What Can We Learn from Harold Pinter?
The students who enter my screenwriting classroom at Portland State University bring with them considerable language habits. Some write well, some not so well, but all of them have been taught the principles of “good writing.” It’s a shock, therefore when they learn that many of these values are not important in screenwriting and, in fact, may even be detrimental.
Beginning screenwriters over-write. This appears to be a law of nature. And one of the reasons they over-write is because they apply some of the principles of “good writing” that have been preached to them since elementary school. They therefore have some things to unlearn as well as new things to learn about writing a spec script for film.
The learning curve here is not difficult, but the change in attitude can be. And one the first rules of good writing that students resist giving up is the notion that sentence fragments are “bad.” In standard prose writing, this is true enough. But in screenwriting the sentence fragment can be an important visual tool, too often ignored. Perhaps no screenwriter uses them with more frequency and consistency than Harold Pinter.
Let’s get right to the evidence. Here are the first sentences of random scenes from Pinter’s extraordinary screenplay, The French Lieutenant’s Woman:
Charles sitting at a table, examining a fossil through a microscope.
Ernestina half dressed.
Charles under an overhanging branch.
Charles and Sarah staring at each other.
Anna, with glasses on, reading a book.
Sarah sitting on the ledge, looking out to sea.
Pinter offers dozens and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of scene openings with this grammatical construction: the sentence fragment. I’ve been teaching screenwriting for several decades but I don’t recall a single student ever opening scenes this way. The standard approach is this: Charles is sitting at a table, Charles and Sarah are staring at each other, Anna is reading a book, and so on.
So what’s the difference here? What is the difference between writing, as Pinter does, “Anna reading a book,” and what virtually all of my students would write—“Anna is reading a book”? What is the difference, in screenwriting, between using a sentence fragment and expanding it to become a complete sentence?
The difference, it seems to me, is subtle but crucial. When a student writes, “Anna is reading a book,” the image here is diffuse, the focus balanced between Anna, the reader, and reading, the activity, the verb “is” acting as a kind of fulcrum in a scale. That’s what sentences are, balances between nouns and objects, held in balance by verbs.
But Pinter is up to something very different. He takes the diffuse image and sharpens it: Anna reading a book. The subject here clearly is Anna, and Anna alone, and there is no balance here, no distraction from the real subject, Anna. Pinter writes with far greater visual strength and focus. Anna reading. That’s the subject of the shot, the image in our mind as we read. We see Anna.
This is how Pinter establishes most of his scenes, with a scene fragment that brings the subject of the scene, the subject of the shot, into clear and uncompromising focus. Not only does this make the script a quick, very visual read, it emphasized the visual focus of the scene by beginning with it. And the sentence fragment, with or without the gerund form of the verb, is the tool with which Pinter accomplishes this.
It’s a powerful and easily-adaptable technique—and yet it astounds me how few screenwriting students have embraced it. The brainwashing they’ve received about not using sentence fragments apparently wins out.
I see no down side to using this technique. It’s visual, it’s focused, it’s more quickly read… the sentence fragment is a tool every beginning screenwriter should learn how to use.