Whether the final page-count is 95 or 130, a great screenplay is a lean read, holding the reader’s attention and delivering all of the screenwriter’s intentions with clarity. Much is conveyed with a lot less said. As screenwriters, we may be storytelling for the movie-goer, but we’re writing for the reader. All too often, a screenplay will land on a “reader’s desk”(inbox) with writing so bloated that reading it soon becomes a tedious experience, and whatever potential it might have gets buried under the weight.
Maybe you’ve gotten feedback saying that your draft is difficult to understand or that the read feels sluggish and heavy. Or maybe you’ve already reached 85 pages and you barely past the midpoint of your story. The diagnosis may be that your script is bloated with unnecessary details, explanations and wording. As a writer, I have been there. As a consultant and and instructor, I’ve often sat bedside. But deciding what stays and what goes can be a challenge. No one actually wants to read a screenplay, so it’s important to make the reading experience as painless as possible so that your gripping story shines through.
Here are three tips for picking up the pace and clarifying your intentions:
1. Trust your reader to assume the obvious.
Common knowledge is our friend because it allows us to provide visual impressions without having to spoon-feed the reader with all the details. Too often I’ll read information in a scene that makes me feel like it wasted my time. I already know what a high school classroom looks like. I already know what a doctor’s examination room contains. I don’t want to be told something I already know. Trust the reader’s common knowledge to conjure what’s necessary in the mind’s eye. Your job is to create a visual impression rather than a litany of details and move on to telling your story. On the flip side of this coin, trust that the reader will remember what you’ve put down on the page. There’s no need to say the same thing in a different way elsewhere in your draft. Highlight all the adverbs in your draft and all the parentheticals you’ve placed within dialogue. Chances are most of them can (and therefore should) be left out. The screenplay page is the most exclusive real estate in the world. To earn its place, each piece of information and each word used to convey it must be integral to the forward momentum of each scene or to our understanding of what’s going on within it. Otherwise, out it goes.
2. Save your darlings for the novel version.
As a writer, I’ve had to become a temporary mini-expert in all sorts of things– from the Oklahoma Cheyenne of 1904 to an English insane asylum of the 1960’s to the silver ore-refining process common to New Mexico in 1853. It can be a real struggle to let go of material that shows off how much research I’ve done, but screenplays don’t read well when laden with a lot of detail. So I always promise myself that I’ll save it for the novel version. The idea is that, if I really feel compelled to convey these additional aspects to the story I can always find room for them in a storytelling medium that thrives on details and story tangents. While I have yet to take myself up on the offer, it’s nice to know I haven’t so much as killed my darlings as I have rescued them for a brighter future.
3. Talk, talk, talk…
Being ruthless with your dialogue revisions can go a long way to reducing bloat. Go over every line with a fine comb and ask yourself- do you beat every joke to death with mini-riffs of banter that stall the momentum of your scenes? Do you have unnecessary introductions between characters? Can your scenes start a bit later into the conversation? Can they end a bit earlier– ideally on a note of dramatic tension? Do your characters spoon-feed a lot of information to each other and therefore to us? Give the reader only just enough to maintain a toe-hold in understanding what’s going on and let the unfolding of your story deliver the rest of your intentions.
Remember, if it can be assumed or simply left for the novel version and if it’s not in service to the character’s journey or the forward momentum of your story take it out.
About Chrysanthy Balis:
After graduating from USC’s Master of Writing program 1996, Chrys’ first script won The Diane Thomas Award. Since then she has written scripts for The Zanuck Company at Fox 2000, several MOW’s for ABC, CBS and UPN and has sold an original pilot to HBO. Her feature film, Asylum came out in 2005. She has authored short stories for several anthologies as well as a chapter in UCLA Extension’s how-to reference book: Cut ToThe Chase. She’s an award-winning instructor at UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, and often provides private script consultant to writers and production companies.