I recently entered a screenwriting contest and got my wrists slapped for doing something that seemed logical to me. The first time I introduce a character, I do it like this:
- SMITH stares at the bleachers and sees his wife, NOREEN, and his two kids, MARK and SHEILA.
The evaluators commented that I had “written what we can’t possible know” — that Noreen is the wife and Mark and Sheila are the children. Is this true? Have I made a faux pas that would brand me as a total loser of a screenwriter?
You’re not a total loser. You may have lost that particular screenwriting contest, so yes, you’re a total loser in terms of that competition, but in the grand scheme of things, you’re not irredeemably lost.
Assuming this is the first time we’ve met Smith or his family, you’ve written a pretty blah introduction. Yes, I’m hoping that it’s brevity for sake of example, but before you go any further, you may want to re-read How to Introduce a Character.
Are you back? Let’s continue.
Sometimes, honest-to-goodness professional screenwriters will include information that doesn’t seem exactly knowable. Matching up characters to their families is a good example. Yes, Smith could be looking to the bleachers and see a woman and two kids, who we only later find out are his family. But close your eyes and picture the scene. Imagine the shots. Any reasonable viewer is going to immediately grasp that the folks in the bleachers are his wife and kids, so it’s not a big cheat to include that in the scene description.
There are two kinds of “unknowable” information you can safely slip into your script.
Things that are inherently apparent on screen.
- The door is locked from the inside. (action reveals condition)
- Matt unlocks his bike. (presumed ownership)
- Sandra has a terrible head cold. (visible condition)
- He races down the aisles, looking for diapers. (presumed in context)
Details that add flavor, but don’t provide crucial information.
- He hasn’t slept in days, and hasn’t showered in weeks.
- It’s the nicest house on the street — at least from the curb.
- She collects enemies the way nerds collect comics.
Please don’t take this as an opportunity to load up your scripts with unfilmmable details. Screenwriting is largely an art of economy, so you need to always be looking for ways to say more with less, and to externalize internal motivations. The evaluators weren’t wrong. They were likely just over-applying a pretty good rule-of-thumb: a screenplay should include only those things the audience can see or hear.