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Write for Continuity

Tweak + Polish Tip No. 3


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by Naomi in rewriting, screenwriting
screenwriting blog post

The Tweak + Polish series looks at some of the last layers to consider in your screenwriting process. These tips can make a big difference, and are relatively simple or easy things to implement, but should definitely be reserved for later stages of writing (or rewriting). You don’t want to sweat the small stuff too early.

But once you’re there, in the Tweak + Polish phase, you get to tackle all the fun little adjustments that improve the read and the presentation of the screenplay. Things like…

#1: Cut Redundant Dialogue
#2: Don’t Summarize, Dramatize

And today’s tip: Write for Continuity

What is writing for continuity?

It’s something I borrowed (and adjusted) from my editor friends and the idea of Continuity Editing: “A system of cutting to maintain continuous and clear narrative action.”

In our writing, we want the same effect. When someone reads a scene, they should be able to follow what’s happening continuously and without confusion. This includes description of physical space, choreography during the scene, who’s in the scene and who’s speaking, etc.

Now, we could talk about writing for continuity in terms of not confusing the reader as you move from one scene to the next – that’s important too. But for today let’s focus on continuity within a scene. That’s where most of the issues seem to happen.

Of course, we always think we’re being clear in our description. We think we’re writing in a way that the action is easy to follow. No one deliberately tries to confuse, I’m sure. But a lot of times, little bumps in the read occur because the action is clear in the writer’s head, but that clarity hasn’t quite made it onto the page. (This is one reason it’s really useful to get a fresh set of eyes on your script before you send it out.)

Add up too many little bumps, and you’ll have frustrated readers.

There’s one specific scene-continuity issue that prompted this Tweak + Polish tip, and here’s a very basic example:

screenplay excerpt

Did you catch that? Characters are established in the description, so that’s the image we’re holding in our heads; that’s what we’re “watching”. And then some other character pops in with a line of dialogue. Who’s that guy? Where did he come from?

That’s not to say this is always the “wrong” way. Sometimes you want an unseen character to speak (although you’d probably want to establish he’s off camera in that case), or to purposely jar the reader’s attention.

But it’s important to understand the effect you’re going for and the effect you’re achieving on the page (and to make sure they’re as closely aligned as possible).

As you direct the reader through the scene, are you maintaining a clear narrative flow? If you surprise or jar the reader, is it for a deliberate and necessary purpose?

What we’re talking about with “writing for continuity” comes down to clarity — effectively the golden rule of screenwriting.

Clarity is one of the biggest distinctions between amateur and professional scripts. Any degree of confusion, vagueness, or murkiness is a quick way to lose your reader. If it’s necessary to re-read the words on the page in order to understand what’s playing out on screen, that’s a red flag.

Clarity means controlling the flow of information. You can also use things like CAPS and minislugs – sparingly and with purpose – to move the reader through scenes. Done well, this conveys a sense of the flow of images in the movie – which is the goal of writing for continuity.


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