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.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Help! My Screenplay is Too Short

(Spoilers: Ocean’s Eleven, There’s Something About Mary, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)

As I mentioned last post, spec feature screenplays should be a minimum of 90 pages, though you might get away with as few as 85 for a low budget indie. Fewer than that and your script will feel slight. It won’t feel like a movie. Assuming your structure is working, you are going to have to find a way to bulk it up. And you don’t want to pad or add filler – that will just make your script feel bloated and slow.

There are two basic reasons I’ve seen for screenplays to come in under length: either the scenes are underdeveloped or there isn’t enough story.

The easiest way to diagnose the first problem is to look at the length of your scenes. If most are under two pages, you probably haven’t adequately milked your scenes for maximum impact. You are being perfunctory and not dramatizing the action. Not every scene has to be long, but you should have at least eight juicy scenes (and usually many more) spread throughout your script. What do I mean by juicy? They have multiple obstacles, mounting tension, and twists. They are like miniature movies unto themselves.

If your problem is underdeveloped scenes, identify the key moments in your film. Be sure to pick out at least eight scenes. Re-examine those scenes, treating them like short films. You know what has to happen in the scene, what’s the most interesting, dramatic way to get there?

Make sure there is adequate conflict in the scene. Can you add obstacles blocking the hero from achieving their goal? Can you throw in an unexpected obstacle somewhere in the middle? Good scenes, like good scripts, go up and down, with the character alternately getting close to their goal and then pulled farther away. You can also try the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire approach: a character overcomes one obstacle only to find himself in deeper trouble.

You should also ask yourself if the outcome of the scene is obvious from the opening of the scene. If so, can you revise the beginning so it appears things will head in a different direction, giving you a twist?

Sometimes underdeveloped scenes come from inadequate outlining. The writer is using the first draft to figure out their story and fails to pay enough attention to the scene work. Other times a writer will have a solid outline, but will do little more than convert the outline to screenplay format in the first draft, checking off plot points and not fully developing scenes. It’s important in your first draft to take the time to think about what will make your big scenes great.

If you have good scenes but you just don’t have enough of them, you probably don’t have enough story. The first thing to do is look at how your acts are balanced. Usually Act One takes up one fourth of your script, Act Two one half, and Act Three one fourth. Is your problem that your story overall is too short, or is one of the acts too short?

If you are short across the board, make sure you are properly tracking your character arc. Are the beats of the character’s change dramatized so the audience can see them? Also make sure that you’re not missing important preparation and aftermath scenes to allow us to touch base with the character’s emotion.

Another problem could be that you don’t have enough subplots. We look for about three subplots in addition to the main plot. If you need to add a subplot, consider if there’s another angle on your subject/theme that you could explore, maybe with a supporting character. For example, if you’re writing a love story, is there another relationship that illuminates an alternative experience to the main relationship?

If your problem is mostly in Act One it probably means you haven’t properly set up the character’s status quo before the Catalyst, or your character hasn’t eliminated alternate solutions before taking on the problem. Make sure that the stakes of the story are clear and that you’ve locked the character into the story.

A short Act One really isn’t bad unless it doesn’t adequately set up the rest of the film. Usually you’ll realize what you’re missing when you try to write Act Three. If you don’t have a list of things to add into Act One, look at Act Three and see if you’ve really established everything you need for your ending to hit with maximum impact.

If Act Two is short, first make sure that there are multiple stages to your hero achieving their goal. I’ve seen many bad mystery stories where the hero finds one clue that reveals everything. In a good mystery the clues need to be a path – one leading to the next and that one to the next until the truth is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from all the multiple clues.

Similarly, if your movie is about a robbery then there better be several steps the character has to take to prepare. Consider the Ocean’s Eleven remake (screenplay by Ted Griffin). Before the big heist Danny has to get financing and recruit his team, which involves several mini-capers such as getting Basher out of jail. They also have to build a replica of the vault to work out the plan, and commit other tricks to get inside info on the casinos. All of this provides the meat for Act Two before we get to the heist in Act Three.

You also need to make sure you have multiple obstacles for the hero to overcome. In There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly), Ted wants to win Mary’s heart. That would be pretty easy to accomplish if it weren’t for Healy and Tucker trying to sabotage the relationship.

Escalation is key, as are reversals. If your character is simply checking off unrelated obstacles or to-do items on his plan, then your story will feel episodic and lack forward momentum. What you want is a feeling of “but… so…” instead of “and then.” The character does A but it causes B, so the character does C, but it causes D and so on.

Finally, take a good look at your midpoint. It’s a good idea to throw a new element into the story here and raise the stakes. Bringing in something new will generate more material to fill out the story.

It isn’t uncommon for Act Three to be a bit shorter than a quarter of your script. You’ve gotten all the exposition out, so everything in Act Three is go, go, go. But if your Act Three is significantly short, there are several things to look at:

Have you given an appropriate period of aftermath after the Act Two Turning Point so we see the impact of the character’s failure or success?

Is your Act Two Turning Point severe enough? At the end of Act Two we should think there is no way the ultimate resolution could possibly happen. A big Act Two Turning Point should provide lots of material for Act Three

Is the ending too easy? Perhaps you haven’t provided a big enough final conflict after the Epiphany. The Epiphany should give the character the key to overcoming their problem (assuming a successful ending) but there should still be big challenges to overcome. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison), when Elliot learns E.T. is alive, he still has to get the alien out of the house and past the cops. Think of what obstacles the character might face in executing the solution from the Epiphany.

The key to your next draft is to add heft to your story in the right way. You don’t want length for length’s sake; you want to add material that makes your story cooler and more powerful. That starts with properly diagnosing your problem.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Help! My Screenplay is Too Long

Spec feature screenplays ought to be between 95 and 110 pages long. In general comedies are on the shorter end of this, action on the longer end. Some big action or sci-fi films can go a little over this range and independent scripts can be shorter (but not less than 85 pages!)

The reason for this page range is that in a properly formatted screenplay, one page should equal approximately one minute of film time. Movie theaters and distributors want movies to run between ninety minutes and two hours. Yes, you've probably seen plenty of big tent pole films this summer that run well over two hours. But often the length of these films grew as the script was developed and action scenes and special effects were added in preproduction. The rules for spec scripts are different from these final films.

So what do you do when you finish your first draft and discover your script is too long? If it's ten or even twenty pages over the desired length, you probably shouldn't worry yet. Often first drafts are bloated, and as you trim and refine your scenes and dialog, you'll see that page count come down. Also, if you know you need to make major structural changes to fix the story, best to get those things done before worrying about length.

But if the story is working and you're page count is significantly over the norm, what do you do?

There are many possible reasons your script ran long and it can be difficult to diagnose the problem. There is no "right" number of scenes or "correct" scene length. Some scenes will be only a few lines, others will be several pages. Scenes longer than three pages are rare, but not unheard of. Action movies tend to have a lot of scenes, romantic comedies and dramas fewer... but not always.

If it seems like you have too many exceptionally long scenes, or that the pace of your scenes is dragging, perhaps you’re overwriting. The solution will be to tighten your writing (I'll offer some techniques for tightening your writing in a future post).

Or perhaps you are overdeveloping scenes that don't need it. Not every scene has to be long and dramatic with big obstacles and twists. Some can be quick, quarter page scenelets. Save the drama for significant plot points or character moments. Keep in mind, though, you usually shouldn't do more than two or three pages in a row of quick scenes like this.

If, on the other hand, your scenes are good but you just seem to have too many of them, you may have to cut some things out. It might be possible to cut scenes without compromising story. There are two possibilities:

One, you might have redundant scenes – multiple scenes demonstrating the same plot information. As I discussed last post, if you do something right once then you don’t have to repeat yourself. Pick the best scene for the task and cut the others. If the best scene doesn't do the job, make it better.

Two, you might be able to have scenes do double or triple duty. Often in the first draft you’ll have one scene advancing plot and another advancing character. Are there places where you can move the character stuff into a plot scene or vice versa?

If you still have a length problem, it might be an indication that your story is too big. Perhaps you have too many subplots. Most screenplays can sustain about four story lines - one main plot and three major subplots. If it seems like you’re tracking too many different things, rank your storylines in order of importance. Can you cut the ones that are on the bottom of that list?

You also might have too many characters. It is generally advisable to have only as many characters as you need to make the story work. Ask yourself what each character’s role is in the story. See if you can combine some of those functions. Does your rogue cop really need to be chewed out by his Lieutenant, the Captain AND the Mayor? Does he need six drinking buddies? Wouldn’t two suffice? Particularly look for characters who only appear in one or two scenes. Could a more significant character take on that part?

Often this is toughest to do when you are dealing with a true story. You know there were actually three lawyers representing the defendant. Or that the crucial clue came from a random neighbor. This is where you may have to let go of the facts and focus on truth… with fewer characters.

It may be hard to cut scenes and characters that you love, but this is what they mean when they say, “kill your babies” or "kill your darlings." The guiding principal here should be to serve the needs of the story first and foremost. You have to cut the things that don't serve the story... no matter how much you like them. And yes, that can be painful.

Some of you are probably now saying, "That's great, but what if my first draft is too short?" Ah, a perfect topic for my next post!


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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Do It Once Well

Since I'm currently rewriting a new spec script, my mind is on rewriting a lot lately. So, I thought I'd do a series of posts on rewriting. Today I want to talk about the screenwriting saying, "Do it once well." This isn't purely a rewriting concept, but it often comes into play in your second and third drafts.

The idea here is if you do something well in a script, you only have to do it once. For example, if you want to establish that a character is afraid of water, you are better off creating one scene that clearly and dramatically shows this rather than vaguely hinting at it three times.

(The exception here is when you don't want something to be clear to the audience. Also, once you've established a character trait, you need to be consistent with it or explain why it's changed. Once you've shown a character is afraid of water, if they encounter water again they should still be afraid of it - that doesn't violate the principle.)

There are two ways this idea can be helpful in rewriting. First, if you are creating repetitive scenes, your screenplay may be running long, the pace may be slow, or it may seem on-the-nose. Second, if you need multiple scenes or beats to establish something, it may be a sign you are not properly dramatizing it.

So with our character who is afraid of the water, three consecutive scenes of him walking near the ocean, a swimming pool and a fountain and looking at the water nervously would both take a lot of words (and production time) and possibly still fail to make the point. You're relying on the actor to properly convey fear and on the audience to infer the source of the fear is the water.

Much better to do one scene that dramatizes the fear. Perhaps the character slips and falls in a shallow fountain, and freaks out, screaming for help. An old lady pulls him out and wonders what all the fuss is about - it's only a few inches deep. The character mumbles that he doesn't like water.

Of course knowing this principle and spotting repetition in your own work are two different things. That's one of the challenges of rewriting. It can help to step back and think of the various storylines in your screenplay.

What is the main character's emotional arc? What does the audience need to know about the character at the beginning of the script? Which scene establishes those facts? Where does the character change? Is there a single, effective scene establishing each change? Repeat this thought exercise for each relationship, the main plot and each subplot.

To organize this process, I often make a "rewrite plan" when I'm starting my second draft. This is very similar to the outline I made before the first draft - sometimes I can even just cut and paste large sections of the outline. I'll list every scene* and a few sentences of what happens in each. Then I'll list the changes I want to make in that scene. (Often there will also be new scenes to add, or a few scenes that are rearranged.)

I then identify the purpose of each scene in the story. Valid purposes for a scene are establishing/advancing character, advancing plot, or scenes of preparation and aftermath. I also grudgingly allow myself one or two scenes of exposition, and a couple set pieces that are just there for genre payoff (a funny set piece in a comedy, scary set piece in a horror film, etc.). **

I make these things specific. So a scene's purpose is not "advancing character," it's "Megan gives up hope." If I see two scenes with roughly the same purpose in close proximity, it's a sign I'm not doing something "once well" and I should probably either cut one scene or combine them.

A good outline reduces the amount of work you have to do in rewriting, but it's impossible to perfectly predict how the script will go in the first draft. Things won't work as well as you thought and characters will demand to go in directions you didn't anticipate. That's why when rewriting you have to let go of some of your preconceptions and be willing to make changes.

After all, "writing is rewriting."


*For these purposes sometimes a grouping of scenes may count for a single dramatic scene. A chase that moves through various locations may be multiple technical scenes but is really just one dramatic beat of the story.

**Ideally most scenes do multiple things. So a set piece could also advance plot, or an exposition scene could also reveal character.

Friday, August 2, 2013


There's a saying in screenwriting: coincidence that make your character's life more difficult is okay; coincidence that makes their life easier is bad.

Consider the example of a hero being chased through a ravine by bad guys. Imagine if a boulder suddenly toppled from the cliffs and blocked the bad guys, allowing the hero to escape. It seems weak - a contrivance to get the hero out of a tough spot. However if the boulder fell in front of the hero, trapping him with the bad guys and making his situation worse, it feels like good drama.

This is because on some subconscious level the audience is aware that someone is crafting this story. But they don't want to see the hand of that storyteller at work. There are unwritten rules that the audience expects the storyteller to abide by. A coincidence that saves the hero feels like the storyteller wrote themselves into a situation and couldn't figure a way out, so they made something random happen to solve their problem. It feels like cheating. If the writer is allowed to let anything happen at any time then there can be no tension.

That type of coincidence is pretty easy to spot. More insidious is when a story element is a little too convenient. It exists to make the writer's life easier rather than growing organically out of the premise. But sometimes it's possible to turn these types of coincidences into strong plot points.

That's a little confusing in the abstract. Let me give an example of what I mean. One benefit of teaching is that it gives me ample inspiration for blog posts. Recently a student turned in an outline where when the hero meets the villain, they discover they are old high school classmates. I asked why that was and the student said, "I wanted them to know each other so the hero would trust the villain."

That's a valid idea, but it's imposing the relationship on the characters because of a plot need, rather than growing the plot out of the relationship between the characters. Thus it seems a little convenient.

I suggested that maybe the high school relationship between the characters could be the reason they come together. Maybe the villain was seeking out this old classmate, rather than running into them coincidentally.

My student's eyes lit up. She immediately began spinning a backstory of high school jealousy and rejection. Suddenly there was a whole new subtext to her main story. A weakness had just become a strength. 

In good stories plot should grow out of the character's goals and relationships. But of course you need certain things to happen in order for your story to work. When you discover something happens in your story just because you, the writer, needs it to, try to think of a reason based in a character's goals for the plot point.

Let's go back to our falling boulder idea. The audience may accept a random boulder trapping the hero. It makes the scene more dramatic and exciting. But what if one of the villain's henchmen pushed the boulder down? Maybe they had been eavesdropping on the hero and knew his planned route. That feels more satisfying, doesn't it? Even when you could get away with a coincidence, motivating it with character is better.

The exception to this rule is when the entire story is based on some kind of random event. In these cases the randomness is part of the thematic underpinnings of the story. For example, what happens when a regular kid finds a bag of money? Or when two musicians witness a mob hit? Or when a businessman is mistaken for a criminal? The audience is willing to buy one "miracle" to set up the story. But every plot point after that should grow out of that random event and the characters. 

In real life random things happen all the time. But in drama we want things to progress logically. Thus the saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction." So turn your coincidences into plot points based on character motivation. It might just enliven your whole story.