a character is thinking or the reasons why people are doing things. It’s easy to make this kind of mistake because this is a natural way for people to talk and also to write just about any other kind of prose.

Here are some examples of the kinds of things that can easily sneak into screenplays, but which can’t be seen or heard, each followed by alternate wording:

1a. Josh rushes across the room to check his voicemail.

1b. Josh rushes to his message machine and presses Play.

2a. Rhonda can’t look her mother in the eye because of her overwhelming guilt.

2b. Rhonda keeps her eyes downcast.

3a. Bill and Karen walk through the park where they met back in the fall of 2003 and then sit on the bench where they had their first kiss in order to work out the problems that they’ve been having in their relationship.

3b. Bill and Karen sit on a park bench.

We need to talk.

One time when it is okay to write things that the audience won’t see or hear is when you’re first introducing a character and want to describe his personality so that the actor and reader will get an idea of what kind of person he is right from the start. For example, you might describe a character as, “far older than his 15 years,” or “always bursting with energy and enthusiasm” or “trapped in the body of a white girl.” (Snooki, I am looking in your direction.) But other than character introductions, it’s always best to stick with writing just what the audience can see or hear since those are the only things that will end up onscreen.


  1. Good stuff! Thanks for all of the advice it's very helpful!

  2. Hi. My name is Lisa Eve I am a published author and I am writing a screen play for my first book. I am slightly confused because I read that the Action was for expressing physcial movement as well as psychological thought. Some of the examples you have above I would think is giving the actors direction in where to go. For example...Josh rushes across the room to check his voicemail...the audience will see it once he does it, right? Or Bill and Karen sit on a park bench. That is giving direction as well. So please explain further what you mean. Thanks in advance.
    Author Lisa Eve

  3. Hi, Lisa. Congratulations on publishing your book and on starting the adaptation!

    You're right that a character's action should express both physical movement and psychological thought. Any actions that do both of those things are great.

    However, you don't get to tell the audience what those psychological thoughts are, just what the action is. If the action doesn't stand on its own as a representation of the character's thoughts or feelings, then it's not doing a good enough job of getting that point across to the viewer.

    Part of your question is whether or not it's good to give the actors that kind of insight to make sure that their actions carry the meaning you intended, but I still think the answer to that is no because it shouldn't be necessary.

    The other part of your question is whether it's fine to write something like the voicemail example because the audience will see what the actor is doing regardless of how it's written in the screenplay. My answer is that you can write it as "he goes across the room to check his voicemail," but it's more descriptive and accurate to write just what the actor does, which is pressing the Play button. No one should reject your screenplay for a couple of minor issues like this, but a bunch of them can add up to a reader thinking that you aren't an experienced screenwriter.

    The bottom line is that you can tell your actors what to do, but if you're also writing how they should do it or explaining why, then you haven't created a strong enough visual action yet that will demonstrate the character's mindset to the audience. If you can accomplish this through actions alone, you will be highly in demand as a screenwriter.

    Good luck!

  4. Hey Phil,

    I'd love to hear your take on this, as I keep seeing it over and over. I read about screenwriting rules, and then later I read a script from a hit show or film and see that a plethora of those rules where broken. At this point, it seems to me like the rules only apply to people who haven't made other people money yet. What do you think?

    1. Thanks for your question. I have three reactions to this: 1) You're right that the more money you make for people, the less the rules apply to you. 2) If you're directing the movie yourself, all of the wording rules go out the window. 3) I've never read a single script that didn't break some rules, including ones for highly successful movies. The goal is to know what all of the rules are so that you can make your script as clean and appealing as possible, and also to know when you want to break one of the rules in order to accomplish something specific in your screenplay. Hope this helps!