So over the last few weeks, you guys have seen me bring a certain term up time and time again: CLARITY. Or, more specifically, lack there of. Clarity isn’t as sexy to talk about as character arcs or the first act turn, but unclear writing is a way-too-common problem for beginners and low intermediates, particularly because they’re not aware it’s a problem in the first place. Tell them you didn’t understand something, and they think the onus is on you. They believe that if it makes sense in their heads, it should make sense in yours.
The problem is that what works inside your gray matter doesn’t always work on the page. For example, say you’re writing about a movie that jumps back and forth between Present Day and the Old West. As the writer, you’ve been prepping this dual-time story forever. So by the time you start, everything about it makes complete sense to you. Your first scene, then, follows a detective walking into a murder scene. After the scene is over, you cut to a whorehouse in the Old West. Now to you, this cut makes perfect sense. To a reader being introduced to the story for the first time, however, it’s confusing as hell. How did we get from a murder scene to a 19th century brothel??? The solution to orientating the reader is quite simple. Just insert a title card that says “1878 – The Old West.” Now the cut reads as structured and intentional, as opposed to random and bizarre. It seems quite obvious but beginner writers often don’t know to do this.
And that’s the problem. If a script contains as little as three or four confusing moments in the first act, the script is shot. It gets too confusing for the reader to follow along. I mean sure, we have a vague sense of what’s going on, but the particulars are hazy, and the particulars are what make a script a script. Now the more I started thinking about this problem, the more I realized there weren’t any articles out there specifically addressing it. Which seemed strange to me because it’s an issue that comes up three or four scripts a week in my reading. Hence, why I decided to write today’s post. I want to give writers the tools to BE CLEAR in their writing. So here are some guidelines to follow that should keep your screenplay easy to understand.
A CLEAR GOAL – One of the simplest ways to write a clear story is to set up a big goal for your main character in the first act. In Trouble With The Curve, we establish that Eastwood’s character must correctly scout a minor-league player or lose his job. In yesterday’s script, The Almighty, I was never clear on what the ultimate goal was. Stop Lucifer maybe? But we had to get through a lot of gobbledy-gook to get to that point, and even then, I wasn’t sure if that was the ultimate goal. So, as a beginner, instead of having a bunch of changing or shifting goals during your story, keep it simple. Your hero should be going after one thing (Indiana Jones goes after the Ark). Following this one rule is going to take care of most of your clarity problems.
GET RID OF UNIMPORTANT SUBPLOTS – Lots of writers will add subplots that feel completely separate from the main storyline. So instead of enjoying them, readers spend the majority of the time trying to figure out what they’re doing there in the first place. This detracts from the primary story (the main goal), making the story difficult to follow. Subplots are good. Just make sure they’re plot related.
GET RID OF UNIMPORTANT CHARACTERS – I can’t tell you how many times I stop reading a script to ask the question, “Who is this person???” Characters that have only a minimal effect on the story should be ditched or combined with other characters. The more characters there are in a script, the harder it is for the reader to keep track of everyone, and the more confused they get. They’ll start mixing people up, forgetting who’s aligned with who, and just outright forget characters. This is a big reason for reader confusion.
REMINDERS – Depending on how complicated your story is, you may need to remind your reader every once in awhile what the goal is. Even if your story isn’t complicated, you’d be surprised at how quickly a reader can lose track of why we’re on this journey. In The Hangover, Bradley Cooper’s character is constantly reminding us that they need to find Doug. For simple stories, you may only need to remind the audience twice. For complex ones, you may need to remind them as many as six times. Feel out the complexity of your story and determine the number from there. But a good reminder of what we’re doing and why is always helpful to the reader.
STAY AWAY FROM FLASHBACKS, FLASHFORWARDS AND DREAM SEQUENCES – In the hands of beginners, these devices are script suicide. I’m not even sure what it is, but when new writers attempt them, they almost always occur at random times and result in total confusion. I just read a script two weeks ago that started with a woman getting married. The very next scene had that same girl walking into a pharmacy and flirting with a different guy. Questions: Why was our protagonist going to a pharmacy right after her wedding? And why was she trying to pick up a guy hours after getting married? Eventually I figured out that this was a flashback. But how was I supposed to know??? This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME, even with more advanced writers. So the best solution is to just keep your story in the present. Use these devices if they’re necessary for telling your story (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind). But make sure that they’re properly notated and that there really is no other way to do it.
KEEP YOUR WRITING SIMPLE – I was just discussing this with a writer the other day. He’d written this huge lumbering opus and peppered every paragraph with 20 adjectives and 90% more description than was needed. Even when I did manage to understand what was being said, it felt like I’d run a marathon through quicksand. After awhile, it became so laborious to read through even the most basic scenes, that my mind tired out, and it became difficult to follow what was going on. Therefore, it wasn’t that the information wasn’t on the page. It was that we had to dig through a pile of words to get there. Do that too many times and the reader gives up. And when that happens, your script becomes unclear by reason of exhaustion.
MAKE SURE EACH SCENE HAS A CLEAR GOAL – Believe it or not, there are tons of writers out there who can’t even write a clear scene. ONE CLEAR SCENE. And it’s usually because they don’t have a gameplan. They just sort of write what comes to mind. So make sure going into a scene that you’re doing four things. First, make sure you have a goal for the scene. For example, you want your two leads to meet. Second, make sure the scene moves the story forward. In other words, the scene should be required to get your protagonist (either directly or indirectly) closer to his ultimate goal. By “indirectly” I mean, yes, Indiana Jones wants the Ark, but the scene where he goes to Marion is required because she has a piece of the puzzle required to find the Ark. If she doesn’t have that piece, this scene isn’t moving the story forward, and therefore isn’t needed. Third and fourth, make sure both characters in the scene have a goal. So in the Marion Intro scene, Indiana’s goal is to get that puzzle piece, and Marion’s goal is to keep it from him. This basic setup should ensure that every scene you write makes sense.
IF YOU DON’T TELL US, WE WON’T KNOW – In your mind, Indiana might be standing right next to Marion, but if you don’t tell us, how are we supposed to know? In your mind, the bar might be full of people. But if you don’t tell us, we might assume it’s empty. In your mind, the bad guys are in the room adjacent to our hero, ready to strike. But if you don’t convey that, we may assume they’re in a room all the way across town. Writers leaving out basic information is one of the quickest ways to scene confusion. For example, I just read a script where two friends were sharing secrets about a guy named “Joe.” But Joe was right there in the room next to them! I was so confused. How could they secretly be talking about a guy who was right there??? The writer later explained that Joe was actually on the other side of the room, so he couldn’t hear them. Well how the hell was I supposed to know that? Again, it’s a matter of assumption with a lot of beginners. They assume things are obvious. But the reality is, if they don’t tell the reader, how the heck is the reader supposed to know?
Now in the end, sound storytelling principles have the biggest effect on clarity: A strong goal. A hero we want to root for. An interesting story with exciting developments. Escalating stakes. If you do that, you’ll keep the reader’s interest. If you don’t, the reader will get bored and start checking out, missing things because they’re just not into your story anymore, and hence start getting confused. And one last thing. When you’re finished, give your script to a friend to read and just ask them if it all makes sense. Drill them on parts of it. Ask them questions. Make sure it’s all clear. Then, and only then, should you unleash your screenplay into the world.