“It’s a page-turner!”
That’s what we say when we read the latest New York Times best-seller. A page-turner. Gripping. Addictive. Leaving the reader unable to put the book down until s/he reaches the phrase “The End.”
Why, oh why, do we, as screenwriters, not take a cue from the novelist, and build our scripts out as page-turners?
Ah. Because so many screenwriters are not writing for the reader. Instead, they are writing for themselves.
We’ve all done it at one time or another. Usually with our first screenplay. We devote ourselves to it. We laugh, we weep as we write. We throw ourselves fingers first into the throes of pain, of passion, of suffering. We write from the heart; from the soul. We don’t care what others think, for we are artists, and we know how the story should be told. Those that don’t get it are minions. We are gods and goddesses. With Shakespearean DNA coursing through our veins.
And then, we turn our masterpiece over to the reader, and are stunned that they cannot see the beauty that resides within our script – and us.
Why can they not see the beauty? Simple. Because your script is not a page-turner.
Too many details
Your script is not a film. Your script is the template of what may, if you are lucky, someday become a film.
I recently read a script that was so overloaded with detail, my head was swimming. The characters did not wear sunglasses; they wore Versace sunglasses. Every time one character got into her car, she got into her Mercedes C-300. Another character never answered his phone; instead, he always answered his iPhone. Over and over, every page overwrought with branding and merchandising that I began to feel as if I were reading the
Needless-Markup Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue. I don’t care if her dress is pink. What I do care about is how the internal and external conflict are being expressed through dialogue and action.
General rule of thumb is that lines of action should not exceed 3 – 4 lines of text.
The above does not mean, however, that all lines of action should be written at 3 – 4 lines of text.
Let’s look at a phone call, shall we?
The phone rings. Aaron hears it and walks across the room to the desk. He picks up the phone with his right hand, and gazes out the window.
ZZZZZZZZZZZZ. I’m sleeping already. The script has come to a dead halt.
Let’s look at another way to write this:
The phone rings. Aaron answers it.
Note – please forgive my lousy formatting. HTML is driving me bonkers.
The second is a much more tight and lean form of expressing the same information. After all, it is the phone call that is the focus, not how Aaron answers the phone.
Please, do not try to trick the reader. It’s subversive. It’s underhanded. It underestimates the reader’s intelligence.
If you are writing a mind-bender, you are writing an alternate reality – not a series of tricks. If you are writing suspense, you are not writing a series of tricks. Tricks are trite, sloppy writing.
Think of THE USUAL SUSPECTS. The ending is not a trick – for the information in regard to Keyser Soze is there all along. It is present, for all to see – if they (we) just look hard enough.
Tricks come out of nowhere. They bring the script to a screeching halt, as we scratch our heads and do our best to figure out where the feck they are coming from. They have the look, the feel and the smell of the deus ex machina. There’s a reason that Aristotle protested their usage. Listen to the old Greek. He knows what he’s talking about.
Dead Cat monologues
You know what they are. It’s the monologue about what happened to the character when s/he was a child. Their cat was run over in front of them. Or, they had a cat that slowly died of cancer. It’s long, it’s painful and overwrought.
Do you write a monologue that can explain how/why your character is in the condition that they are? Sure. Just keep it off the nose.
Okay, I will make two exceptions here. Clarice has a dead lamb story in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; in ADDICTED TO LOVE, Maggie has a dying dog monologue.
However, her dog lives. After her father pulls, one by one, maggots out of its ass. With his fingers. All. Night. Long.
Unless you have that kind of crazy brilliant going on, think twice before you bring in a dead cat.
Now, go write.
HRH – Princess Scribe
What I am reading: Revisiting Water for Elephants.
What I am watching: Big catch up week. THE GHOST WRITER, A SINGLE MAN, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Brilliant, all.
A Royal Shout-Out: No shouts. Prayers for Japan. Can’t watch. Aren’t enough tears in the world to weep for such heartbreak. Feel lucky, my friends.
As with all rules of thumb, there are exceptions…. It may be relevant to her character that she wears a pink dress. It may be relevant that Aaron rushes across the room and dives across the bed to answer the phone on the nightstand. It’s definitely relevant that Jack Diamond III drives the latest and great model Mercedes.
Speaking of the rule of thumb, it’s a great rule to use. Press your thumb on your screen on top of an action paragraph, and if you can see text either above or below, you’ve written too much. Start a new paragraph.
Of course. If it is relevant, it is relevant… but that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about data overload.
Leave the props to the Art Director, the dress to wardrobe. Focus on story, character and dialogue.
I’m agreeing with Matches on some points and also with Anne on some points.
* Sometimes the extremely descriptive text such as the model of Mercedes serves to set up a character quickly.
* OMG, yes, on the nose is not only so boring; but additionally does not give the actor any room to bring their own creative gifts.
Anne, we’re on the same wavelength…I have a half-written article along the same lines about tooMuchTooMuch wordiness.
And then I can piggyback onto your comment about wordiness 🙂 It follows that you want your reader’s eyes to move down the page, not left to right over and over. The minute a page guideline is only for when your movie is shown, not read.
Well, I’m not talking setup. Which should be lean. If you need to brand for story sake, do it… once.
What I am talking about is overloaded lines of action to the point that a story becomes about an iMac instead of about the people that own the iMac – which is what it was intended to be.
@ Matches, don’t agree so about the minute per. The minute per is for the reader, not production. Production will add to the page count – and the time – anywhere from 10 to 20%.
But I do like the rule of thumb. And I would add to save that length only for the most significant moments. Otherwise, delete, distill, make it pop using brevity instead of overload. A film is a collaborative venture. A screenplay is a template, a blueprint, not the building (and the contents within) itself.
I’m simply stating that a 120 page script shouldn’t take two hours to read, that’s all. I know that a script grows during production. Unless you’re shooting a 168 😉
Good lord, if a writer is paying a consult for notes, I certainly hope that the reader would take two hours on a one-twenty script.
But yes, for a producer, the story should move forward at an accelerated speed. The pages should not simply turn – they should fly.
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