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In Your Head Or On The Page?

By William M. Akers

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Making sure what you think it says, it says!

Here's something I find difficult to "keep in mind," ha ha ha.

Beware that your best work may be all in your head, not on the page. Sticky Mind Glue: the insidious killer of excellent stories. Sometimes your story gets stuck in your head and can't get out...

When I speak to a client after reading their script (three times!), first thing I ask is, "Tell me your story." Because they've lived with it for so long, and there's no pressure to impress me, they're always very good at telling it. I’m sure, so are you. The problem is, more often than I'd have thought, their fantastic story ISN'T ON THE PAGE. It's right there, wonderfully clear in their head, but the "on the page" version is either murky or, worse, in France on vacation and unavailable.

I can’t tell you how often I see this.

"It’s about this guy who..."
No it isn’t.
"Yes it is."
Read it, dude.

SOUND OF IRRITATED READING... then...

"Oh. Crap."

"Corrado and Riley were in league from the beginning."
No, they're not.
"It's right there..."
Not if you read it.
"Ooops."

Ah well. Better me than a potential lit agent.

I also saw this with a book I optioned. The sixteen year old heroine was involved with her father's best friend. While writing the script's first draft, I asked the book's author about the characters' sexual relationship. She said that it was very important that they had refrained from having intercourse, as she felt it would have taken sympathy away from the 45 year old guy.

I said, "But they do have sex."

"No, they don't."

I got the book and read a couple of paragraphs to her over the phone. The guy and the girl are doing all sorts of kissing and fairly inappropriate things and he finally gets hot and bothered enough to say to her, "Don't make me stop."  And the 16 year old narrator says, "I didn't."

The book author was pretty surprised to find out what actually happened in her story. A few years after the book had been published, too.

Whoops.

Everybody starts with a movie in their head then squeezes it out of their marvelous brain onto the page. Beware Sticky Mind Glue!  How can you communicate your story to a reader (or agent or producer or actor) if the movie in your head STAYS THERE?

If someone misunderstands your writing, is it their fault?  I say "Nay."  Tie does not go to the runner.

I critiqued a script from a client who is a good writer, but I mentioned in the notes that there was a totally confusing scene -- a character at an airport has trouble finding a parking space out front so he could wait to pick someone up. A cop tells him to move. As he’s pulling out of the passenger loading zone, a van hits his car.

CUT TO: A funeral. Someone is being buried and I had no idea it was the guy in the car. None. Zero.

A lot hinged on the fact that we know who’s dead. But I missed it.

In his mind, the writer saw an exquisitely clear picture of the van hitting the car, the guy being squashed flat, and blood gushing all over everywhere and, etc. etc… but those story-pushing details were not on the page. All that really happened was the van hitting the car.

I’ve been going to airports for all of my 33 (!) years, and I have never seen a car in a passenger loading zone going fast enough to kill anybody. Especially since 9/11. So, as I read the pages, based on what had been written, I saw a fender bender.

It could have been described as "a joy riding TEENAGER, flying low through the airport in a tricked out Econoline van SLAMS into the Cadillac... Ewwww. Gross. Mr. Smith is dead on impact."  Then, when you CUT TO: the funeral, we know who’s dead. There is no QUESTION that we know who’s dead.

I repeat:  Just because you see the movie in your head, does NOT mean the reader is going to get it off the page.

Since I was so confused, I had to go back and piece together what the writer meant, which threw me out of the read. Not what you want. Clarity is the most important thing in any script. Have someone read it out loud to you. That'll help.

Another way to approach the problem... After you get your draft done, without referring to the script, write a prose version of your story. Nothing fancy, no "writing."  Just tell the story. Get it right. Tell it all. No dialogue, just narrative. Then, compare it to your screenplay. Is what you think is in your script, there? 

You can’t beam your story from your head to mine, yet. Maddeningly, your story must first be a script. And that script must really and truly say what you hope it does.

Be aware that this is a problem. Check your script. Tell the story to a friend. Let her read it and see if the story you told matches the one on paper. Woe unto you if it does not.

Get it out of your head.

Get it on the page.

About William M. Akers

A Lifetime Member of the WGA, William M. Akers has had three feature films produced from his screenplays.  He has written scripts and series television for studios, independent producers, and television networks.  He is Chair of the Program in Motion Pictures at Belmont University.  Akers does story consulting and gives writing workshops around the world.  His bestselling book, Your Screenplay Sucks!, has a five star rating at Amazon.com.

Screenwriting Article by William M. Akers

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