Clarity Above All

There is no shame in being absolutely clear with your beats. In fact, I am that reader who is likely to not get something if it isn’t on the page. You should assume that if it’s not clear on the page, your reader is not going to get it. If you hint at something but it’s unclear, or if you skip a major story beat and jump somewhere forward in your story without establishing something important, I will go with the more obvious choice (i.e., stick to what is on the page) until it becomes very plain what is really going on.

It’s like that adage in life, “Never assume until you’re told directly.” I try not to infer things about people I’m not told, and I try not to fix your confusing story world in my mind. It is not my job as your reader to do a major patch-and-sew job. If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the page.

I had a notes example recently where a writer got very confused and then upset because I didn’t understand from the read some very nuanced and convoluted rules he had for a fantasy element within his story. Story beats aren’t really about terribly complicated and obscure rules for your world. That’s why I say screenwriting is about streamlining. I’m on a need to know basis: if I don’t need to know it, then don’t put it in, because it will clutter up the page and confuse me. Make the simplest, clearest but most impactful story choices. Find those simple couple of rules that are easily communicated in a couple of beats and then use those, externalize them in scenework. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated.

For example, if you’re writing a broad comedy about a female scientist working on a pill that will make humans smarter, then establish the basic parameters of the experiment, let us know that she’s under the gun and she tests on herself, and then build each beat to show us her getting smarter, scene by scene. That is streamlined, simple. I will understand this because you set up the concept when you introduced the purpose for the “smart pill.”

If you have a bunch of very nuanced details about your world that are convoluted and not abundantly obvious from the read (and this especially applies to the more complicated genres such as sci-fi, thrillers, fantasy, etc.), then don’t assume the reader got all that info. The main thing that is important in any scene is the story and emotional beat. When you connect the beats, that creates story. If you have too many beats in one scene or if those beats are confusing, or if you skip beats or the beats don’t progress in a logical manner, the best thing to keep in mind is if it’s not on the page, meaning quite literally, if I didn’t read it, I probably didn’t get that info from your script.

Another example of this is I recently read a draft for notes and there was a scene wherein a young girl was grabbed by an older man and then we cut away. There was no reason to believe from the way in which the scene had been written she would have been sexually abused – she might have just been verbally, emotionally and physically abused (i.e., beaten or made to work as a housekeeper, etc.) – but then later on in the story, it seemed important to know there that she had been sexually abused by this male because of the later fallout. There are a number of ways to directly imply lasciviousness without having to show them naked together. However, the fact that the writer wrote around that beat, I assumed there was no sexual abuse.

The best way to be 100% absolutely sure what I get from your pages as I read is from your own beat sheet. Once you’re done with your draft, go back in, beat out your story scene by scene, and you can see with fresh eyes exactly what the story and character beats are and what exactly I will be reading on the page. Remember that each scene should contain one story beat and also expose character. I won’t learn something unless it is on the page. In re-beating your outline, you can see what I’ll learn where and you’ll be able to see if something is missing or obscure. Keep it simple – and clear.

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3 Responses to Clarity Above All

  1. Joanna July 23, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    Monica, from your post it seems as if you’re suggesting that we spoon feed our audience, the first audience being the reader. When you say that “it isn’t on the page,” are we forgetting that a script can and should be greater than the sum of it’s parts?

  2. Monica July 23, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    It gets tricky. You’re right: you don’t need to spoon feed me. However, sometimes beats are dropped somewhere along the line in between something inferred (yet unspoken) and something not on the page, unclear or opaque. I’m not recommending anyone write on the nose. We don’t want any characters to storm around screaming, “I’m angry!” But make sure your beats move cleanly from A to B to C. They need to add up logically. The script should ideally be greater than the sum of its parts, but that transcendence comes more from tone, theme and character arc – the emotional journey the protagonist undertakes – than from the writer being unclear with his beats.

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