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03/09/2002 - Breaking the Fifth Wall

I just read a wonderful article by a grumpy writer (the best kind) about the chattiness of modern screenplays. The grumpy writer suggested that these direct comments are aimed directly at the Reader - to jolt him out of the stupor induced by nonstop reading; to make him laugh, feel in witty collusion with the writer, even to acknowledge the Reader's drudgery and thus win his favor.

The asides begin something like this:

"Brad looks up from his drafting table to the slow-moving clock, tired, hungry, worried, in need of a bathroom -- the typical cram session blues."

That one's not too bad, for the writer is trying to evoke a shot, to give the actor a scene-opening thought.

Emboldened, the writer may try something like this:

"Brad looks up from his drafting table to the slow-moving clock. No amount of coffee in the world is going to get him to the deadline."

Coffee? Is there a coffeepot in the shot? Are we going to see him drinking pots of coffee and failing to revive? Probably not. Still, it's an evocative sentence. This stylistic choice is totally accepted now. At least, I see it all the time.

Another article I read identified a certain Buddy/Cop action hit as having seriously launched this trend with outright vaudevillian wisecracks made by the screenwriter. Here's a reasonable facsimile:

"Brad looks up from his drafting table to the slow-moving clock. He's as tired of working as you are of waiting for the next plot point to kick in. Suddenly, a shot RINGS out."

That's just obnoxious. Never do this unless you want the reader to hunt you down and hurt you. You can only get away with these gags if - well, if you get away with them. Don't count on it. There's a questionable art to such punchlines and by the time you master it the trend may already be gone. My best advice is to skip it.

Winking asides to the script reader were in full bloom by the time I entered this business, although plenty of scripts I read adhere to the classic, formal approach. Such asides are both good and bad, but screenwriters should break the reader-writer wall only with extreme caution, and only once or twice, at a moment when such an interruption serves the dramatic moment. Throw quips around casually and you're asking for it.

If the movie business is a mere century old, then the art of screenwriting is even younger. It's evolving, like movies have, changing in an interesting way. Screenplays now tend to operate on a subliminal level, one of suggestion and sensory involvement. As the cranky writer noted, screenwriters are aiming for direct hits with their readers at a personal and conversational level. They're trying to put the fun and sweep of a titillating pitch session into their action lines, stopping short of putting a scratch and sniff sticker for the reader to smell the heroine's intoxicating perfume.

Scripts are becoming novelistic. They can be fun to read just for the reading. I don't always need to see the film made to be captivated - often a screenplay transports me to the place once reserved for enthralling novels. To be honest, I don't think the writers are trying to seduce the reader; maybe they know that readers don't have time to read books. The screenwriters may be trying to give readers the illusion that they're reading something besides assigned screenplays and takeout menus for the first time in five years.

We appreciate the thought. Just don't get carried away.


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