I was once hired to consult on a screenplay that was over 200 pages long. The writer was desperate to reduce the length, but said he couldn’t figure out where to cut. When I got the screenplay, the scenes looked something like this:
INT. OFFICE – DAY
A desk sits at the west end of a small office. The floor is carpeted in blue shag that’s seen some wear and tear. Two floor lamps provide illumination. There are paintings of ocean landscapes on the wall and two guest chairs in front of the desk.
JOE sits in a leather chair behind the desk. He’s about thirty, tall, lean with brown hair carefully parted. He wears a blue suit with a red and blue striped tie, brown shoes and an expensive gold watch. He looks at a piece of paper, signs it with an expensive fountain pen, then places the paper in the out-box. He takes a sip from an enormous coffee cup. He picks up another piece of paper. Studies it, his brow wrinkling.
There is a KNOCK at the door. Joe puts the paper back in the in-box and slips the pen into his shirt pocket. He stands up and smoothes his clothes. He walks across the room and takes the door handle. He pulls the door open.
SALLY, a pretty young woman in a red dress, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, is standing behind the door. She smiles broadly at Joe. He frowns. Sally looks down. Joe sighs and stands aside. Sally enters. Joe walks back to the chair behind the desk. He gestures at the guest chair, then sits down. Sally walks to the guest chair and sits down while Joe finishes off his coffee.
I’m really not exaggerating. The solution was easy – the story was the right length, the writer had simply described everything in too much minute detail. This is called “overwriting.”
I know why it happens. When you’re writing a scene, you’re probably picturing it in your mind. And you write down what you’re picturing. But we don’t need every single detail. The reader will fill in the blanks. Plus, when you actually get into production, chances are a lot of these details will change anyway.
Though it might seem harmless, there are several good reasons to avoid overwriting. The most obvious is that you slow down the pace of the script. If you’re trying to sell it as a spec, get an agent, convince a studio to greenlight the movie, or lure a star to play the lead, you don’t want to bore the reader.
Industry readers have a habit of skimming or skipping the description and only reading the dialogue. If your description seems generally long and pointless, you’re encouraging that practice. If you put important stuff in your description, which you probably will if you’re a good writer, this is bad. If you want people to read carefully, demonstrate that everything you write is relevant and important.
There’s also the matter of timing the final film. The industry rule of thumb is that one script page equals one minute of screen time. This is only approximate – action will take longer on screen than it does on the page and dialogue will move faster – but over the course of a movie it’s a pretty reliable measure. Unless you overwrite.
Perhaps a more important problem for the writer is burying important information. Without looking back at the scene description above, do you remember where the fountain pen is? Probably not. If the reader needs to remember that for something to make sense later in the scene, they will likely be confused.
The trick to writing description is to give just enough carefully chosen, specific detail to make the scene come alive. And if there’s something you want to emphasize, make sure you hit it hard. Let’s revisit the previous scene and see how we might do it better, emphasizing the final location of the fountain pen.
INT. OFFICE – DAY
JOE, thirty, tall and lean and dressed in an expensive suit, sits at a desk going over some papers. He signs one with an expensive fountain pen. There is a KNOCK at the door.
Joe puts the fountain pen down on the desk, but then reconsiders and slips it in his shirt pocket.
He answers the door. SALLY, a pretty young woman, smiles broadly at him. Joe frowns, and Sally’s smile fades. He leads her over to the desk.
I dropped it from 246 to 82 words without losing significant content. Not exactly scintillating, perhaps, but it is simple and clear and you’ll probably remember that Joe stuck that pen in his shirt pocket.
Overwriting is not bad on a first draft. In fact, it may be best to allow yourself to get down everything in your head at that stage of the game. But when you rewrite, you need to tighten up your description and make sure the important facts are highlighted.