Writing On Spec

An award caliber procrastinator discovers a new and dangerous pursuit to keep him from actually writing another script. Why another Blog? I love to talk screenwriting. I love to talk story. I live in Richmond, VA. It's almost easier to get produced than find another screenwriter here. We are the anti-LA.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Tightening a Script

Awhile back, I asked a longtime writer friend of mine to write an article on tightening the script. He's sold a script, optioned a couple and done some re-write work and I consider him to be a pretty good writer. Here's what he had to say:

I try to even make the page look right. I don't want the page to look too cluttered or full of words. Words should, where appropriate, be kept to a minimum

Your script, generally speaking, is usually around 100 to 120 pages. That's not a lot of pages, 50 each word needs to count. Keep description lean.

Your scene description or exposition blocks should usually be one, two or three lines long. Sometimes four. MAYBE five, but not often. If you have more, cut and prune where you can, and then just break it up - make more paragraphs so it looks better.

I also look at blocks of dialogue that run more than three lines. Of course sometimes it's's necessary to have longer blocks of dialogue. But more often than not, if your block of dialogue is more than three lines long, you'll find you can come up with away of cutting one, two, or many more words out of it.

One of the first things I look for when trying to tighten a script is those blocks of description or dialogue (especially those three or more lines long) where there is only one or two words on the last line. By reducing that block by a couple of words, I've made that section one line shorter. And probably eight times out often, I can do that. What this shows me is that most "long" blocks of description or dialogue can be tightened it. I'm also always amazed at how many times I can go through a script tightening it, and yet I still be able to rework a paragraph again and once again reword it such that it's shorter. I become intent on finding a way to say an eight word sentence in six words. Or in five. I always count the number of words I'm able to remove. Sometimes it's really easy. Other times I simply have to rephrase how I'm saying something. But I don't make the change if I feel it makes the sentence too vague or nonsensical. But the great thing about tightening a script is usually the shorter sentence is the more powerful one.

In a script I was recently working on, I looked at the dialogue in the first 30 pages, and found I only had three blocks of dialogue over four lines long, and none over five lines. Again, it's not to say you can't have large blocks of dialogue; people will always point to Quentin Tarrantino or Paddy Chayevsky, but those are the exception. But even if you do need large blocks of dialogue, it's still essential that each word and sentence is necessary. A large block of dialogue should be one that you've worked on and worked on and worked on to tighten, and you've gotten it as tight as it can be. So if it turns out to be ten lines long, then it needs to be ten lines long. But again, you show me a block of description or dialogue five or six lines long, and I'll likely be able to say it in fewer words.

Sometimes you need to look to see if the dialogue is truly needed. For instance, in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest", Leo 0. Carroll's character is explaining something to Cary Grant. It's not necessary for the audience to understand the details(since we already know it), but it is necessary for Grant. So Hitchcock has them talking while the sound of an airplane engine drowns out their dialogue. This serves two purposes. We don't have to hear what's unimportant to us, and the characters can get away with explaining something in a fraction of the time it wouldn't have taken in real time. The scene with Grant took seconds. In real time the dialogue would have taken minutes.

Personal preference: I don't buy into the "Continued's" at the top and bottom of each page. I don't use the "Cut To's" after each scene. I don't use "continued's" when the same character speaks with exposition dividing up his dialogue.

In the script I'm currently working on, I'm struggling trying to keep it at 119 pages. With my Scriptware software, I've found that by changing the name of one character who appeared a lot near the end of the script... from Steinberg to Keys (from nine letters to five), I was actually able to shorten the final product by a page simply because of the way the longer name sometimes caused a descriptive paragraph to run another line long. This is kind of an extreme example, and is more appropriate for lessons on how to "cheat" the page length, but I offer it to show the lengths you might need to consider to keep a script within certain parameters.

Some ways to tighten a script include the following ~art of this is from various articles):try as much as possible to rely on nouns and verbs, rather than adverbs and adjectives. Instead of a "light rain", try "drizzle". Not only is it shorter, it's less bland. Instead of "quickly ran", use "dashes" or "races"

-get rid of words that aren't necessary. For instance, I constantly find myself still writing "he stands up": when during rewriting I try to replace it with "he stands". Same with "he sits down". Of course he sits down, therefore, it become "he sits".

-Get rid of present progressive phrases. Instead of "she is watching", simply use "she watches". Instead of "they are ignoring the man", just use "they ignore the man". In other words, where appropriate, try getting rid of the"is/are + mg" combination.

-Avoid weak linking verbs (such as "is, are, was") Removing them leads to greater variety and usually to a more colorful replacement. Instead of "The sign in front of them is huge", try "the huge sign looms before them". Not only is it a better sentence, but you've replaced an eight word sentence with a six word sentence. Instead of "The man looks angry. He glares at them", try"the angry man glares at them". You've replaced two sentences and eight words with one more powerful sentence with six words.

-Use the active voice, not the passive: Active voice means someone or something does something. Passive voice means something is done to someone or something. Most of the time, the active voice is more vigorous, as well as stronger and more direct. Plus, it's usually shorter. Instead of "He is smacked in the face by the foul ball", try "The foul ball smacks him in the face" (ten words reduced to eight). "The money is grabbed by the crowd" is changed into "The crowd grabs the money".

Don't use "we see" or "we hear" unless absolutely necessary. Instead of "we see the ball as it hurtles through the air", just say "The ball hurtles through the air

Beware of characters who ramble or go from one item to another like a pinball machine. Perhaps your character is someone who talks like this, in which case maybe it reflects character. But otherwise, tighten, tighten, tighten.

The following are some examples from a script I'm currently working on. Some, if not most, of these are obvious when you're looking at it in this context, but in my first or second draft the first examples are what I came up with. It was only upon rewriting with an eye on tightening the sentences that I reduced the word count. In fact, when typing these up to present this evening, I even thought of ways to make a couple of them even shorter. I've tried italicizing some of the words in the first example which ended up getting changed.

1st draft: Paul looks around the empty bookstore.
2nd draft: Paul surveys the empty bookstore.

1st: "Yes, I prefer not being up too high".
2nd: "Yes, I dislike heights".

1st: Robert grabs his suitcase and walks away from the counter. He walks over and rings for an elevator. One arrives and he steps into the empty car and pushes the button for the 3lst floor.

2nd: Robert grabs his suitcase, walks across the lobby and rings for an elevator. One arrives and he steps into the empty car, pushing the button for the 3lst floor.(from 35 words to 29 words)

1st: Several people sit at tables throughout the restaurant.
2nd: A fairly crowded restaurant. (the previous sentence was reduced by half).

1st: Jamie is pacing around Nancy's living room as her host sits in a chair watching her rant.

2nd: Jamie paces around Nancy's living room as her host sits, watching her rant.(from 17 words to 13 words. I took out the "is pacing" suggestion mentioned earlier, plus it wasn't important for me to note that her host is sitting "in a chair".)

1st: Robert peeks out the door of the bathroom and sees the groom's mother on the other side of the room surrounded by friends.

2nd: Robert peeks out the bathroom and sees the groom's mother across the room surrounded by friends.(from 23 words to 16 words)

1st: Jamie wanders down the hotel corridor past the ballroom where the rehearsal dinner is being held.

2nd: Jamie wanders down the hotel corridor past the rehearsal dinner ballroom.(from 16 words toll)

My suggestion for tightening a script is to first look at blocks of description more than three or four lines long, and look at dialogue more than three lines long. See if you can't tighten there. Secondly, I would suggest you try finding those blocks of description or dialogue where there is only a word or two on the last line and see if you can't do something to shorten that block by a line. If you're able to do that, then you're likely able to shorten other blocks as well.

The game is to find a way to take out one, two, or more words. Even taking out only one word is a good thing. When I can shorten a block of description or dialogue by five or six or more words it's like finding a nugget of gold.

No matter how tight your script is, chances are another look through it will reveal ways to make it even tighter. Eventually you have to move on and send it out(you don't want to spend ALL your time obsessing over word count), but you need to be partially obsessive about it. The tighter the script, the better the "look"of it on the page, the quicker the read, and the clearer the story, unless of course you've taken out TOO many words. Readers and producers in L.A. recognize when a writer has gone the extra yard to write a concise and very tight draft, and they'll be given a little more consideration as professionals.



Blogger AMERICAN RESTOP said...

Another good post!

I generally agree with everything here and actually practice the same thing except for a paragraph with 5 lines...

I REALLY try to stay away from them. My personal rule is pretty much the same except with 4 lines instead.

Good stuff!


Sunday, December 3, 2006 at 5:36:00 PM EST  

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