(Originally published in the newsletter of Cinestory)

 After I write a rough first draft of my screenplay, the next step for me is cutting and/or combining dialogue, descriptions, characters, and scenes to make my work as tight and unified as possible. However, if I find I have written a scene or scenes with only two persons, I ask myself is there a way to add a third person. Why?

Let's take a cliché two-person scene. On a train platform, a guy wants to spill his guts to a woman. Up to this point, he has acted like he hates her, but really he's in love with her.  So here he tells her how he feels.  She responds that she loves him as well.

So what's wrong? If the movie is a romantic comedy and the goal is for our two warring characters to get together, at the conclusion of this scene, our movie is over.  Fine, if it's the climax, but what if it's not?  Then our movie ends prematurely. Also, when a character says what's on his or her mind, a scene is often experienced as "flat" or "on the nose". How many of us say exactly what's on our mind? We always hold some thing back.  Also, as audience members, we process what's said versus what isn't said.  We anticipate when hidden information will be revealed.  If everything is laid out for us, our relationship to the material is more distant and less active.[1]

Back to our scene: Now we put in a homeless person asking for money or someone playing music loudly nearby. Our hero is prevented from saying what's on his mind because the situation is no longer intimate. He's embarrassed or distracted.  Or he says what's on his mind, but our heroine can't hear what he's saying.  The movie continues.  We anticipate how he'll handle the situation, we identify with our hero as he struggles to get his information out.

In a scene from Sunset Boulevard, a woman (Nancy Olsen) from the Studio Reader Department comes in and reports to a producer (Fred Clark) on a particular story outline; her report is wholly negative. What she doesn’t realize (but we do) -- the man standing behind her watching (William Holden) is in fact the writer of the material.  We identify with the writer as he becomes angry.  We anticipate the woman’s embarrassment and enjoy her reaction when she's introduced to the writer.

Now imagine this same Sunset Boulevard three-person scene rewritten as two two-person scenes: The producer sends the writer out of the room before the woman arrives. The woman tells the producer what she thinks of the writer's story. Gone is the writer's growing rage, gone is our identification with the writer, gone is our anticipation of what the woman will say when she turns around and finds out the writer is standing behind her.  Gone are the romantic sparks and the establishment of the woman as the love interest/a helper character. What was charged/multi-layered is now purely informational/flat.

Back to our couple on the train platform.  Instead of a homeless person, we add in a cop coming towards them.  Or we add in a mysterious woman listening nearby.  Or we add in a killer who is watching the couple through the viewfinder of his high-powered rifle. 

This time, we let our hero profess his love but the scene is anything but flat because while our hero is talking, our audience is wondering -- Who is this mysterious woman listening?  Why is this cop coming towards them?  Will they be killed before our hero finishes his sentence?

At the end of the scene -- the cop arrests our hero, telling the heroine he's a murderer.  Or the mysterious woman gets on the phone and says, "All is going as planned."  Or the killer fires shots.  The movie is far from over since new questions/problems have been raised.

In contrast, at the climax of a movie, all questions are answered, all the things and characters that help our hero are stripped away. He/she has to stand or fall on his/her own strength/weakness. Think of the shoot-out in High Noon. Think of the subway scene in The Matrix.  Think of the final battle in Silence of the Lambs.  Even if there are other people around, they don’t matter. They're almost invisible. If our train platform scene is functioning as the climax, our hero will say what's on his mind regardless of who else is around and our heroine will hear him.

Of course there are a myriad of exceptions.  We can all think of climax scenes that intricately involve more than two persons.  We can all think of great two-person scenes that don't occur at the climax.  But I would argue that many two-person scenes work because information is held back, a question is left unanswered, or the scene somehow makes references to a scene or scenes from a different part of the movie or from a different movie altogether (i.e., parody scenes or homage scenes). Again, we process what's there versus what's not there, what we see versus what we've seen.

In conclusion, two's company, three's a crowd -- but not usually when you're writing a screenplay. 

[1] David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson often write about how narrative films raise questions and thereby foster audience participation. 


Voice Over

Thinking more about what kind of v/o and how much one can use in the context of a movie - both on the screen and how represented on the page

Some of my more favorites:


Clockwork Orange (and in Kubrick's work - helps us to like an unlikeable character)

Election (2 V/Os from different characters - nice contrast)

Clueless (what she says, versus what we see)

Memento (sometimes too much, sometimes beautiful; ending I like a lot; film noir tone)

Sunset Boulevard (jokes, etc. a particular perspective and a twist)

beginning of Magnolia (scientific investigation)

1st act of Fight Club (one of the best v/o's ever; romantic comedy turns dark; plus social commentary)

end of Psycho (or is this internal monologue v. v/o - v/o is disembodied)

a lot of film noir (takes us into the world of the dark character)

TWILIGHT ZONE - the voice of Serling/god.  Just at beginning and end.

And in my own work, I created an ironic v/o for GIRL.  I think I gave you a few pages of that.

Some of you probably like:

American Beauty --  I particularly like the ending.

And interesting:

Little Children 



did a lot with what we see vs. what is said (perspective of 16 year old)

And a lot of documentaries make use of V/O to draw you in to the world of the filmmaker and yes, to skip over boring parts.


To me, V/O works best when:

The voiceover works in opposition to what we see.  Esp. extreme oppositions.

The voiceover helps us to like an unlikeable character. IE we're drawn into the world of a criminal.

and yes, adds to tone (but usually beginning and ending or only structural points)

sunset boulevard - unexpected perspective, false "god" perspective, etc. a twist.

Usually LESS is better. A line. . . And/or as introduction, conclusion.

Not so good 

V/O tells us what we just saw or are about to see. Repetitious. Mostly movies SHOW don't tell.

Relation to Character

The character who has a v/o KNOWS or thinks he knows.

Lack of V/O means uncertainty.

Watch a v/o scene you like.  How would it be represented on the page?  What makes it work? What is the relation to your own work?

how would you PARODY a particular film that uses v/o? That means there are distinct rules.



Fast Talk - facebook page



Almost there. . . 


Fast Talk - new trailer

Check out the new trailer for Debra Tolchinsky's Fast Talk:

Mixing in January.