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12/15/2001 - Surround Sound

I read a screenplay a few weeks ago that fell into a category I found difficult to describe. The story was good - a solid premise - and the writer obviously was bright enough to tackle a labyrinthine plot. The problem was that the writer tried far too hard to fill in the ambient sound of the characters' world. So much sideline dialogue and stage instruction was thrown in that I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the through-line of the story.

Readers of your script don't need to hear each piece of surrounding sound that "plays" in the background of a scene. If the dog is begging for scraps, the baby is practicing his first few words and the television is blaring in the room, don't litter the scene with these background bits while your protagonist is having a heart-to-heart on the phone in the foreground. It's enough to include the action line: "Barbara struggles to hear her lawyer on the phone over the baby's sing along with Sesame Street. The dog makes it worse by begging for table scraps."

It's amazing how frequently this problem crops up in screenplays, probably because so many writers are diligently trying to give their screenplay a sense of realism, a lifelike flow that makes, say, a novel so satisfying. In the quest to produce natural-sounding dialogue it's tempting to type a scene verbatim, as though transcribing something already filmed.

Your realism may cost you, however. For unless you are listening to the actual infliction of everyday words, naturalism can be hazy. It pulls your reader's attention in every direction, wondering if the marginal conversation is significant, or if the sideline action is about to twist the story in a new direction.

For example, if a movie suddenly shows a super close-up of a phone, you expect it to start ringing. A close-up of a doorknob makes you anticipate it turning. In the same way, everything you draw attention to by identifying it or giving it a precious line of dialogue makes the development reader expect it to matter. If it's set decoration, we feel led astray.

If your script overflows with background noise, the reader knows that you are trying to direct in your script. Directing is the director's job. Your screenplay does not have to BE a movie: it is merely an outline for a movie. It's a strange genre of writing in which you must make people fill in the spaces themselves, rather than filling it in for them.

Don't risk having your script put aside because it's a chore to read. Keep it clean.


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