Friday, 11 November 2016

SCREENWRITING FUNDAMENTALS #10 OVERWRITING

Overwriting is another immensely common error I see in amateur screenplays.

The medium of screenwriting is very different from all other forms of writing.

The vast majority of people come to learn about writing from reading. 

What do we read?

Novels.

In terms of the style of writing, novels are the antithesis of screenplays. 

In novels there really are no rules. You can write a stream-of-consciousness story and have an award winning novel on your hands. 

If you write stream-of-consciousness in a screenplay you will be laughed at. 

(Unless you're David Lynch). 

The first major tip toward changing your writing style to suit the screenwriting medium is to...

ONLY WRITE WHAT YOU CAN SEE ON THE SCREEN.

That gets rid of a lot of floral writing right there. 

The reason for this should be obvious.

When writing a screenplay, you are putting down visual images in the written form. 

That's all a screenplay is.

There's a maxim in screenwriting that goes - if it's not on the screen, it's not on the page. 

This means you can't write what a character is thinking, because, unlike a novel you can't SEE thoughts on the screen.

Here's a test to do...

Go through the script you're working on and re-write EVERY SCENE so that you only write what can be seen on the screen.

The vast majority of people that do this exercise will be surprised by the amount of TELLING they were doing. 

What do you mean by TELLING?

Telling is where, you, the writer, simply TELL the reader the way the character is feeling. 

John is angry. 

How does ‘John is angry’ play on screen?

Unless you have a really talented actor, you're going to have a cheesy performance. 

Now, think about how to SHOW anger. 

Firstly you need to decide what kind of anger you want to show.

Here's another tip - KEEP IT SUBTLE.

CHEESY is synonymous with TOO MUCH.

While in real life you might yell and slam a door if you're really angry - in the world of film - everything is accentuated by a factor of 10. 

So if you write a character yelling and slamming doors, when filmed and put up on the big screen it's going to come across as CHEESY, OVER THE TOP, HAMMED UP, you choose the expression, you know what I'm saying.

If you want to SHOW John being angry, try subtly. 

Instead of yelling and slamming that door, perhaps he simply walks out on someone mid-sentence. 

Think how subtle, yet powerful, the act of walking away from someone mid-sentence is. 

For every over-the-top expression of emotion, there is a subtle alternative. 

ALWAYS go with the subtle option. 

Okay, so you've gone through your script and re-written every scene so that you are only writing what can be seen on screen. 

Here's the general exception to that principle...

It's okay to TELL when you are FIRST INTRODUCING a character. 

That said, keep it quick. Don't go into a three paragraph TELL about the character, keep it lean - JOHN (30s), quick-tempered, ill-fitting clothes, overweight.

We can see two of those three attributes. We can see his clothes, and we can see his weight.

We can't see his quick temper. 

So you need to SHOW us his quick temper as soon as you can.

Put John in a scene where his temper flares up quickly. 

This is another common mistake I see. The writer tells us something about the character - then fails to show us. 

If you don't show that character's personality trait, then the audience will never know about it. 

OKAY...

Moving on... 

I’ve written about START LATE, FINISH EARLY before. 

Simply put...

1) KNOW what the goal of your scene is. 
2) START the scene as close to that goal as possible.
3) AS SOON as the goal is achieved, end the scene.

Here's another takeaway...

Go to the script you're working on now.

Go through every scene. Write down the GOAL or the OBJECTIVE of the scene. Write down WHY you're writing that scene. Then look at the writing before that goal is achieved, and after it. How much can you cut out either side of the goal before the scene doesn't make sense?

Trim as much as you can. 

I recently did coverage on a 65 page TV pilot for a great writer. 

Once he had made the suggested trims I've outlined here, he chopped the page-count down to 55 pages. 

It gave him an extra 10 pages to fit more story in. 

Screenwriting real estate is rare and precious. 

Use it wisely. 

Next trim tip is...

NEVER EVER show a character traveling - unless during the travel we learn something important about the story.

There's macro traveling and micro traveling. 

MACRO TRAVELING

Say, your character is in England and she needs to get to the USA.

You could show your character...

Packing.
Getting to the airport.
Getting on the plane.
Take off.
Mid-flight.
Landing.
Getting to their destination in the USA.

OR...

You could show them phone a travel agent.
Then in the next scene, they're in their destination in the USA. 

The only time you would want to show any of the interim travel scenes, is if something important about the story happens mid-transit.

Say, they meet a significant character mid-flight.

But if that's the case, you should cut straight from the phone call to the travel agent to the moment that they're mid-flight and meet that significant character. 

MICRO TRAVELING...

Micro traveling is when you show a character move through a door, or walk down a hallway, or cross the room to do something.

Think about these micro-movements - are they necessary in conveying the object of the scene?

Most likely no.

If you want to see a movie that has far too much micro traveling - watch Transcendence (2014). Almost every scene in that film starts with a character walking for about 10 feet, before they get to where they need to be. 

One or two scenes like this are fine.

But when EVERY SCENE has a 10-30 second chunk of time at the start where we're just waiting for something to happen - it slows the movie waaaaay down. 

EVERY SCENE SHOULD MOVE THE STORY FORWARD.

What does that mean?

Simply put, if we don't learn something NEW in a scene, you haven't moved the story forward. 

Here's another great trim tip... 

Go to the script you're working on now.

Read each scene.

Write down the NEW INFORMATION that each scene has.

If you have a scene that doesn't tell us anything NEW.

CUT IT.

It doesn't matter if that scene has a great piece of dialogue or a really well-executed moment. 

You need to cut it.

But don't throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Save that great piece of dialogue and/or that great moment and use it in a different part of the script. 

AVOID USING METAPHORS AND SIMILIES.

That said - please note that I write AVOID – not - DON'T USE.

The reason for this is that a well-placed simile or metaphor can really add some personality to your script.

Think of metaphors and similes as sugar.

A little bit of sugar tastes amazing.

A cup full of sugar makes you sick.

My final tip for you to avoid overwriting is...

Once you have applied all the tips I've written about here, go through each sentence you have written and re-write using fewer words.

ALMOST every single sentence you have written can be trimmed by 10% if you just put your mind to it. 

Say you have a 10-word sentence... is it possible to say the same thing in 8 words?

Sometimes this might mean fusing sentences together.

You might have an entire sentence devoted to describing one action.

Then another sentence devoted to describing another action.

Is it possible to bring those actions together in one sentence?

If you do try this tip - be careful you don't create long paragraphs.

Remember, the aim of the game is to write a powerful story in a concise, and easy to read way.