Monday, January 20, 2014

The final word on "we see."

Scott has been running a great series on Go Into The Story where he attempts to put the lie to the notion of "Screenwriting Rules."  I definitely encourage you guys to check it out. He's going continue the series over the next two weeks and I'll be coordinating some of my content here with the topics he's discussing.

Per Scott's schedule, today we're taking on the advice to "never use 'we see.'"  As you may have seen on twitter, this debate never fails to get pros in a frothing frenzy.  I have seen pros more vehemently attack someone who gives this advice than they have attacked actual scammers charging money for their services.  This isn't all on the pros - newbies really get their panties in a twist over the "we see" rule.

I've said my piece on this before, but Scott's goal is to have an archive where we can point people to for the definitive answers for these silly debates.  Basically, we're all tired of these fights and want a handy URL to point writers to so that they can read it and go back to worrying about important things.

I want to start from the understanding that anytime someone argues against a rule, they claim they are told "never" to do something.  That's not a helpful way to begin the debate because it becomes a strawman that's easily knocked down when one exception is found.  And boy do you aspiring writers love finding exceptions. 

Another thing some writers love to do: blame the reader. Do you know why that is? Because it's a lot easier to assume the person finding fault with your work is an idiot than it is to admit that you might, just might, not be as good a writer as you think you are.  And frankly, the people who rail the loudest about readers are generally the people who don't know shit about what they're talking about. 

But really, my overriding point here is that blaming the reader is an easy out.  You can't change the reader, but you CAN change your work.

Here's what readers care about: Is this a good concept? Is this a good script? Did it keep my interest throughout the read? Can I show this to my boss and not be embarrassed by it?

There's no such thing as a truly compelling script that gets a pass because the writer used "we see."  Or because the first act turning point came a little late.  However if your writing is shit and your pacing is garbage, yes you WILL get dinged for a late turning point, or for an over-reliance on "we see" that makes the act of reading a genuine chore.

Here's something that isn't useful to settling the debate - dragging out Black List scripts and counting the instances of "we see" in them.  If you do that and your take away is, "The concerns about 'we see' are full of shit and I should never listen to anyone again about it," you deserve to fail.  You might as well be saying, "Well these Black List scripts used italics and didn't get in trouble so I should make ALL of my description italicized!  And if someone tells me otherwise, they don't know what they're talking about!"

Instead you should ask, "Why is 'we see' such a debated issue?"

Contrary to popular belief, script readers do not go through a script with a scoresheet, marking rule violations and adding them up to some kind of score.  So asking "Why do the pros get away with X while I can't do that?" is overcomplicating a basic fact.  If the pros "got away" with something that you regularly get hit for, it probably means that they did it wellYou probably didn't.

If I'm reading a Craig Mazin script, stumbling onto a "we see" on p. 12 isn't going to convince me he's a shitty writer.  And the same goes for if I'm reading your script.

But if you are starting every paragraph with "we see," you're not a good writer. (And yes, I have seen writers do this.)

If you use "we see" excessively to the point that it clutters up your description and ruins any flow in the reading, you're not a good writer.

My stance on "we see" is generally "Don't overdo it. It's okay if you use it in moderation, preferably sparingly."

My feeling is that 90% of the time it's redundant. Your action descriptions are supposed to be all visual, so if you're writing it, the assumption is we're seeing it. After all, you don't write "We hear" before every line of dialogue, do we?

One notable exception is that "we see" is valuable when we're trying to limit what the audience sees and then replicate that limitation for the viewer. When this debate came up elsewhere, someone noted that in an Indiana Jones script, there's a "we see" that introduces a character wearing a fedora and leather jacket, though he's only shown from behind. Obviously, the "we see" is used to offer that description and give the impression that the character is Indiana Jones when that is not in fact the case.

So it's definitely useful when limiting the information the reader gets. I wouldn't dispute that at all.

However, as with capitalizing and underlining, this "rule" exists because there are always a healthy sampling of newbies who overindulge. Like I said, I once read a script that started nearly every paragraph with "we see" and after a while it just got to be annoying. It was a pretty clear PASS. However, I hasten to add that the Pass wasn't because of the "we sees," just that the "we sees" were merely symptoms of this writer's lack of skill.

If all the dialogue in a script sucks, the answer is not "Never write dialogue," it's, "learn to write better dialogue." And if all the uses of "we see" in a script reach such an epidemic proportion that it becomes cluttered and annoying to follow, the answer is "learn to use the tool properly."

If you write a script with non-linear chronology and the feedback you get is, "This makes no sense, you shouldn't write it this way," then it's not a reasonable response to say, "Tarantino did it in Pulp Fiction so I can ignore you! You don't know what you're talking about!"  No, the answer is, Tarantino did it well and you clearly didn't.  So rather than arguing about being judged unfairly, maybe your energy is better spent figuring out why Tarantino's execution was better than yours.

Most of all, let's knock it off with the strawman rules.  If you're arguing that it's wrong to "never" use something, you're completely missing the debate about why this particular thing might be an issue in some circumstances.


  1. "We see" just feels like a crutch to me. It's impossible to rule out needing one at some point, but generally your "legs" should do the job. For me it's an exercise in creativity not to use it, and I'd have to exhaust myself trying to find a better way before I was comfortable doing so.
    But that's just me. It's different strokes for different folks, I guess.

  2. Everything seconded. Glad you got beyond the surface here. If a reader passes on your script, it's not because you used "we see." It's because your script wasn't great.

  3. I like the part in radiantabyss's comment were he said, "... it's an excercise in creativity not to use it..." That's where I fall on the issue too. In my own writing, maybe in an early "lazy" draft I'll have some "we see" in them, but then as you edit, you try to be more creative and take some clunkyness out of your writing. "We see" is clunky and intrusive. Something to avoid if you can.

    I think all the talk about "the rules" stems from relavitively new writers trying to learn the rules themselves, then seeing the pros get away with things that the undiscovered writers are called to task on. It's an unfair dichotomy that every wannabe out there has to come to grips with. I know I went through a phase like that, finally I just came up with the mindset, "Fuck it. I'm glad the pros get away with what they get away with. Hopefully someday I'll be at their level and get some slack like they get. Hold me to a higher standard now, it'll only make me a better writer now and in the future."

    Key point: it's not a level playing field. And we're all not graded the same.

  4. One frustration with the way this debate has evolved (especially over at the DoneDeal forums) is the tendency of some aspiring writers to reduce the use of "we see" to the likes of --

    "We see a gun in the guy's hand," versus, say, "The guy has a gun in his hand."

    Little surprise then that this draws the kind of commentary that calls the use of "we see" clunky, intrusive, etc. But pro writers (those who use it) usually deploy the tool in far more sophisticated ways -- i.e. when it's the cleanest way to render something in cinematic fashion. For example, Scott cited these lines from Zombieland today:

    "The further we pull back, the more we see of a destroyed,
    burning Washington D.C."

    Not exactly the same thing as "we see the gun, guy, man, gig, or whatever."

    That's a nuance worth articulating.

    S. Hinds

    1. Yeah, there's definitely something to that. The DDP boards have definitely been guilty of letting some of the less-nuanced arguments define the debate. I pretty much agree with the other points laid out here too.

      But then if I'm looking for nuance in a screenwriting format debate, I should probably accept that it's often in short supply.

  5. the reality is that the words should be, in a sense, invisible... that means the reader is caught up enough in the story that they don't notice the words... that's the true goal.

    What's always been bothersome is those who maintain that it's lazy writing to use it always (I know that you're not) or whatever the argument is... there are times (as Scott noted on his blog) when not only is we see, we hear appropriate to use, but is the best possible choice...

    and writing should be about making the best possible choice in terms of voice and style... some stories, some styles and POVs would require a lot of we sees, others, much less or none...

    As you note, it's not the we sees that earn a pass, but the use of them... and the same could we said of any word...