Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Continuity (Part 2)

June 10th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today we look at the “continuity.’ In Chapter IX [P. 36]:

The first step in preparing your continuity is to introduce your characters. The old fashioned way was to show the characters one after the other in a series of portraits. The better technique is to introduce them as they appear in the story itself. In any case make your audience entirely clear upon the character of each person in the story and his relation to other characters.

Confusion as to the characters is ruinous. Don’t get your audience interested in minor characters at the start. Keep your important characters on the screen long enough in the first scenes so that the audience will recognize them clearly in future scenes.

I think character introductions are so important, I teach an entire 1-week course on it. Every character introduction is important, but especially in Act One where you are tasked with ushering in every major character in your screenplay. That is a challenge for a script reader to keep them all straight. You can make that experience a positive one by how you handle your character introductions.

Loos and Emerson provide two important tips:

* “Make your audience entirely clear upon the character of each person in the story”: When you introduce a character, you have the right to approach it in a more ‘novelistic’ way. That is you may describe something of their personality getting to the essence of who they are. For example, “Withers is a Type A guy in Type B clothes.” Providing the reader a thumbnail sketch of a character’s persona is an effective way of making it “entirely clear” who each character is.

* “Keep your important characters on the screen long enough in the first scenes so that the audience will recognize them clearly in future scenes”: Screen time or page count, especially in Act One, can convey the relative importance of a character. Thus you would be wise to give more of it to Primary characters and less to Secondary and Tertiary characters.

Next week, titles and sub-titles from Anita Loos and John Emerson.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

5 thoughts on “Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Continuity (Part 2)

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    > “Make your audience entirely clear upon the character of each person in the story”

    > …When you introduce a character, you have the right to approach it in a more ‘novelistic’ way. …Providing the reader a thumbnail sketch of a character’s persona is an effective way of making it “entirely clear” who each character is.

    [bolding added]

    I wonder about this a lot, and wrestle with it in my writing. I wonder if the two quotes above (from Loos, then Scott) aren’t talking about two different things–related things, but different things.

    Loos is talking about making an impression on the audience, but a “novelistic” description is by definition going to make an impression only on the script reader, not the film viewer. (or am I missing something here?)

    I think the sweet spot probably lies in recognizing that, in the case of a spec script, you need to communicate to both “constitutencies”: a busy slushpile reader needs to “get it” when they rush through your script, AND what you write needs to translate into a clear and meaningful character introduction for a theatre audience watching the finished product.

    My gut feeling is that writing for an audience will, in most cases, also serve a reader, but writing with just a reader in mind may not always serve an audience. In other words, if you err, err to the side of the audience, but realize that a reader has a different perspective and different needs (see also: spelling out moments in dialogue for a spec that can be conveyed with a look on film, etc.).

    . . .

    Back to introducing a primary character: Has anyone here read the Aaron Sorkin pilot for West Wing? The introduction of President Jed Bartlett is magnificent. It’s the gold standard for me of powerful and effective character introductions.

    Here’s a link to the PDF at Daily Scripts: West Wing Pilot [pdf]. (If you haven’t read it, grab it while it’s available and give yourself a treat.)

    . . .

    PS Thank you Scott for the Anita Loos series and the link to the book. I read the book when you first posted about it and really enjoyed it, and I’m enjoying the series as well.

    1. Scott says:

      Shaula, I think I mentioned elsewhere recently, I think character introductions are so important, I created an entire week-long SMC course on the subject. My focus is on the character within the context of the script and, of course, each introduction has to be consonant with that script’s Narrative Voice. But a big part of it is about making an impression on the script reader. How you introduce a character in effect creates a lens through which the reader interprets that character’s initial actions and dialogue. So by the time the reader has gone through 2-3 pages with a character, they are locked in in terms of their primary perception of the figure. And first impressions are hard to break. Therefore it behooves a writer to be extra mindful of presenting each character in a distinctive, entertaining, and memorable way to help the reader distinguish between them all AND give them a clear angle through which to see and interpret them.

  2. Shaula Evans says:

    > But a big part of it is about making an impression on the script reader.

    I really appreciate that you take that angle, Scott. While there are a lot of people giving advice on writing scripts in general, you seem much more honed in on the realities of writing *spec* scripts. Script readers are the gatekeepers for spec scripts, and your advice on how to write for those readers is very helpful.

    I’m glad you highlighted the issue that Vic Tional brought up about Narrative Voice (which is a much more useful term than “unfilmables”–thank you for that), too.

    There’s a lot of overlap in the concepts behind these two posts for me. And as I said, Narrative Voice is something I find myself wrestling with, so the subject is timely for me. Thanks again.

    1. Shaula Evans says:

      Oops. Meant to be a reply to Scott above. Sorry.

  3. “Don’t get your audience interested in minor characters at the start.”

    I can’t express how big of a deal this is.

    Bad analogy time! It’s like a facehugger without a face to insert itself into.

Leave a Reply

Connect with: