Some thoughts on scriptwriting

Screenplay by Victor Gregory
Photo by Victor Gregory. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Recently in the Young Writers Workshops I’ve been going to, we’ve been reading and talking about film, TV and theatre scripts. While there are some differences between how you write for each one, I want to talk about something they have in common.

All of them are visual. The writing has to show what’s happening to the audience, and not tell. Sure, This can be said for all writing, but in scriptwriting it has to be done almost entirely with dialogue. And that takes a lot of skill. 

Say what you mean

I may not write scripts, and while I admire the talents of those who do, there are a couple of things which I believe have a limited place in scriptwriting. The first of these things is cliché.

If a cliché is a saying that’s been used to the point where it has no meaning, then it could easily confuse an audience. The only way it would work, as I’ve written about before, is if the audience has previous seen why that cliché is being used.

So, if a character’s ‘life is a mess’, the audience should see them getting divorced, or becoming a drug addict or whatever. However, this is not a free pass for the writer to use cliché, and if the audience sees why that character’s life is mess then there may even be no need to use it at all.

Fitting it all in

Exposition, the telling of off-screen/stage events by characters on-screen/stage, can immobilise a narrative in a format where dialogue drives the action the audience is seeing.

If two characters are talking about an exciting event that’s happened for several minutes, but the audience didn’t see that event, it brings a pause to what’s happening now.

That’s not to say exposition isn’t useful. It can be good for offering the audience some background on characters and getting them caught up on essential action that have would have been boring to watch. Sometimes not everything can be condensed into a 2-hour film or 45-minute TV episode.

But everything that does make it into the final runtime should only be what’s essential to the narrative and characters. If not used carefully, exposition could make the audience feel like they’re missing out on something.

All about dialogue 

Scriptwriting is a challenging task, and showing narrative progress through mostly dialogue takes a lot of talent. Although I don’t write scripts myself, I believe scriptwriters should keep cliché and exposition to a minimum in their work.

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