In the background


A film script I’ve been writing has a second level of story which (hopefully) won’t be obvious on first viewing. It’s a story which reflects on the theme and deepens your understanding of the events, but happens almost exclusively in the background. The kind of thing which helps give a film longevity and makes people want to re-watch to see how much of it they’ve missed.

The problem with that is it’s all well and good having stuff on screen that happens solely in the background, but I find it tricky to do in a script. The act of writing it down draws attention to it. Writing IN THE BACKGROUND or WE’RE* NOT FOCUSING ON THIS, BUT … is all well and good, but you can’t read that stuff without paying attention.

Sure, you can bury it in a big chunk of text, but then people reading get annoyed because their brain keeps skipping over stuff. I know that’s the point, but annoying people isn’t.

So how do you do it?

No, seriously, how do you do it?

I tend to put that stuff in italics with a note to the reader on the first occurrence like:

We’re not focusing on this, but IF YOU CARED TO NOTICE: in the background there’s a giant rubber duck hiding behind a car. The audience probably won’t notice, the protagonist certainly doesn’t.

And from then on just title each unobserved piece with IF YOU CARED TO NOTICE:

But is there a better way?

What would you do?

*Oh no! I used a ‘we’ in an action line! But that breaks all the rules! I’ll be put up against the wall and shot! No one will ever buy my work again! Oh hang on … no, that’s right. No one cares. Sorry, as you were.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “In the background

  1. Oh. Apparently I’ve been trying to figure this out since 2015:

  2. Paul Campbell

    Oh, I was hoping for the answer.

    This is exactly what I’m working on right now, at this very precise moment, only I’m not working on it because I can’t work out how to do it.

    The opening scenes of my great new script focus on a couple of people who will be important later on. But they’re nowhere near as important as the people in the background who appear to be extras and minor characters. It won’t be for several pages (OK, a paragraph or two, because this is a treatment, not a script) that the audience will realise they’ve been watching the wrong people all this time.


    I quite like you’re “if you care to notice,” but it does take you out of the action, and draw attention to the thing you’re trying to hide.

    Italics are good. I’ve tried that too, but I suspect it just makes it look as though you’re trying to be clever, and doesn’t actually get over what you’re trying to achieve. Most readers are lazy, and will not make the effort to follow your carefully constructed calligraphic code.

    What if…. [this is live, you realise]… what if I just treat my VIP minor characters as ordinary minor characters and let the reader barely notice them, and then, step out of the story later to point out what the reader has missed? So, keep the nudge-nudge moment until the point where you want the reader/viewer to realise.

    To use your example, “James is thrown back against the car, narrowly avoiding the giant rubber duck. He scoops up the discarded Uzi and peppers the ice-cream van with hot lead.” (or whatever). Later, when it’s important, “Do you remember the giant rubber duck? It was behind the car, just before the ice cream van got hit. Now you know why.”


    • Sorry, Paul. I don’t know why but I didn’t get any notification about your comment.

      Yeah, that works. I guess the issue could be the reader might flick back to check which can be distracting too.

      The funny thing with scripts is there’s a difference between the draft you want people to read and experience as if they’re watching it and the subsequent drafts where you don’t want any of the assorted departments missing the crucial information.

      The enthusiasm draft vs the technical draft.

      Still have no idea what the answer is.

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