Okay, so you’ve done a lot of character exploratory work, maybe even written some backstory scenes between major characters. You’ve been thinking about plot and central character arc and where you want your script to land–in other words, you’ve been working at a structural framework or basic bones of the script that seems reasonable. And you’re now finally sensing that maybe you’re ready to move on in the process, leave all this pre-writing work behind, and take the plunge into the writing of your first draft.
Here’s something to keep in mind as you stand on the edge of that diving board preparing to jump off.
It’s basically very simple, actually. Just remember that your script is only the tip of the iceberg–the surface layer of a deeply submerged whole. Your job now is to write your pages in such a way that there are constant albeit often indirect glimpses into that submerged part of your story, or subtext–that rich stew of intellectual and emotional “stuff” always hovering just under the surface–that you’ve explored in your pre-writing work. And you tap into this deeper level and make it felt and understood by what you leave unsaid. As a result, your audience is seduced into making its own connections between the surface and what lies underneath and in the process becomes fiercely engaged with the script to get the whole story.
Take Downton Abbey for example (there, I admit I’m a fan of this lovely period soap opera). One of the things writer and creator Julian Fellowes does well is constantly invite us as viewers to “lean into” the unfolding story by never having a character say something that we already know or suspect–especially when it comes to the smouldering subtext that hovers underneath each character’s conscious present reality like hot coals in an ash bin. We are allowed to engage with this inner life of the overreaching story and the characters that bring it to life because the subtext is always operating and “exposed” moment by moment, yet is never directly referred to nor ever actually allowed to crack the surface. And this is one of the main reasons that the series works so well, episode after episode, year after year.
So always write with this dynamic in mind. It’s this quality more than any other that separates good scripts from bad.
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I’m the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency until April 1st. I’m also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.