While waiting in the security line at Newark Airport last December, I had a minor revelation. It was a terrible line, probably the worst I had seen in my 4 years of flying home from the East Coast, so there was not much for me to do but look around and taken in the sights. That’s when I noticed the signs.
They’re at every airport, the helpful “baggage claim” or “terminal” placards that help you find your way during what is an unavoidably disorienting experience. I stared at the “C-2 Security Checkpoint: All Gates” display board for a while before I recognized the distant echoes of authoritarianism in signage, and its relationship to screenwriting.
I should back up. In a book titled Written for the Screen, screenplay scholar Claudia Sternberg identified three distinct modes of communication in the modern screenplay. First is the “descriptive mode” which, as the name suggest, provides descriptive attributes for a setting. Consider the following passage from Children of Men:
In this example, the notes describing Theo as “unkempt” with a “scruffy beard” and “glasses” are written in the descriptive mode. Following the descriptive mode is the “report mode” which simply reports an action that occurs on screen. “A man enters the coffee shop…people,” is written in the report mode.
Lastly, the third mode is more elusive and less easily understood, and is called the comment mode. The comment mode is everything that is neither description, nor action. As such, it often cannot be filmed but still nonetheless serves an essential role in the crafting of a screenplay narrative. Writers often use comment mode to reveal character traits that will assist an actor or director, such as the way that the writers of Children of Men describe Theo as a “detached…veteran of hopelessness” who “gave up before the world did.”
However, more interestingly, writers will use the comment mode to, well, provide commentary. The act of screenwriting is an act of manipulation on the part of the writer. We must always stay ahead of the reader and use as many tricks as we can to direct your thoughts. To be fair, we’re only doing the job on a smaller scale than the director. Filmmaking is the act of juxtaposing certain images in such a way as to distort their interpretation. Writing does this as well, but with words. And words can be much more subtle.
When done well, the comment mode is woven in so smoothly with descriptive and report text that the reader does not notice anything out of the ordinary. But in actuality, the comment mode exists in order to tell you what to think, and, more intrusively, what to feel.
The script sets the scene by using short, fragmented, ellipsed sentences meant more to convey the mood of the scene as opposed to any actual concrete details. The “It’s London” declaration at the end of the passage reads like an inside joke from the writer to the reader. The use of semi-direct addresses forges a relationship between the two that continues throughout the script. When the writer needs to make it clear how a reader should feel, they will use the comment mode.
So how does this relate to dystopia? Considering the signs at Newark Airport, what would change something as simple as “Security Checkpoint” into a hauntingly Orwellian nightmare? The difference is the comment mode.
In Children of Men there are numerous signs that authenticate the setting as an oppressive dystopian society.
So back to the airport. Imagine if the sign had added only three words in comment mode, changing it from “Security Checkpoint” to “Security Checkpoint: For Your Protection.” The second is much more frightening. We are being told what to think, and how to feel. We are to think that there is an unseen threat, and to feel grateful to the authorities for their willingness to operate “for our protection.”
You can find this sort of fourth wall breaching comment mode in many places, some not always quite so sinister (there’s just something about lines and inspections that feels very Orwellian, even when it’s only the airport). Keep your eyes open next time you go to the store or ride the subway. The comment mode occurs frequently in advertising and also in instructive settings. It’s effective and useful. That’s why screenwriters love it.