Learning never stops. Never.

coeds
Sure, I may be tired now, but wait until you see the end results

So far, so good, at least in terms of how the rewrite of the sci-fi adventure spec is going.

Already managed to trim a decent amount of pages, with more potential targets coming up fast.

However, one of the most surprising results this time around is seeing more and more opportunities to really get the most of not just the words on the page, but HOW they’re presented.

I already knew overwriting was one of my biggest obstacles. I tend to go into more detail than is necessary. Not “this is the color of his t-shirt, and this is what’s on his breakfast plate”-type stuff, but more in terms of excessively describing what you’d see transpire onscreen.

This has become painfully obvious for some of the fast-paced action scenes. In the old draft, there’d be several lines about what a character was doing. This time around, I want to get to the point faster – partially for less ink on the page, and partially to help speed things up – so I highlight only the parts that the can’t do without.

It’s probably safe to say each scene has become shorter by at least some degree. Some by a few lines, others by half a page, etc. But the overall impact is becoming more noticeable. Scenes seem to be flowing more smoothly. Even though the descriptions aren’t as detailed as they were before, the new, tighter versions are just as visual.

Of course, since I’m the one writing it, I already have a strong sense of how it’s supposed to “look”. The real test comes when a reader gets their hands on it. Will they experience the same results? I sure hope so, so in the meantime, I do what I can to write it so everything is easy to follow and all questions are answered.

What’s most surprising at all about these new developments is I’d written my last few drafts of several scripts with the same approach I’d always used, but there’s just something very different about it this time around. The way this draft is being put together has a much more analytical feel to it. It’s as if something holding me back has been removed, and the positive results are coming in rapid-fire. One can only hope this sensation endures.

Once again, there’s no firm deadline for a completed draft, but as I mentioned, progress has been strong and steady, so “slightly sooner than possibly expected” will have to do for now. And even when that one’s done, there’s a strong suspicion that just a little more touch-up work will be in order.

Thrilling times, chums.

-Screenwriter/filmmaker Ally May has launched a crowdfunding campaign for her packs-an-emotional-wallop short film project In A Breath. Donate if you can!

-Major congrats to screenwriter/overall mensch Bob Saenz for the upcoming US release of the film of his script Extracurricular Activities, a journey almost two decades in the making. Here’s a great interview Bob did for Script magazine.

Only include that which serves a purpose

redacted
Exactly

A just-starting-out writer had contacted me, asking if I could take a look at their spec.

I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did.

The script had a lot of the usual problems. On-the-nose dialogue. One-dimensional characters. A story that was more a jumbled collection of random events rather than a cohesive series of scenes and sequences.

But even with all of that, what really stood out was the excessive overwriting when it came to setting up a scene, with excessive being a major understatement. The writer seemed to feel the need to provide an extraordinary amount of details – for just about everything.

Just to name a few:

-What kind of furniture is in every single house or apartment
-What kind of food is on the table during a dinner scene
-Why a character, who’s only in one scene, is wearing a particular item of clothing, along with what it looks like
-A detailed list of all the items of clothing a character removes when getting undressed
-The direction a character is driving, along with street names

Did any of these have anything to do with the story?

All together now – of course not.

Then why is it in there?

I posed this question to the writer as part of my notes. They haven’t responded yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they say about it.

I can’t remember the specific joke/comment about sculpting, but it’s something along the lines of “Start with a block of marble, and then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a (whatever you’re sculpting).”

Screenwriting’s very similar. While it’s true you should describe what we’re seeing, there’s no need to drastically overdo it. Some writers don’t know the difference between “painting a picture with words” and “overwhelming us with information”. Or worse, think they’re more or less the same thing.

They are most definitely not.

Everything on the page should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, take it out. Trust me, it will not be missed. If you argue that it should stay, you better have a mighty good reason why. Helpful tip – saying “Because I want it to” or “Because I like it” will totally invalidate your argument.

When the writing goes into Overly Descriptive Mode, it simply slams the brakes on the momentum of the story; things really do come to a screeching halt. Wouldn’t you rather the reader stayed interested in what’s going on, and not think “Hold on a second. Why is this here? Is it relevant?”

For a lot of writers starting out, they think they need to cover all the bases and include as much info and detail as possible. Only through constant self-educating will they eventually learn what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

I sincerely hope this writer takes my notes to heart and is able to figure out how to transition from the latter to the former.

Is the t-shirt THAT important?

 

oz-bucket
You know that bucket is mentioned a few pages earlier

Writers put onto paper how they visualize the events of the story.

Your get an idea of how you want things to look, maybe even a picture-perfect image, so you put those details onto the page, which is fine.

But sometimes the writer feels the need to include as much detail as they can. “To really paint a picture with words,” they might say. But it’s easy to get carried away. Some writers see this as a golden opportunity to really flex their literary muscles, so they go all out.

A big write-up about the contents of a room. Or identifying specifics about the clothing a character is wearing. That sort of thing.

While that kind of colorful minutiae might work in a novel, many see it as a negative when it comes to screenplays (opinions may vary, but this appears to be the general consensus).

There’s only one reason the writing should be that specific: if the item in question plays a part in the story. Is it vitally important that we notice it? If the answer is “no”, then all it’s doing is taking up valuable real estate on the page.

When the writer makes a point of identifying a particular item, then we should expect it to make a return appearance later on. Set up, pay off, remember?  It’s better to have a reader think “Aha! So that’s what that was for,” rather than “Huh? What was that for?” or “Why was that in there?”

By drawing our attention towards something that is more of an issue for the set designer or wardrobe department, it slows down the story’s momentum and makes for some unsatisfying reading.

Tell us the things we need to know, rather than the things you think would be nice to know.

 

Avoiding the dreaded unfilmable

flagman
Don’t go this way!

I recently had the pleasure of giving notes on a friend’s script. It was an early draft, so it had some of the usual problems that were easily fixable.

But the one thing that really stood out to me was their use of unfilmables.

“Unfilmables?” some might ask. “What are those?”

I’m glad you asked. Here’s an example:

“EXT. PORCH – DAY

Jane sits on the stained deck chair her father bought for her birthday last year.”

If you saw that onscreen, you know what you’d see?

A woman sitting on a chair.

In other words, HOW DO WE KNOW it was a birthday present from her father? We don’t. How can you let us know? Maybe we see the father giving it to her. Or another character asks about it, and she delivers a one-line explanation.

If there’s an important detail to your story, you need to find a way to include it as part of the story, and preferably in the most organic way possible.

What’s on the page is what we see and hear.

Unless there’s a line of dialogue or some kind of action somewhere in there that reveals these kinds of things, the audience has no way of knowing them.

Here’s another:

“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT

Kevin washes dishes. He thinks about that time he and his high school girlfriend crashed her mom’s car.”

What’s on the screen? A guy washing dishes.

HOW DO WE KNOW that’s what he’s thinking about?

Maybe we see the accident take place. Or hear Kevin talking about it. Maybe the story involves how the accident leads up to him washing dishes.

In my old writing group, one writer was insistent about leaving these sorts of things in. When pressed on why they were so adamant about not being willing to take them out, they’d launch into a long-winded explanation of why it was necessary to include them.

“So if we were watching this, you’d be there explaining things, rather than working them into the story and showing them on the screen?”

I’m not sure if they got the point.

Hopefully you do.

The learning never stops

classroom
Class is in session

I had the good fortune this past weekend to attend a writing retreat in the serene hills of Malibu, the core of which was a seminar given by noted screenwriting consultant Bill Boyle (who was featured here in my recent Ask a Script Consultant series).

This was by no means “Intro to Screenwriting”, but more along the lines of taking your writing beyond the basics and making it richer and more layered so it reads more like a script written by a professional. Each idea and concept was explained using examples both written and visual.

The way you describe a scene so the words really pop off the page. Writing a character’s introduction to create a solid image of what kind of person they are. Creating dialogue composed of exactly-right words and with a rhythm so it sounds exactly as it should.

And this is just a small part of what was covered. There was a lot of information to process – in fact, I’m still processing it now.

Added bonus for me – a one-on-one with Bill to talk about steps to take to help get my career going.

The big question at the wrap-up session was “Did you get anything out of this?” This isn’t something I could answer right away. I really had to mull it over. In the end, my response, which still applies, was this:

There was a lot to take in, so I don’t think the results will be immediate. It’s not a superficial fix. All of it is something you really need to think about before and while you’re writing.

I have a strong suspicion that in the coming weeks and months, the more I write, the information that was presented will work its way onto my pages. I’ll probably develop my own method of doing it, which will then most likely become an automatic part of my writing process.

Am I glad I went? Very much so. It also gave me the chance to meet and talk with other writers, which is always great. Would I recommend this sort of thing to writers seeking to improve their skills? Definitely. (Here’s a link to Mia Terra Tours, the company that runs them)

No matter how much you think you know about screenwriting, there’s always more of what you don’t know. So when you get an opportunity like this to increase your knowledge and improve your skills, take advantage of it and do it.