"Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief . ."
Overwriting may be the single biggest problem area for new writers. Perhaps unaccustomed to the
real work it takes to state something briefly, or just overly impressed with their own prolixity,
they prattle on long past the point at which everyone else has fallen asleep.
Why are too many words a problem in screenwriting?
Too many words are a problem in all kinds of writing, but they pose a particular threat to the
new writer. Consider:
- The page-per-minute requirement: as we learned in the discussion of the Courier font, Hollywood runs on a
standard. In other words, one page of script should equal about one minute onscreen. Mess with
this and you mess with the producer's head, which is not something you want to do. So if you go
and use a whole bunch more words than you need to describe the action in a scene, or to have the
characters communicate what you want them to say, you're messin' with Hollywood. Not only will
actually alter the screenplay-page to onscreen-time ratio, but you'll look like
you're altering it--and that's just as bad, or maybe even a bit worse in a land of illusions.
- Form: a movie is all action and movement and images. It bogs down when it's about
and thoughts in a character's head. That's for novels. When you submit your screenplay to
Hollywood you want the readers there to know that you really know what this business is about, and
that you know how to write for it. Save your verbosity for the novel where people expect long
passages of deathless prose. Screenwriting has a particular 'look and feel' to it like no other
genre, and economic writing has a lot to do with it.
- The reader: with a stack of scripts a mile high to plow through, he's looking for
a few to eliminate quickly. Up comes your blocky script with action narratives and
dialogue passages a mile long. The trash bin appears quite appealing at this point. And why
not? You're obviously an amateur writer that's going to work him too hard. With screenplays
uncounted to get through, which ones will he like? The ones that help him do his job, the ones
help him find the next great movie project, and quickly. You don't want him deciding early that
most of your words aren't critical to 'getting' the gist of things. If he does that he'll start
skimming. Something no writer should ever want.
- The actor: actors view film acting as 'reacting'. As such they would prefer to react
off other actors rather than speaking themselves ad nauseum. They hate talking on film so
much, they often cut their own speeches and pass them to less experienced actors foolish enough to
- The writer: if you're ever fortunate enough to have a chance to sit in a cinema and
view your script being read by Hollywood actors, you will squirm in your seat at any overwriting,
and you'll feel like cheering when a nod or a grunt gets the job done better.
How can I write more economically?
- Only put words down on the page that advance the story or expand character, as per Richard Walter.
- Only put words down on the page that establish or release dramatic potential.
- Enter as late as possible into scenes, and leave as early as possible.
- Eliminate the first words of dialogue lines, typically 'Well', 'No', 'Yes', 'Of course', 'I
mean', etc. This may seem clumsy at first, but it will grow on you, sometimes leading to the
elision of entire first sentences.
- Combine adjectives, nouns, and adverbs into very well-crafted verbs, even if you have to make them up.
- Eliminate 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you', and 'you're welcome' unless used for
irony, character, or emphasis for some reason. We all know their use is demanded by
generally-accepted standards of courtesy, but courtesy is just not very cinematic.
- Make every word count, make it life or death, push it past the edge, make it a surprise to you
yourself, dare to achieve greatness with each well-selected word, because that's what writing well
is all about.
CHARLES HARLOW RAYMOND
"A sentence gains force through the omission of all unnecessary words. Therefore avoid
tautology, redundancy, circumlocution, diffuseness, prolixity, and verbosity."