Written by Karyn Keene
“Well…we can’t really film that.” I received this critique on the first script I wrote. I had done an excellent job of explaining how characters were feeling and thinking—in fact, the script read like a novel. And that was the problem. There was no way to visually convey that information to the audience.
Screenwriting can be a challenging medium, because everything is communicated externally. The audience can only see how the characters interact—so unless you have voice over narration (which is cheating) you cannot directly communicate internal thoughts. So how are we, as screenwriters, supposed to give our audience a glimpse into our character’s minds?
Actions Speak Louder Than…Well You Know
It’s common knowledge that 90% of communication is non-verbal. As screenwriters, we can mine all of those non-verbals to visually express our character’s thoughts and feelings. If the protagonist begins to feel uncomfortable she can brush her hair out of her face too many times, break eye contact, or start picking at a nail. Good actors naturally put these tics into their performance, but as a writer it’s important to zero in on key gestures and call them out in the script.
If you want to get good at this, go out people watching and see if you can tell what people are feeling just based on their movements.
Talk It Out
Dialogue is another great way to convey thoughts and emotions, but screenwriters must be diligent to ensure that it’s organic. We’ve all seen those painful exposition scenes where people talk about the plot for no apparent reason other than the audience needed to know *cough*crime dramas*cough*. Avoid this at all costs. It awkwardly reminds the audience they are watching a scene and destroys their suspended disbelief.
Two films that do an excellent job diving into a character’s thoughts through dialogue are Coraline and Midnight in Paris. Coraline started as a book by Neil Gaiman, where a young girl is lured into a dangerous “other” world. The book is hauntingly silent as Coraline is left alone to figure out her world. Her inner monologue is beautifully chilling. To translate that to the screen, the writers added a new character, Wybie, the annoying boy next door who doesn’t believe anything she says. Through her frustrating conversations with him, the audience sees her emotions and also understands her isolation without Coraline having to say, “I felt so alone.”
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is the story of a writer, Gil Pender, who finds himself magically transported to 1920s Paris where he meets his literary heroes at the stroke of midnight. To process this surreal experience, Gil talks to himself, trying to convince himself of the reality of his situation. He rarely speaks in full thoughts, but will repeat snatches of ideas over and over. Alongside Owen Wilson’s performance, the script communicates Gil’s overwhelmed awe, and we readily jump into this adventure with him.
A Note on Narration…
Among screenwriting circles, voice-over narration is typically seen as a cheap trick to circumvent the actual work of expressing a character’s inner thoughts visually or verbally. Starting screenwriters, as a rule, should avoid it and stretch their visual writing muscles instead. There are times, however, when a good writer might choose to use narration.
A prime example is the film Juno (2008 Oscar Winner for Best Screenplay), where the main character, a snarky, pregnant teen, uses comedic narration to explain the idiosyncrasies of her world and make the audience feel uncomfortable. However, the story would still work without the narration. The in-scene dialogue is powerful without a single wasted word and Diabo Cody is clearly a master at writing non-verbals. Far from being a crutch, the narration deepens the story by adding layers of comedy and meaning.
Though I had to do massive rewrites, that first script ended up working quite well. Writing for a visual medium can be challenging, but eventually your mind finds creative ways to show-off your stories. So keep writing! And if you have any other tips for how to get inner thoughts onto the screen, please share them below.
Want to read more? Learn how to write a screenplay with a production crew in mind.