"How to Write a Screenplay"

USING STRICTEST ECONOMY IN YOUR MOVIE


"Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief . ."
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

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:

  1. The page-per-minute requirement: as we learned in the discussion of the Courier font, Hollywood runs on a page-per-minute 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 you 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.
  2. Form: a movie is all action and movement and images. It bogs down when it's about words 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.
  3. 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 that 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.
  4. 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 recite them.
  5. 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?

  1. Only put words down on the page that advance the story or expand character, as per Richard Walter.
  2. Only put words down on the page that establish or release dramatic potential.
  3. Enter as late as possible into scenes, and leave as early as possible.
  4. 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.
  5. Combine adjectives, nouns, and adverbs into very well-crafted verbs, even if you have to make them up.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

"A sentence gains force through the omission of all unnecessary words. Therefore avoid tautology, redundancy, circumlocution, diffuseness, prolixity, and verbosity."
CHARLES HARLOW RAYMOND



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EXERCISES:
  1. Watch the classic Clint Eastwood westerns such as HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), JOE KIDD (1972), HANG 'EM HIGH (1968). Then watch him in his more recent films, e.g., THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995) and IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993). Consider the difference in his dialogue and it's impact on his performance and the success and impact of the film. Which style do you prefer?
  2. Watch THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936), with special attention to the actual charge. Find out how the screenwriters actually wrote this scene. Then consider how Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote the scene. What did you learn?
  3. Review the screenplay formatting example given in the Readability section. Take one of your longer action narratives from one of your screenplays and reformat it along these lines. What did you learn?