There’s something I want to talk about, I think you know what it is … because I mentioned it in the title: it’s the elephant in the room.
No, seriously. There’s an elephant in the room, not a metaphorical one, a real elephant with tusks and wrinkles and ears and everything. I’m looking at him now …
How do you feel about that?
Presumably you feel I’m lying … and you’d be right. An elephant in the room? Madness … it’s a wildebeest.
The thing about the elephant (or wildebeest) in the room is it’s the kind of statement I might write into a script, which is fine … but it doesn’t mean anything, not on its own. Take the following scrippet for example:
INT. LOUNGE – DAY
SALLY saunters in and freezes … there’s an elephant in the room.
If I wrote that in a script, I’d be really cross with myself. Why? Well, because it doesn’t really mean anything.
Okay, so it’s a concise rendering of the images in my head into written form … but is it? Is that conveying anything?
What’s a ‘lounge’? Is it the living room/TV room in someone’s house? Sally’s house perhaps? Or flat? If so, what kind of house/flat? How big or small is this lounge? Maybe it’s the lounge in a hotel? Or maybe it’s a lounge bar? I think lounge is fairly self-explanatory … but does the person reading it? Are they sharing the same mental image of what the lounge looks like?
Obviously I don’t want to burden the reader with descriptions of the colour of the wallpaper or where the furniture was bought and when (although, age and type of furniture can help set the scene) … but maybe a bit more of a description is needed here?
And what about that elephant? How does Sally feel about that? More importantly, how does the reader feel about it? The reader’s reaction should be a response to Sally’s reaction and ultimately the audience will share the reader’s response to Sally’s reaction.
In the finished movie the audience will have facial expressions and a score telling them how to feel … the reader has none of that. All the reader has are my words. Okay, so hopefully anything leading up to this scene will inform the reader’s interpretation … but what if this is the very first scene? What if this is our introduction to Sally?
Clearly we need an approximate age and brief description of Sally, but I think we also need to clarify what her reaction is.
Sally saunters in and freezes. Creeping dread overtakes her … there’s something behind her … oh for fuck’s sake! It’s that bloody elephant again!
Is very different from:
Sally saunters in, freezes in shock … there’s an elephant in the lounge! Fuck! Panic!
Some people think you shouldn’t swear in action lines. They may be right. I do it sometimes … depends on the script.
The point is that merely stating the facts doesn’t really add to the experience. I’m all for letting the audience work out the meaning of a film … but in order to do that they have to understand what they’re seeing. The audience won’t be seeing a still image of an expressionless Sally and an elephant in a undefined space.
Or maybe they will? In which case the script needs to make it clear that this lack of emotion/reaction is intentional and not a mistake.
More likely the actor will be emoting her tits off whilst the music tinkles, crashes or thrums appropriately. I try to give the reader the same experience as the audience, which means ensuring they have access to the same information about tone and emotion … and the only tools I have to do this are words on a page.
My intention is to get a reader reading straight through without having to flick back to check anything or pausing because something doesn’t make sense or because they don’t understand the significance of the events. Every time they pause to figure something out or flick back, they’re out of the story, they’re not emotionally invested.
Scripts are hard to read because they’re a technical document trying to convey everything that goes into making a movie in the fewest possible words. I want my readers engaged, so I try not just to talk about the elephant in the room, but to explain what it means.
I’m not saying I always succeed, but I try.