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    If You Can't See It, Hear It or Speak it - Don't Write It!

    See No Evil Know No EvilOne of the hardest tasks I face as a scriptwriting teacher is convincing new (and sometimes vetted) students not to put internal thoughts into scripts.  I call this inner narrative.  This is action or meanings only a reader would be able to glean because there is no way for a director or actor to matriculate that information to the screen.

    Passages like: "He remembered his mother who told him always to wear clean underwear" has no function unless it can be tied to the precise moment that is contextualized in your script.


    There are those who take this inner narrative to extremes by ascribing to the "fourth wall" paradigm by which you speak to the reader directly.  A prime example of this is Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon" "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" "Iron Man 3.")  Shane is a talented writer/director who likes to play with scriptwriting conventions.  For example, in one script I read (can't remember the name) he puts something to the effect of:

    The billboard above the man's head has a famous jeans commercial of a woman grabbing her ass.  She looks shocked.  Yes, honey, that is your ass.

    I'm sure I'm not getting the excerpt totally right - it's been a few years since I read the script - but the idea is valid.  He's talking directly to the reader trying to amuse and entertain so you'll like his script even more. 

    I'm not exactly talking about that, though. That's a style choice.  It's more about a scripts like the one I read recently for "The Fault In Our Stars." 

    The movie is based on a book by John Greene. I've seen it twice - I do that for most films I assign the classes in order to break the film down properly.  I also read parts of the script and the exerpts of the book since I was going to the talking about theme, adapating a book to screen and structure.

    Book adaptations are always challenging especially when the characters have strong internal voices.  The main character, Hazel Grace, is such a character.  She's tough, cynical, funny, bright - and played well by actress Shaleine Woodley.  The movie is nicely done with a lot of really great material from the book that is translated well by the script writers, actors and director.   Hazel Grace's book voice is done with voice over dialogue which helps to maintain the integrity of the book-to-screen adaptation.

    The Fault in Our StarsWhatever the shortcomings of the film or the book, it was a massive success earning more than 250 million on a budget of 12 million.  Wow.  Now that's the kind of ROI that makes Hollywood swoon.  My focus for this article is a teaching moment - I am not commenting on the film or the overall script itself.

    Most of us don't have the luxury of adapting a best-selling book which means we have to work harder - a lot harder.  There's tremendous leeway allowed for a script that is a fait accompli - in other words, it will get made despite how the script is written.  Money will be put in place, a director will be chosen and no matter how many rewrites it takes, or how many writers will be hired, a script will be shot. 

    In our world, the world of most scriptwriters, we usually write spec.  No one is waiting for our masterpiece.  We have to actually sell a concept, a script and ourselves as writers.   Usually, we're working without an inside game.  We are sending our material through a process that starts with a reader whose job it is to weed out the chaff.  This is an entirely different animal than adapting a best seller whose rights were purchased in a bidding war.  Given that, it behooves us to not piss off any reader who may be the gatekeeper to our success.  Writing inner narrative can have this result.  It just irritates to no end.

    For years, I've been avoiding terms like WE SEE / WE HEAR because I feel like it takes the reader out of the story.  Likewise, I avoid flashbacks, dream sequences or cute film tropes that may jerk a reader out of the story I'm telling.

    I feel the same way about narrative that informs the reader but can't possibly be translated to the screen.

    I noticed the TFIOS script does this a lot.  So much so that when I was reading it, my focus was taken away from the story several times.

    Again, this is a wildly successful movie so what's the harm if the writers cross a few lines? 

    In this case, perhaps nothing.  In other cases, well...why take a chance?

    The first few sentences of the script give an example of what I'm talking about.

    Hazel and the BOY we will come to know as AUGUSTUS “GUS” WATERS (17) at an outdoor restaurant in some magical place.
    [Though we DO NOT SEE HIS FACE, the impression we get is that the two of them look very much the perfect Hollywood couple.]

    Huh?  How exactly is that done?  Because in no way, the two times I saw this movie did I ever got this impression.   Maybe it had something to do with Hazel Grace's cannula (nose tubes) she has to wear all the time or she can't breathe.  Not really a "perfect" couple, right?  Something's amiss here.

    The Fault In Our Stars 2014 Movie Review Marshall We Live FilmOkay, so maybe this passage informs the director so he doesn't so something odd with the scene.  I can accept that.  But "perfect Hollywood couple?"  What is that anyway?  A Kardashian and a rapper?  Taylor Swift and the current-soon-to-be-ex?  I just don't quite get it.  I mean, sure, I meta "get it" - pretty, confident people - but something that amorphous can easily be misinterpreted and since it never finds its way to the screen anyway why do it?   Watch the film - tell me you got that 'Hollywood Couple" thing from the opening sequences.

    The script does go on to actually show some "perfect couple" moments so we see those.  Why muddy the water with a line in the narrative that doesn't do anything but inform a reader and not that well to begin with.

    I hear you - this is hair-splitting.  Okay, I'm trying to make a point and I'm using an exaggerated example.  I own that.  But hang with me for a another few examples.

    Let's try another inside-the-script internal/inner narrative moment. 

    From the script:

    Second, you’ll notice her hair - which we couldn’t see in the grass (actually, we can - me.It’s much shorter than the “Perfect” version, the result of someone whose head was completely shaved a few years before.

    No way this would make sense to a viewer.  Short hair = shaved head.  How is that?  So why do it?  To inform who exactly?  Won't the script eventually reveal that her head was shaved because of chemo?  Of course it will and does in flashback.  The particular narrative is useless.

    Here's a really solid example of what I'm talking about.

    It occurs when Hazel Grace, despite her misgivings, goes to a support group of cancer survivors.  The group leader is made out to be a bit of a dork because he slants the group toward Christianity in this way:

    CLOSE UP on PATRICK (30s, pony-tail). He has a guitar.

    ... we are gathered here today -
    literally- in the heart of Jesus. 

    First of all, I am not wild about the cynicism of the portrayal - obviously, the movie is saying, you can't be cool and be Christian.  What-ever.  But since the book and script are naturalistic (existentialist) in theme and sort of poo-poo a reliance on religion, I'm gonna roll over that. 

    The guy (Patrick) is sincere and he thinks they are in the literal heart of Jesus.  Now how best to show that?

    In the movie that "heart of Jesus" line is made very clear.  Patrick has woven a rug with a huge depiction of Jesus - the one with the exposed heart.  See the photo below.  So when he says he is in the literal heart of Jesus, he means it because they're seated on the rug depicting Jesus' heart.

    But here's the original passage from the script version I have:

    Patrick gestures above, to the rafters of the church, which is in fact shaped like a cross. (Thus they are - metaphorically- in the heart of Jesus.)

    Heart of JesusThis narrative in the script was recognized as being impossible to show as written so they changed it.  I'm guessing at this.  Maybe someone just remembered that this is a film and visuals are better than allusions so they ordered a rug.

    But isn't this the job of the writers?  To be visually clear if it's important to the script?  How hard would it have been to do this initially and not count on inner narrative to try to sell the moment?  It's quite lazy writing.   Alluding doesn't work if there's no solid basis.

    This is what I tell my students about relying on things that can't be shown.  It makes you a bit lackadaisical, less willing to work hard to get the visual elements that a film requires be put on screen and not simply mentioning some inner thoughts in your script.

    Scriptwriting isn't easy exactly for this reason.  And it becomes, as I stated in the beginning of this article, even more difficult when you're adapting a book which relies on a character's or even worse an author's inner voice to tell the story.  A novel writing style is impossibly difficult to capture on film and it's what we many times the reason with buy novels.  Try a James Elroy book out - see if the any of the movies made from his material match his unique prose style.

    Also, if you've read Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" take on "Batman" and then watched the films first made about them, you can see what I mean.  Miller's style is attempted but not really fully captured on the screen.

    One more example from TFIOS which requires a bit of a backstory from the book/film.

    WIllem Dafoe TFIOSAn author, Van Houten, (played by Willem DaFoe in the movie) has captivated Hazel Grace.  She gives the novel to Gus and he is also captivated but more so because she is.  Gus likes his prose a bit less philosophic but because Hazel Grace loves the book, he does too.  Hazel Grace becomes obsessed with finding out what happens to the fictional characters after the main character dies.  This is one of the many fine metaphoric overlays John Greene uses in the book.

    The two eventually travel to Amsterdam to meet the author (who to this point has been wholly uncommunicative) and he's rude and abrasive even though he's directly invited them to visit.  A mean drunk, as they say.  He insults them, is condescending and generally painfully humorless and horrible.  Cruel even:

               I don't want your pity --
                              VAN HOUTEN
               Of course you do. Like all sick  kids, 
    your existence depends on it.
    LIDEWIJ Peter! VAN HOUTEN (on a roll) You are fated to live out your days as the child you were when diagnosed, the child who believes there is life after a novel ends. And we, as adults, we pity this, so we pay for your treatments, for your oxygen machines. We give you food and water though you are unlikely to live long enough --

    His horribleness has a thematic purpose - it's meant to create a place for Hazel Grace to land after Gus dies It also serves to help Helen Grace grow a bit out of her obsession to find peace about her own inevitable death.  She realizes that the quest for meaning is basically purposeless, that the best we get is being remembered and loved by those we leave behind.

    Much later in the film (Act III) Van Houten comes to the funeral of Augustus and tries to talk to Hazel Grace but she will have none of it.  She's shattered by Gus' death and rejects any attempt by the now-hated Van Houten to communicate anything.

    She shouts at him to get out of her car.  He walks to the back of the car , pulls out a flask and she can see him in the rear-view mirror (symbolic if a bit ham-handedly done.)  He raises a flask of scotch and toasts her.  The gesture is inexpiable.  He's being the same shithole he always was.  I felt this both times I saw the film and asked two classes to give me their interpretation and every student said "he's being an asshole prick" or words to that effect.

    Here's how the scriptwriters saw it:

    And with that, she drives away. In the rearview mirror, she sees him raise the FLASK, as if toasting her. Maybe, just
    maybe, he will try to change. Hazel blinks away some tears and drives on.

    There is absolutely no way that this can be the interpretation.   Maybe a different actor or a different gesture or something could have conveyed the meaning the writers wanted (doubtful) but putting it in the script serves no purpose because nothing in Van Houten's demeanor or actions or dialogue lends itself to the interpretation.  Nothing.

    Sticking thoughts in in narrative simply won't get it done unless there is a physical or perhaps intuitive way based on a setup to convey it.  It's horribly lazy isaac and hazel angrywriting that serves no one.

    If the writers wanted the possibility of Van Houten's change then they should have given a voice over to Hazel Grace.  If it was important enough to detail, it is important enough to figure out a way to include it without hoping for it to be parsed properly.  My father used to say "wish in one hand and sh*t in the other - see what you get first."  Meaning, well, hopefully you get the meaning.

    Again, it's a good script and it was made into a good movie.  I happily acknowledge that.  But that doesn't mean that the writers' next script will turn out as well if they continue to use inner narrative to get their points across.  They got away with it here - good for them.   That may not always be the case.

    Movies cannot be like novels.  They are wholly different in many, many ways.  You're not given the charity of being able to 'explain' your character or plot in inner narrative.  You have to put it on the screen.

    But even if you're writing a wholly original idea, putting that inner narrative, the kind where you go inside the characters' heads and put thoughts in there that only the reader can see, is never going to be the way to do it for the screen.  You have to figure out how to get that out, onto the screen.

    That's the challenge.

    It's why they pay us, the "big bucks." 



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