When you give a lot of notes, you develop a shorthand. The abbreviation I use most isHDWK??, which means “How Do We Know??” Most of the time it references details used by a writer to help convey character or reveal an important piece of information. Details are how we as writers convey information. Yet many of the details I encounter in screenplays are details an audience watching the movie would never catch or understand. Because people read screenplays rather than watch them, we often write things in our screenplays to help us move faster without worrying if it would work when filmed.
Take this description of a character I once encountered, the first time the character appeared:
INT. OFFICE – DAY
A MAN enters the room. This is Mark Anderson. Tall and handsome, with a lopsided grin, Mark is a Harvard graduate, married for 15 years, the father of three children. A ruthless businessman, he will do anything to get what he wants.
I see this type of character intro constantly. Let’s translate it to the big screen. We, the audience, see this actor walk into a room. What do we see and what do we know? “Tall and handsome, with a lopsided grin”… so far so good, we can see that onscreen. But How Do We Know the rest? We don’t! This is information that must come out naturally on screen, which means it should emerge the same way in the screenplay.
Let’s examine each detail:
Harvard Graduate: Sure, he could be wearing a Harvard Sweatshirt… but that doesn’t necessarily mean he graduated from Harvard, he could simply be a fan of the school. I guess he could be wearing a Harvard ring, but that would need to be cited in the screenplay. As written, it’s a cheat for the writer to reveal it here. If the audience can’t know it, you should not yet cite it in the screenplay.
Married 15 years, the father of 3 children: Ok… “married” I can handle. This fellow Mark could be wearing a wedding ring, fine. But “Married 15 years”? HDWK?? There is no way an audience can know he has been married 15 years when he walks in the room, nor that he has 3 children. This, too, is information that needs to come out naturally in the screenplay in the same manner it would on screen, via dialogue or a family photo on a desk or any variety of ways. It’s a cheat to throw such information into the description, even as a shorthand, because what is on the page should be what the audience will experience.
A ruthless businessman, he will do anything to get what he wants: Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis could convey in a few seconds how ruthless Mark is, but unless you have the greatest actor in the world playing the part, that, too, is information the audience would never know at this particular point in time, unless we’ve heard other characters talking about him before he enters. (And then you don’t need to repeat it anyway.) Rather than lazily throwing that piece of information into the character description, the writer must use story, action and/or dialogue to convey the character’s ruthlessness to the audience. If it is important to the story that we know this immediately, then the writer has to create some kind of action or dialogue that will convey it immediately. Maybe he walks into the office and kicks a dog or throws his secretary out the high rise window. I don’t know, this is your problem as the writer of your screenplay! It’s a problem you must deal with if you want to write a kick-ass screenplay.
As far as I am concerned, the reader of your screenplay is the same as the audience sitting in the movie theatre. Which means everything on the page should then relate to what the audience in the theatre will see and experience. Which means if you need the audience to understand or ‘get’ some piece of information, you have to figure out a way to convey it in an honest fashion. Which is a challenge to any screenwriter’s storytelling ability.
Let’s look at a straightforward, simple example of imparting such information in the proper manner. One of the best films I’ve seen in years, a movie that deserves a much wider audience, is Warrior. Seriously, if you have not seen this movie, drop everything you are doing and go rent it right now. It’s that good. But Tom it’s about MMA fighting, I could not care less. No, seriously, see this movie, it’s not what you think, it is incredible.
Here is an excerpt from the first page of the screenplay, where two of the main characters are introduced:
EXT. ST. MARY’S CHURCH – SAME
PADDY CONLON (60) exits the doors of a run-down church holding a 12-STEP BOOK. He is followed by a cluster of other PEOPLE in the program and says his goodbyes.
EXT./INT. RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD/‘75 OLDS – LATER
Paddy grips the steering wheel with labor-calloused hands and drives over the P.J. McArdle Bridge and up a winding hill. He listens to “MOBY DICK” on tape as the last piece of daylight bleeds away. With rosary beads swaying from his rear view, Paddy turns and eases the Olds past row houses in a blue- collar neighborhood high above the city.
EXT. HOUSE – SAME
TOMMY CONLON (28), hard miles on a handsome face, sits on the stoop of an old row house in a wool watch cap and winter coat. A duffel bag is at his feet, a bottle of whiskey in a brown bag in his hands. He reaches into his coat pocket, pops a handful of prescription PILLS, and stares off into the approaching night.
Note that every piece of pertinent information we get about the characters, information that is important to the story (Paddy is recovering from addiction, he is a religious man, he is blue collar, Moby Dick means something to him – the inference left to us; Tommy has had a hard life, drinks freely, might have an addiction to pills) comes from specifics that will be seen or heard on screen. There are no cheats, no fill-ins. The writers do their work properly, giving us insight into the characters through action and details the audience will be able to glean immediately.
Character descriptions are the easiest way to explain the meaning of HDWK??, but it doesn’t stop with character descriptions. I see this problem all over the place when reading screenplays. An example of the proper use comes at the bottom of the first page of Warrior, immediately after the above:
EXT. PADDY’S HOUSE – MOMENTS LATER
Paddy pulls up to the curb in front of the house, clicks off the tape, kills the engine, and climbs out of the car. As he approaches the stairs, Paddy sees Tommy. Can’t believe his eyes.
Tommy gives a drunken, crooked smile.
What’re you doing here?
I was just passing through. Figured why
not have a belt with the old man.
When Paddy pulls up to the house and sees Tommy on the stoop, a lesser writer would have written Paddy pulls up to the house and is surprised to see his son sitting on the stoop. That would get a huge HDWK?? from me in red ink because it’s a cheat. There is no way at that point we could know Paddy is Tommy’s father. Tommy could be anyone.
How do we find out their relationship? The dialogue: “Figured why not have a belt with the old man.” Now the work is done. The audience knows Paddy is Tommy’s father. What’s the next line in the screenplay? Father and son look at each other. Now the writer can mention the relationship in the description. Because it has been established in real time for the reader/audience. Simple. Elegant. Excellent. Not a cheat.
Avoid the cheat. Avoid HDWK?? Whatever the piece of information is you need to impart, write it as audience will experience and understand it when watching the movie on screen, whether through visuals, dialogue or sound. Doing so forces us to be better writers, using action and detail to convey information rather than slumming with cheats in our descriptions