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.

Getting over overwriting

Whattya think? Too much?
Whattya think? Too much?

It’s a bad habit of mine, definitely happens in the first draft, and then has to be slowly and surgically removed with each successive draft that follows.

Simply put, I put too much detail into a scene. I visualize in my mind how it plays out, and that’s what I put on the page.

There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s probably my equivalent of a “vomit draft”, where everything gets written down because you know you’re going to go back and edit and rewrite it multiple times. It’s a starting point.

So after you’ve got that first draft written, how do you know what to get rid of?

Like with sculpting a statue out of a block of marble, just chip away anything that doesn’t belong.

Say you have a scene that runs 1 3/4 pages. Do you know what the point of the scene is? Does it advance the plot and the characters’ development? Is there a way to have the scene still do that but with significantly less words? Can you cut the whole thing in half? Can you cut it by 75 percent?

How much of the scene is just back-and-forth dialogue? How detailed are you when it comes to what the characters are doing? (“He climbs the first step of the stairs, pauses to catch his breath, wipes his sweaty brow, then advances another step.” That sort of thing).

Do you describe parts of the scene that, when you really think about it, really don’t have much or anything to do with moving the story forward (how a room is decorated, what the characters are wearing, etc)? I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately, and have seen all of these on display.

It’s like this is the culmination of three important screenwriting rules:

get in late, get out early
get to the point as soon as possible
write as if ink costs a thousand dollars an ounce

Don’t be of the mindset that you can’t or won’t change anything. Yes, this is your baby, but what’s more important? Your writer’s ego or telling your story in the best, most efficient way possible?

I had a first draft that was 132 pages. Just about every person who gave me notes said it was too long, and that it had to be at least 20-30 pages shorter. At the time, I thought that was asking too much. If I really pushed myself, I could cut maybe 10, 15 tops.

But as I went through each rewrite, trimming wherever I could, savagely wiping scenes, characters and dialogue from existence, it kept getting shorter until I got it down to 107. A whole 25 pages cut, just as was suggested. It took a while, but I got there.

Whittling each scene down to its bare essentials not only helped make the script better, but also proved beneficial to developing my writing and editing skills so while I’m sure I’ll continue to overwrite in the future, at least I’ll be better prepared to deal with it.