If you allow us the opportunity to misunderstand your story, we’ll take that opportunity!!

I have a student who is writing a short film. The climax of the story involves the kids upstairs, getting their backpacks ready for school. They argue a little. Then they hear a huge crash from the kitchen. And another one. They run down stairs. Their mother is sitting in the kitchen amidst a pile of glass, crying. The father says he didn’t know the kids were there and leaves for work.

When I read the part about the huge crash, I thought, “Oh my. Mom has dropped a bunch of dishes.”

When I read the part about Mom sitting in a pile of broken dishes, I thought, “Oh my. Mom has dropped a bunch of dishes.”

You may have gotten it, but I did not.

Dad had been throwing the dishes at Mom. This was the big reveal that he is abusive and triggered her leaving. I missed it completely.

The writer knew exactly what she had in mind. She thought it was totally clear to the reader. I missed it. Is that the fault of the reader? I don’t think so. As my film school teacher said, “You can’t stand next to the screen and explain it.”

The writer’s job is to tell the story in such a way that the reader can only interpret it the way the writer intends. If you give the reader the chance to get it wrong, the reader will get it wrong.

This is also true in filmmaking. A shot that says exactly what the student means when they roll camera can take on a shockingly different meaning when they show dailies in class. “Oh my!” is what I hear from time to time. It meant one thing on the set and something else when screened for an audience.

Guess which one wins?



Filed under Bad Writing, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

6 responses to “If you allow us the opportunity to misunderstand your story, we’ll take that opportunity!!

  1. Should be an easy fix if the screenwriter shows the mom not only crying but perhaps cowering in fear from her husband. Or, perhaps by showing another dish being held in the father’s raised hand, as if he were going to throw that one too, but seeing the kids, he sets it down and walks away.

  2. L

    I got right away what had happened. The Dad’s line that he didn’t think the kids were in the house is the giveaway. If need be, put in an action line that the kid doesn’t realize at first what’s happening. But making the scene super obvious diminishes its power on screen — there’s nothing for the audience to discover. They won’t have that moment of confusion and “aha!” that the P.O.V. character has.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      It’s a tightrope across a fiery chasm, isn’t it? Tell them too little, and it’s not clear. Tell too much, and there’s no fun in it for the reader. A puzzlement.

  3. Would rule number 7 from Billy Wilder’s 10 rules of filmmaking apply here?
    1. The audience is fickle.
    2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
    3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
    4. Know where you’re going.
    5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
    6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
    7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
    8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
    9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
    10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

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