That’s Not What I Was Taught

By Randal Stevens · June 15, 2010

I can't speak for the rest of you, but when I was in school, I was taught that a screenplay was not a director's notebook. What I mean when I say that is, I was taught that the screenplay should be the basic structure for a film, the skeleton, if you will; the director, actors, and cinematographer will shape the guts and the flesh. If I'm still too cryptic, that's to say that the screenplay should only include elements that can be gleamed simply from reading.


For instance, if your character walks by a girl and you intend your character to be disgusted by said girl, then you'd write something like:


"CHARACTER walks by a FAT GIRL. As he walks by, his steps slow and his gaze lingers on her face. His lips curl into a sneer, his brow furrows and he fights back a gag."


It may be a tad bit long-winded, but it creates a detailed picture of the disgust your character has for this homely woman. On the flip side, I was taught not to write like this:


"CHARACTER walks by a FAT GIRL with too much eye makeup – he can't stand the sight of her."


The latter example, I was told, was an example of lazy writing because there's no way to derive just from what's been written that he can't stand the sight of the Fat Girl. It was telling instead of showing and any good screenwriter will tell you that one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting is, "show, don't tell." At the time of teaching, I just took the professor's word for it because she had had a screenplay made into a film and I had not. However, shortly after graduation I got an internship reading scripts and writing coverage for a New York-based production company and realized that EVERY single bad script was guilty of telling instead of showing (amongst many, MANY other things).


I was also told that in order to further my screenwriting education, I should be reading good, produced scripts as well as bad, unproduced scripts. So I did. You know what I saw in those good scripts? So-called lazy writing.


Take, for instance, Michael Mann's phenomenal Heat, the link to which can be found here: Scroll down to page 3 and you'll find the scene in which we're introductory to the character of Michael Cerrito, played to cold perfection by Tom Sizemore:


"MICHAEL CERRITO – at 40 – is looking at a doll house.

He's a wide, thick, coarse-featured big man. Sicilian

from Sunnyside, he's spent 15 years in Attica, Joliet and

Marion penitentiaries. He's strictly a "cowboy": his

natural inclination towards a score is "…get the guns

and let's go." He's been off smack and everything else

for five years. He's clean and sober. He's the nicest

guy on the block and a loving father. If you get in his

way, he'll kill you as soon as look at you. If you asked

him about the contradictions, he wouldn't know what you

were talking about."


I am confused. This single paragraph is a vivid character sketch, but also everything I was taught not to do when it comes to writing a character. How exactly would any director on earth shoot "If you asked him about the contradiction, he wouldn't know what you were talking about?"


"Well, Michael Mann can get away with it because that's probably the shooting script." Read on – no, it isn't. That entire scene where he's introduced in a Toys 'R Us is no where in the film. "Well, Michael Mann can get away with it because he was also going to direct." But let's say he wasn't going to direct. Would that still be acceptable formatting? "Well, Michael Mann can get away with it because he's Michael Fucking Mann." Touche.


But seriously, what's right and what's wrong? As much as I was told not to include camera movements, internalizations and descriptions such as the one listed above, I find that sort of stuff more and more in produced screenplays. Could this bare bones approach actually be holding me back?