A bit of insider baseball: this post is almost exclusively for you screenwriters out there, and especially those of you who listen to Scriptnotes.
And before all you Scriptnotes adherents come and castigate me, let me say in a clear voice, I AM ONE OF YOU. I just have some thoughts about “We see.” Not that you shouldn’t use it! Don’t @ me yet. But I have noticed, in my own writing, that interrogating moments when I find myself using “We see” can lead to more compelling, emotional scenes. Hear me out. Please?
Screenplays should give you the feeling of seeing the movie, John August says, and I completely agree; in many, many cases, “We see” is totally appropriate, situating the reader, like it do, in the camera housing, drifting across the people and places of the play.
But, as I’ve found myself thinking more and more about writing for actors who inhabit my characters, I found that sometimes replacing “We see” with character feeling or intention made for more impactful, affective writing. A series of examples from a science fiction script of mine, presented totally without context:
It would be easy enough to write “We PAN UP into the chamber. Off Caoimhe’s terror–,” but that really doesn’t root the scene in Caoimhe’s perspective as much as the above. We could even write, “We see Caoimhe look up into the chamber…” but at this point “we see” is just two extra, unneeded words on an action line struggling for economy.
Here’s another example, one where I’m conflicted on whether “we see” would be helpful or not:
My problem (with my own writing) here is the lack of a subject in the first sentence — it’s a fragment. “We see flashes of Caoimhe’s memory” could solve this issue, but it roots subjectivity in the camera not the character who’s feeling the emotion; so what about the alternative? “Caoimhe sees flashes of her memories” also doesn’t really work for me, because the idea of her seeing her memories doesn’t tell us what we’re seeing onscreen. Is the actress just acting out responses to these images? (What do you think? Is there a better way?)
One last example of a moment where I think “we see” is well applied:
And the reason I think this example works is because here we’re basically directing a shot. (And if you think screenwriters shouldn’t “direct on the page,” go read any script by William Goldman.) Because we’re telling the camera where it should be, we’re situating our audience outside the house, their subjectivity aligned with a slight sense of distancing.
I think that the only reason I’ve noticed “We see” so much in my own writing is because of how much John & Craig joke around about it, but it led me to a genuine interrogation of how I situate perspective in a given scene. “We see” can be a powerful tool in our toolbox, rooting an action line in the subjectivity of the camera, the viewer. But don’t rely on it, is all I’m saying. Sometimes, we can increase the emotional impact of a scene by rooting action and feeling in the character rather than the camera.
So I am by no means suggesting that you should avoid “We see” at all costs. But, like all things having to do with writing and storytelling, ask yourself, “Why I am I using this? Is it appropriate? Is there something I could do that might be more emotional or convincing?” Don’t let “We see” become a crutch, when it should be one of your tools. And that, hopefully, is something that John and Craig could get behind.