Saturday, May 25, 2013

Screenwriting Mistake #60: Forgetting that Cell Phones Exist

It's that time of year again when I've been reading a bunch of student screenplays and I'm encouraged by how good some of them have been. However, there's one issue that cropped up in several scripts that I wanted to mention here today – cell phones exist.

I've never liked it when characters in movies and TV series just show up at someone's house without any warning. Fist of all, the person they're visiting is always home (What are the odds?) and second, this is just a lazy contrivance to add the forced drama of a surprise visit to a scene that would otherwise consist entirely of dialogue. Since everyone has a cell phone now, there's no excuse for doing this any more. People don't just drop by someone's house unannounced like this, so neither should your characters. If you want to see an example of this in action, watch any episode of the TV show "Grimm." Almost every week, someone shows up at another character's house unannounced. Every time that happens, I actually yell at their writers through the screen. But then I keep watching, so maybe this problem is more about me than them.

If you want to add drama to a dialogue-intensive scene, there are tons of other ways you can do that. Your first option is always to set the scene in a location that's more interesting than a doorway. You can also introduce some interesting actions into the scene, which usually involves setting it somewhere that has more visual possibilities. This is all straight out of Blake Snyder's "Pope in the pool" chapter, so please refer to his book for a more eloquent explanation. (Seriously, I should know better than to try to write blog posts on a Saturday morning.)

Or you could even use a cell phone to create more visual interest, maybe by having a guy call his girlfriend while driving, then he crashes his car. Okay, that's not much better than just showing up unannounced. How about, the couple could meet at a visual location, such as a putt putt golf course or a hockey game or a Carnaval parade, and then the girl can start off by holding up her phone and saying, "I came to the location you sent me. Now what do you want?" Did I mention that I'm writing this on a Saturday morning? Wait, I've got it! Do exactly what Blake Snyder says and have them meet at the Vatican pool! Then you can show a cool scene of them being chased by the Swiss Guard with their awesome harlequin uniforms. Problem solved.

The bottom line is that there's no excuse for a screenplay character to show up by surprise at someone's house or at any other location. If you want to put something like this in a screenplay, it needs to be absolutely necessary for that scene and you need to demonstrate why calling or texting in advance wasn't an option. You have been warned, "Grimm" writing staff!


  1. I have found a lot of instances where it is more realistic for the characters to text each other, rather than conversing. This presents a visual problem that some shows have cleverly solved (like Sherlock and House of Cards). Sometimes it is even more unrealistic and absurd to omit the text and then reference it in exposition later.

    How would you write a text message in a screenplay? My initial guess is to write it in an action line or do it like a newspaper headline and trust the director to find a way to visualize it.

    1. Hi 71. Sorry, I somehow missed your comment when you posted it. Yes, it can be possible to text effectively in a script, but texts usually become cumbersome and distracting.

      I would write a text description on its own action line, possibly using an INSERT to indicate that just the phone will be onscreen. More likely, I would have someone say the purpose of their text, such as "I'll ask her where she is," and then show that character typing on a phone. Or something better than that. Hope this helps!


  2. Nice post thanks for sharing this i really like this.

  3. Mr. Dyer, I've read through all 60 of these screenwriting mistake posts and they have been invaluable to my spec pilot and other things I'm working on.

    I've spent countless hours making verbs active and getting rid of filler words to make my work as best as it can be and it's all thanks to you!

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  5. Lots of people still show up unannounced, and not everyone has a cell phone. (I actually don't have a phone at all, and I know more people who don't always have a phone.)

    Some people like showing up unannounced, whether as a manipulation tactic or because they like surprises. Some do it b/c their phones break or can't keep phone numbers. Some do it b/c their friend likes surprises.

    There are polite and rude ways of dropping in like that. (Polite: "Hey, I was nearby and thought I'd say hi! Are you free for lunch?" Rude: "Hey, I was nearby. You have to come with me for lunch!")

    I do agree that cell phones get forgotten too much and unannounced drop-ins are overused, but I see that as two quite different things. :)

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