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The Unfilmables

‘Unfilmable’ has two distinctly different meanings for screenwriters. On the one side ‘unfilmable'(*) are those works that are impossible to adapt to the screen, Ulysses being an infamous unfilmable. But we’ll talk about something else altogether.

The inexperienced screenwriter, in an attempt to clarify what a scene, a shot, a line really means, will occasionally sneak in information that is not visible on the screen. It’s lazy, it’s confusing and it’s above all unprofessional.

As there are many types of filmables, let’s have a look at some and put them in a few categories.

Thoughts and Feelings

This is arguably one of the most common mistakes in beginners’ screenplays. After all, we want the audience to understand what are character thinks and feels! So the easiest – and worst – thing to do is to just describe it.


Bruce and  Betty look at each other.

BRUCE
Betty… You know we should have done this ages ago.

A profound sadness takes possession of Betty. But she doesn’t show it. She is strong.

So if she doesn’t show it, how does the audience know? Find the subtext. Is she biting her lip? Or putting on a weak smile, while clenching her fist behind her back?

Intention or Goal

This is similar to the previous case, only the characters don’t always consciously think about the reason why they’re doing something.

An example:

Jack opens the door carefully, mindful not to wake up the sleeping guard.

Either we get it – there’s a guard, and he’s asleep – in which case it doesn’t need to be said. Or we don’t know it, in which case the viewer will still not understand John’s caution unless it is explained VISUALLY.

Because a character’s intention is usually the most important part of a scene’s subtext, it is essential you make this clear on the screen, visibly, filmably!

Past Events and Backstory

The engine dies. Ella steps out of the car. What she doesn’t realize: she has just broken down at the exact spot of her husband’s accident.

In this example, the audience may have seen the accident scene earlier in the movie. If so, you can describe a few easily recognizable details from earlier in the script.

Here’s an other example, which shows this type of cheating can be a lot more subtle – and an inexperienced reader may easily miss it:

Elizabeth and Lily enter the tea-room and head straight for their regular table.

If this is the first tea-room scene in the script, there is no way the audience can tell they are regulars from this description. So you need to clarify it in a different way … if it is really important. Otherwise, just leave it out.

Character relationships

This issue often occurs with the introduction of new characters. To understand the dynamics of a scene, it is important to understand the relationship of a character with the Hero. You can’t just write this in the description:

A loud knock on the door makes Anna jump.

It takes her a moment to recover.

ANNA
Come in!

In steps her ex-boyfriend ERIC (22). It’s been years, but he still cares.

ERIC
Tell me you’re not dating Patrick. He can’t be trusted.

DAD (O.S.)
Leave her alone, son!

This scene better be clarified, as the reader gets a lot more info than the audience, who might even assume Eric is Anna’s brother.

Parallel Action

It may seem obvious that you can only describe what is visible in the scene and on the screen, yet you’d be surprised how often beginning screenwriters take liberties of this kind:

INT. SUSANNA’S ROOM – DAY

While outside the kids keep drawing stick figures on the driveway tiles, Susanna sits in her room, alone.

Not only is ‘in her room’ superfluous, we can’t see the kids unless you clarify in some way that we can see the kids through the window. Now there’s another challenge as you can’t use ‘we see’…

Exception 1: Character Introductions

Often, even in great screenplays, the character introduction gives you information that is not immediately visible. I am not saying you shouldn’t try to avoid it, but particularly for the Hero it is an easy way to set up the character and give a flavor for the type of actor who could play the Hero.

Here’s the introduction of our Hero BAXTER in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment;

BAXTER is about thirty, serious, hard-working, unobtrusive.
He wears a Brooks Brothers type suit, which he bought
somewhere on Seventh Avenue, upstairs.

Or SANBORN, in The Hurt Locker:
SERGEANT J. T. SANBORN works the joystick on the laptop. He
is a strapping Iowa farm boy, with a thick back from bailing
hay.

Exception2: The Disappearing Act

Sometimes you want to describe that something has disappeared from a scene. To make this work, you focus on the item(s) in the previous scene in the same location, then describe how those items are no longer there. The audience will get it.

EXT. THE SMITHS’ DRIVEWAY – DAY

The car is gone.

Or better even:

EXT. THE SMITHS’ HOME – DAY

The driveway is empty.

The bottom line is really simple: read your scene. Re-read it. Is everything you’ve written down VISIBLE or AUDIBLE to the audience?

If not, you will need to cut it or rewrite and clarify in a cinematic way.

You are writing a screenplay, not a novel.

What other acceptable exceptions do you know?

(*)Any idea why some people spell it “unfilmmable”??


If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.

Once you have written your screenplay, make sure you keep the reader hooked by eliminating all the errors that would distract from an enjoyable experience.

Check this 12p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec screenplay.

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About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 2

  1. It’s very simple, and I have been saying it for years. “If you can’t see it, don’t write it.”

    Obviously this doesn’t cover SOUNDS, but you have to dumb it down sometimes. I always try to dumb it down during the re-write phase. Everything always comes out so much more crisp and clean.

    Great blog post and a topic that will never cease being useful. Which, in itself, is a shame.

    1. Post
      Author

      I feel now that saying “it’s lazy” is a bit too strong.

      It’s perfectly fine to have all this crap in your first draft. No time to try and find the best solution for each while you’re still trying to get the story out.

      But you shouldn’t show this stuff to anyone!

      You’re probably right when you say “I always try to dumb it down during the re-write phase.”

      That’s when you need to find ways to make as much as possible visible/visual.

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