How to Pare Down Prose to Make Your Script an Easier, Breezier Read!

Note from Screenwriting Staffing‘s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart.

We have an incredibly important guest blog (from someone with 2 decades of professional script reading experience) on the importance of white space in a script. Having surveyed over 1,000 industry professionals over the last 4 1/2 years through Screenwriting Staffing, I have found that the majority of producers who request scripts from our writers perform the following tacks before reading a script:

1) Scroll to the VERY last page, checking page-length. If the script is anymore than 100 pages, the producer already sees a red flag. It’s terribly hard to fund a spec script (especially from a newer screenwriter) if the film runs more than 1 1/2 hours. Yes, Aaron Sorkin can submit a 140+ page script — he’s earned it; the rest of us must follow the rules: never submit a spec OVER 120 page. I’d suggest 90-100. Attention spans are at an all-time low!

2) Randomly flips through the script, seeing if the writer’s script is formatted correctly. A script that doesn’t follow industry standards will be tossed. If the writer doesn’t take the art form seriously, why should the producer take the writer seriously? This includes scene #’s — that’s for a shooting script, not a spec.

3) And lastly — and this is the most important one — they check for WHITE SPACE. If a producer sees plenty of white-space throughout, they know this will be a quick read; which means your script will be read first, since they have time to squeeze it in during their morning coffee, a lunch break, or right before bed. A script with a lot of white space also shows you understand the craft; less is more; film is a visual medium. If you enjoy writing long-drawn-out descriptions, write a novel. Seriously.

Without further ado:

How to Pare Down Prose to Make Your Script an Easier, Breezier Read!

B. O’Malley , Founder of  ScreenplayReaders.com

You love writing. You love movies. Love is all around us.

And believe it or not, script readers want to love your script. They really do.

Assistants at agencies, agents themselves, producers or filmmakers taking a chance on you… with relatively few exceptions, they really, really, really, really want to like the spec script you’ve given them.

Yet it’s baffling to me, having been in the script reading business for over two decades now—reading for a talent and literary agency, and then for Roger Corman, and then for my own company—why so many screenwriters make it so difficult for us to let that love happen.

When a film is flashing in front of you, and the sound is beaming into your ears, as an audience member, you’re taking in a lot of information in an extremely quick way.

When you’re reading a film, on paper, a lot of that experience is lost automatically, no matter how well-written the script is.

So from where I sit, the first goal of any screenwriter, no matter how she goes about it, becomes, automatically:  mitigating that “experience gap.”  That is, shrinking the difference between watching and hearing a movie on a screen, on the one hand, and reading a screenplay for a movie, on the other.

To get a script reader to visualize your film, as they’re reading it, is paramount. Without visualizing the story, they can’t “watch it in their heads.” And without that, they can’t see the screenplay as a film.

In my experience, the biggest factor in determining how easy a script is for a script reader to visualize is speed.  If a script reader’s eyes keep moving down the page, it means the script is flowing. The faster they do that, the faster they visualize. The faster they visualize, the closer it is to a true cinematic experience.

Language, word choice, logic, grammar, syntax — all of these are important as well. But the most important is speed.  And the key factor to keep a reader’s eyes moving quickly is text density, or in other words, the amount of words on the page.

You’ll hear it described in many other resources as “white space,” or “the importance of white space,” or similar. However you name it, the principle remains: fewer words on the page (and, ideally, more vivid, powerful words at that), translates to a quicker, breezier, more cinematic read. And a cinematic read is a lot better than a hard slog.

So mission one for any screenwriter isn’t to learn the 3-act structure, or the Save-the-Cat beats, or the delicate art of great dialogue. It’s to learn how to say MORE with FEWER words so that the text you’re composing — the blueprint of a cinematic film or tv show — is not only understood, but ENTERTAINS.  The script reader is your first audience. If she’s not entertained, chances are your viewing audience, should your film ever get made, will not be entertained either.

How does one say more with fewer words?  It takes practice. But the good news is, if you’re willing to learn how to do this, your classroom, your lesson plan, can be literally any piece of prose text.

Here’s an example, a clear example, from a screenplay. This is a scene heading/slug line followed by an action line.

INT. MUSIC HALL – NIGHT

Music starts playing. The curtains open and Maxwell steps up to the microphone. Behind him four FEMALE DANCERS in their early-twenties, dance across the stage in skin tight clothing. The crowd goes crazy. The performance is going smoothly until Maxwell rips his tee-shirt off, flexes his muscles and throws the torn shirt into the crowd. All hell breaks loose as a group of Teenage Girls begin to fight over the pieces of Maxwell’s shirt. Maxwell yells into the microphone.

Everything’s understandable, yes. Everything’s clear, yes. But imagine an entire screenplay with that degree of detail and with that amount of words describing the action. If you’d like to talk about a hard slog, you couldn’t find a better example.

What’s more, how the writer approached the above scene may have been lush, may have been very descriptive, and may have even been cinematic, up close.  But an entire screenplay full of that kind of scene description and action is a hard slog, and that hard slog through all that text, slowing the reader down, slowing down the visualization and arguably the emotional participation, overall, erases any cinematic goodness each scene may have conveyed.

So how do we fix that?  What’s a writer to do?  Well, let’s cut out all but the most necessary verbiage and beats and see what happens:

INT. MUSIC HALL – NIGHT

Music plays. Curtains fly open and Maxwell steps up to the mic.

Four dancers dance in skin-tight costumes.

Maxwell rips his t-shirt off, flexes, hurls it into the crowd.

Teen girls go crazy.

Essentially the same scene, but we get through it in a fraction of the time it took for us to slog through the first version of it.  We get all the major beats, and all the important things we need to see and know, only those things are distilled down to their essentials.

Let’s break that down. What are some of the non-essential things we cut? And why did we cut them?

“Music starts playing.”

We changed that to:

“Music plays.”

We get to make the sentence more active with “plays” instead of “starts playing.”

“The curtains open”

turns into

“The curtains fly open,” adding “fly” to make the visuals more dynamic.

“and Maxwell steps up to the microphone”

becomes

“Maxwell steps up to the mic,” omitting “-rophone,” which kills an extra two syllables and lends more urgency and speed to the sentence.

“Behind him four FEMALE DANCERS in their early-twenties, dance across the stage in skin tight clothing”

becomes

“Four dancers dance in skin-tight costumes,” because their gender is not important, and their ages are not important, and we know they’re dancing across the stage because we’ve gleaned there’s a stage there from context.  The only things that are important are that they dance and that they’re in skin-tight costumes.

Boiling it all down, here are a few steps you can take when looking to pare down any prose in your screenplay:

Step 1) Read the line and ask yourself if what you’re conveying can be said in fewer words.

Step 2) Write those words down. Does the sentence still make sense, at least a bare-bones capacity? (We’ll worry about making it “pop” in a later step.)  If it makes sense, awesome! Go to step 3. If it doesn’t quite make sense yet, repeat Step 1 until it does.

Step 3) Ask yourself if the new sentence you’ve written down can absorb any vital beats or details from the sentences around it, in a way that would make those sentences unnecessary?

Step 4) Next, ask yourself if every single word in that sentence is as powerful and as visually (or aurally) as interesting and powerful and colorful and easy to understand as it could be?  Interesting – powerful – colorful – easy to understand. Does it check all boxes?

Yes, this is surgery. But that’s what all screenwriting is:  precision wordsmithing with the primary goal of emotionally moving an audience. The operative word in that sentence is precision.  A cinematographer is going to take great pains to light and shoot your scene. An actor will study the lines and emotions until they’re a part of her. Endless crew and staff will agonize over every single word of your scene.  So why should you, the writer, get to be sloppy or imprecise?

If you can approach your entire screenplay with this mentality, and use my 4 steps as a general guidebook to writing more cleanly and with more precision, and keep at it, you’ll get into the habit. Before long, you’ll be writing with clarity and power, and the power of brevity.

And you know what they say about brevity:  It’s the “soul of wit.”  But I like to think it’s more accurate to say that brevity is the simply the single best strategic tool you have in your toolkit when trying to get a script reader to love you. And what’s a screenwriter to do without love?

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