Thursday, August 29, 2013

Techniques for Tightening Your Screenplay

When I was discussing how to fix a screenplay that was too long a couple weeks back, I promised to give some tips on how to tighten your writing. Here they are!

One of the most common problems in beginner scripts is overwriting. Overwriting is when you use more words than you need to in order to do the job. It’s easy to overwrite because as you write, you are imagining the scene and putting down what you imagine. But now that you’re rewriting, you need to make sure every sentence is working properly and moving the story forward. You want to eliminate that extra padding that the reader might not even notice but that slows down the pace unnecessarily.

I personally have a bad habit of writing the character “turns around” and does something, because as the scene plays out in my head the character turns. But that’s almost always unnecessary to write. If the character is picking up a knife, for example, I can just write, “He picks up the knife.” If on the set the knife is behind the actor, I can trust he will figure out he has to turn around to get it.
Keep your action simple and spare. Only describe what’s needed to understand the scene. 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. Instead of:

There is a KNOCK at the door. Steve stands up and goes over to open it. Megan is on the other side. She enters.

Just write:

There is a KNOCK. Steve opens the door for Megan.

Cut any action or dialogue that doesn’t really advance plot or character. Sometimes you’ll need a line of transitory dialogue to move a scene forward, but make these as efficient as possible. Let’s say you have two characters at a barbecue and you need them to go inside. You might write something like (please forgive improper formatting - difficult to get screenplay format in Blogger):

I’m thirsty. Is there any more beer?


It’s in the fridge.


Do you want to come with me?



They go inside

There’s nothing awful about that dialogue on the surface. It’s reasonably realistic. But it’s also boring. You could get the same result with:

Let’s go get another drink.

They go inside

Even better, you could probably just cut to them inside getting their beers. Would the audience really be confused?

Particularly watch out for the dreaded “greetings, introductions and farewells.” Too many weak scripts begin scenes with characters entering, greeting each other, introducing friends, asking how each other is doing, etc. It’s boring! Cut into the scene at the meat of the conversation. The same rule applies to leaving. We don’t need long goodbyes, just cut out of the scene. And definitely avoid having someone introducing a group of characters to each other. It takes lots of space and the audience probably won’t remember the names anyway.

Watch for overly detailed descriptions. Many new writers start a scene by describing everything in the room. That’s unnecessary. If the slug line says we’re in a classroom we have a pretty good idea of what we’ll find in there. Pick a few specific things to point out that tell us what kind of classroom it is and let us fill in the rest. If the chalkboard at the front of the room is just an ordinary chalkboard you don’t need to mention it.

Something that will help here is specificity. Try to pick specific, evocative words and details. Consider this description:


The walls are painted grey. There are pictures of Presidents above the chalkboard. There are a dozen old desks arranged in three rows and a big teacher’s desk at the front. One wall has dirty windows overlooking the ball field. There is a tattered flag in the corner. The fluorescent lights cast a greenish hue.

Now try this version:


More of a prison than a learning environment. The peeling grey paint was applied at least a decade ago. Some of the graffiti carved into the desktops dates back five times as long.

Doesn’t the second give you a much stronger impression of the environment in a lot fewer words? And yet even that is probably too much for most scenes. Usually all you need is:


A worn and decrepit prison of education.

...and get started on the drama. There are exceptions – sometimes you need to establish a mood. Or sometimes a key location needs more detail to provide context for the scene. But far more often a classroom is just a classroom.

It’s not always easy to ignore the forest and focus on the trees. You have to force yourself to go slow and evaluate every line and even every word. But if you are ruthless with your cutting, you will not only significantly reduce page count, you’ll have a breezy, faster paced screenplay.

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