Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Scott Myers continues his postings about "screenwriting rules" today with a look at unfilmables.  In going through some archives, I found I covered this topic once before, in a comment on Scott's own site.

There are a couple of different kinds of unfilmables. One kind is what might be called the “tonal unfilmable.” Something inexplicable might happen to the character, and the description might read “What the fuck!?!” That’s something that generally works, and I’d think wouldn’t raise a red flag for most readers. In fact, so long as you don’t overdo it, it might even remain invisible or subliminal.

Note that key phrase, “so long as you don’t overdo it.” Slush pile hacks are frequently guilty of thinking that if this trick works great on one page, then two or three times in that same scene would be even better, right? And then why not do this for every scene?

There’s a saturation point for tricks like this. Was it THE EXORCIST that only used music in a select scene or two, which made its eventual usage standout and be more powerful? CASTAWAY definitely did this sort of thing, as there’s no musical score until Hanks gets off the island. In both cases, the absence of an element made its eventual usage more powerful. Any film composer will tell you the same thing – that scoring a movie is as much about knowing when not to add music as it is knowing when to use it.

Same thing with tonal unfilmables. Some of you might be rolling your eyes at the fact I even have to say this, believing it to be self-evident. I can assure you from my readings that it is not.

There’s another kind of unfilmable that absolutely MUST be avoided at all costs – the expositional unfilmable: “Frank drives his 1987 Buick Skylark, which he bought three years ago from his grandmother. It’s a good car, even if the upholstery smells like broccoli. He turns down Exposition Blvd, thinking to himself about his first solo drive down this very street, where he swerved to avoid hitting as squirrel, and instead drove his father’s car into a tree. “That tree is gone, by the way, with no evidence it was ever there.”

Slush Pile Hack LOVES to tell his readers what his characters are thinking, remembering, smelling and usually the entire story of their lives. He’s also big on describing the history of locations and settings, doing it in a way that draws attention to itself and isn’t useful at all. (How is your audience supposed to know that the blue dress Jenny is wearing is actually something she borrowed from a friend and never returned? Why is that in the description?)

I’d venture that at least 80% of the unfilmables I see come from the latter category – from writers who really should be writing novels. And THAT’s really where the “no unfilmables” rule is coming from. I don’t think anyone’s gonna rap you across the hands for most of the examples Scott gives in this post – but if you’re putting exposition – vital, plot-changing exposition – into your action lines, you’ll give yourself away as not knowing what you’re doing.


  1. Great post; very useful distinction between tonal and expositional unfilmables.

  2. I've read and re-read your description of "tonal" unfilmables and, call me dense, but I'm just not getting what you're describing. Can you provide a few examples?

    1. Something like: "You can almost smell the rotting flesh in the hallways."

      "If this room could sing, the soundtrack would be Debbie Gibson."

      "This looks like the Unabomber's smaller guest house."

      That sort of thing. It's not a sentiment that is DIRECTLY translated on screen, but gives the reader something to provoke a visual imagining.