Why Characters Never Go to the Bathroom (Or Manipulating Time in Your Screenplay)

You rarely see characters in TV shows or movies going to the bathroom. That’s because that action is irrelevant. If an action has no affect on the story, there’s no need to include it.

So when writing a screenplay, strip away anything that doesn’t actively contribute to your story. In a novel, authors might get away with describing a character’s actions, their thoughts, or their background that doesn’t affect the story, but in a screenplay, you don’t have time to do that. Stick to what’s relevant.

In “Pulp Fiction,” you do see John Travolta’s character going to the bathroom multiple times, but each time it affects the story. In one scene, the character comes out of the bathroom after leaving his machine gun on the kitchen counter. Then a man returns to his apartment, spots the machine gun on the counter, hears John Travolta’s character flushing the toilet, so he picks up the machine gun and surprises John Travolta just as he opens the bathroom door.

Notice what was important wasn’t John Travolta’s character going to the bathroom but in coming out and being surprised. That’s the important part of the story so that’s all we need to see.

A second time John Travolta’s character goes to the bathroom is at the end in the coffee shop when he goes to the bathroom and comes out, only to find a couple robbing the place. Once again, we see John Travolta’s character going to the bathroom and see him coming out, because those are the only important parts of the story.

Ultimately, when writing a screenplay, you want to manipulate time in multiple ways:

  • Ignore time altogether
  • Cut time to show only the important parts
  • Focus on a scene to emphasize its importance

Ignoring time is easy. That’s when movies and TV shows don’t bother showing characters going to the bathroom. It’s not important. Now go through your screenplay and look for scenes that contribute little or nothing to your story. Yank those scenes out.

You may find scenes that duplicate another scene. Yank those scenes out too.

In “Terminator 2,” there’s a cut scene where the villain (the liquid metal Terminator) goes to John Connor’s foster parents’ home and impersonates the mother. When the father comes in while the villain is on the phone, talking to John Connor, the father starts complaining so the villain simply kills him to shut him up.

What got cut out of the movie was an additional scene showing the dead mother as the villain walks into John Connor’s bedroom and discovers letters from Sarah Connor, addressed from the asylum where she’s being held. That tells the villain where to find Sarah Connor.

Yet all that information is irrelevant. We already know John Connor’s foster mother is dead so we don’t need to see her dead body. Later when John Connor insists on rescuing Sarah Connor from the asylum, the good Terminator warns him that the villain will decide to go there too. That’s all we need to know.

Besides ignoring a scene completely, consider showing just part of a scene. In “Die Hard,” we don’t need to see John McClane’s wife and all the company employees going to the Christmas party in the skyscraper. The scene starts with them already there.

That’s how to manipulate time by cutting out everything but the important parts. Look at every scene in your screenplay. Can you cut the beginning, end, or middle? Do we really need to see everything and hear everyone’s dialogue? Probably not, so cut a scene to show us only the important parts, like John Travolta coming out of a bathroom.

Finally, there are scenes that you need to emphasize for maximum emotional effect. Those are the scenes where you want time to slow down by focusing on every detail.

Think of Ripley in “Alien” when she’s in an escape pod and suddenly realizes she’s trapped in there with the alien. We see every second to the time she sees the alien in the escape pod to the time she hides in a closet, puts on a space suit, and opens the door so the vacuum of space can suck the alien out.

Every moment is important so time slows down to show every detail. Only your most important scenes should focus on every detail.

So most of your screenplay will simply omit useless scenes and dialogue that aren’t important to the story. Most of your scenes will be cut so we see only part of it. Finally, a handful of the most important scenes will show us everything to draw out suspense.

Play with time in your scenes. Jump ahead from moment to moment, but be careful about jumping too far or else your story can feel choppy. You may get away with it once, such as showing a character as a child and then showing that same character as an older person. But the more time leaps you have, the less engaged your story will feel so use time jumps sparingly.

Look for the best, strongest, and most emotional scenes and drag time out so we can experience every moment. The more details, the more engaged the audience will be as long as your scene is interesting and relevant to the overall story in the first place.

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