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HOW DO I KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CLEAR AND AN OVERWRITTEN SCREENPLAY?

Updated: Dec 23, 2019


There a few things that show you that you hold in your hands, a professional, clean, tight screenplay. I will list those principles here and once you are familiar with those, it should be easy enough to check them up against your own screenplay.

Here they are:


ECONOMY OF WRITING

CAUSALITY

DRAMATIC SIMPLICITY


ECONOMY OF WRITING

‘Economy of writing’ means that you tell your story or illustrate a point, in the most simple way possible. In screenwriting, this usually means a way that involves action rather than dialogue.

For instance; Let’s say that your main charachter is a Brain Surgeon and you want to convey that information. How would you go about it?

Many, especially amateur writers, gravitate towards dialogue

- Let’s say that our hero is Jack Lieber. Someone our hero meets simply refers to him as Doctor Lieber, rather than calling him Joe Lieber. That should do the trick - you would think.

In actuality, it won't actually accomplish your task at all. Because there are problems with this way of writing.

For one; How do we know that the person who refers to him as a doctor, is actually correct? He could be lying, mistaken, delusional or simply joking. So, now, you are facing the problem of establishing the trustworthiness of that person, before we can believe the information that he is giving. But that is a long detour to go, to establish such a simple fact about the charachter.

Secondly: what if the audience happens to miss that millisecond where the hero is referred to as a doctor?

You could fix that by repeating it and even having several characters refer to him this way.

But that too is a far cry from achieving economy of writing. That is how you get overwritten screenplays. Characters that have to explain things and because we don’t retain those explanations, you will have to have other characters explain them again.

What then is the most economical and yet efficient way of conveying this information?


- SHOW IT


If you show the hero perform surgery, we immediately get it. On top of that, you don’t have the problems of having to repeat the info or establishing the believability of other characters.

Screenwriting is visual storytelling and because it is, it’s a very economical way of telling stories because it takes but a few seconds to understand information when we see it.

But “Economy of storytelling” is about much more than just visual storytelling. It’s also about determining what information you need in your plot and what information is superfluous or irrelevant.

Most Novice screenwriters make the mistake of putting too much information in their screenplays - information that they quite easily could do without. In fact, most screenplays would be much better of by having little to no information in it, at all.

Most of these, said Novice writers make these mistakes for the best of reasons. They feel that we need this information to identify with the main charachter. Or they feel that we need it to understand this and that. In reality, none of those things are true.

Take a look at the screenplay to 12 Angry Men. In the very last scene of that movie, we learn the main characters name and what he does for a living. Beside that, we know nothing about him and yet, I know of no-one who saw that movie and did not feel an intense identification, sympathy, and empathy for his character.

How is all this done: Simply by just telling the story. - Not the story about him (which is not story but backstory) and not by telling things that are not directly relevant to the plot at hand.

The mistake that many writers make is that they are not sticking to the plot. They are telling everything but the plot; Backstory, scenes that show us who the charachter is, how he feels, what he thinks, what he does for a living, who his family is, and much more. All these things are not the story. They are facts about the story and the audience did not pay to get the facts surrounding the story. They want the story.

For that reason, a screenwriter should always strive to create sympathy for the charachter through the plot of the movie - Not through un-related scenes, dialogue or backstory. And the same thing goes for every bit of information you think is important. - Make it part of the plot or face the very possible consequence that you will end up with an overwritten screenplay.


In this way, you can communicate almost everything you need to communicate but in a much more efficient and powerful way.

There are two factors to this;


Determine what information is absolutely necessary and cut the rest. (This should if you do it properly, eliminate at least 80 percent of all information. If not, you are doing something wrong. Trust me you can do without the information. A story is not information - a story is a plot)Make sure that the information you are left with, becomes an integral part of the plot. Transform it into an obstacle (like the Indy example) or communicate it through conflict.


CAUSALITY


This is about how a plot works. A clear plot is driven entirely by causality. What that means is this;


Every single scene puts the next one in motion. You can think of scenes Domino pieces pushing each other over. That is what gives a screenplay its flow; Each scene becomes the direct cause of the following scene. something happens - an action. Then the character reacts - we call that ”reaction” And so it goes with plots; they all follow a pattern of action, reaction, counteraction.


That is what a plot is.


Let me show you an example from a Tv show that I worked briefly on; “The Night of”

The Hero of the show is Nasir "Naz" Khan, a naive Pakistani-American. He is invited to go to a college party ( an action) but his strict father, an NYC cab driver, won't allow it. (reaction) But because Naz, so desperately wants to go (to meet girls) he decides to steal his father's cab for the night and drive to Manhattan by himself (Counteraction)

He drives to Manhattan and stops at a red light. A girl thinks he is a real cab and therefore gets in and asks him to go somewhere. (New action)

And so on….


Hopefully, you can see how a clean, direct plot works. Every single beat is a direct consequence of the preceding beat and that beat is then, the cause of the next beat.

Because of this, every single scene seems to have a purpose. It thrusts the story forward and as long as you are doing that in all your scenes, it won’t get “overwritten”


In many overwritten plots you don’t get that sense of straight forward storytelling. One scene, that is important, is immediately followed by a scene of explanation or by a scene that does not directly follow the train of thought of the plot.

If only more novice writers would begin to write outlines before they even attempt a screenplay, they could have seen that for themselves. Because in an outline, these flaws of the plot become blatantly obvious. So if you want to help yourself, begin by writing your story out in an outline- just like most professionals do.


And when you do, make sure that every single scene causes the next one to happen, like falling dominoes.


DRAMATIC SIMPLICITY

Dramatic simplicity is all about writing scenes that flow. A lot of that has to do with cutting scenes as short as they can be. There are several factors involved in this;

Enter Later, exit early.

This is something you will see in virtually all professional scripts. A scene starts later than it should and ends earlier. It gives the scene momentum.

Novice scripts, on the other hand, follow the misunderstood the concept of ‘beginning, middle. end ‘ and thinks it also applies to scene structure. A great scene does not necessarily have an end or a beginning. If they did, they wouldn't be scenes but rather a complete mini’ story and they would, therefore never leave you wanting more.

A novice writer, for instance, would write a sequence like this:


Ted announces to his colleagues that he is going to the deli for lunch. A quick glance out the window, tells him it is raining and so he grabs his hat, coat, and umbrella and walks out the door.

On the rainy street, he walks past some kind of political demonstration, a funeral procession and a class of kindergarten kids who are on a day trip to the park.

Finally, after a lengthy walk, he arrives at the deli. There’s a line and so he is waiting behind an elderly gentleman until it’ becomes his turn. Then all of a sudden the elderly gentleman takes out a gun and holds up the shop clerk. Everyone panics but not Ted. He swiftly knocks the guy’s gun out with his umbrella. The elderly man did not expect this and freezes. Ted grabs and incapacitates him.

Later, at the office, his colleague Joanna can´t find Ted and asks everyone around her if they have seen him. They have not...


A professional approach to writing this scene would, in fact, eliminate most of it and leave us with nothing but this:


There’s a line at the Deli. Ted waits in line behind an elderly gentleman until it’ becomes his turn. Then all of a sudden the elderly gentleman takes out a gun and holds up the shop clerk. Everyone panics but not Ted. He swiftly knocks the guy’s gun out with his umbrella. Later, at the office, his colleague Joanna can´t find Ted and asks everyone around her if they have seen him. They have not”


I cut out the beginning and then the middle of the scene. And what it does is that it gets right to the action. Every scene should cut right to the main action.

But I could have cut it even more if I wanted to. Using the principle of “Enter Later, exit early”, I could have cut the ending out of the Deli scene out.

It would read like this;


“Ted waits in line behind an elderly gentleman until it’ becomes his turn. Then all of a sudden the elderly gentleman takes out a gun and holds up the shop clerk. Everyone panics but not Ted. He looks at his own umbrella…

cut to;


Later, at the office, his colleague Joanna can´t find Ted and asks everyone around her if they have seen him. They have not”


Dramatic simplicity is about cutting a scene so that we only ever get the good stuff. It's about cutting out introductions and cutting out before a scene can give us answers.

It's all the answers that kill the story.

In the above scene, we do not know whether Ted survived the Deli encounter or not. We do not get the explanation in that scene. We get it later. And that leaves us wanting more. It gives the scenes a narrative flow, whereas:


Explanation kill narration.


Ingmar Bergman has a great example of this in his screenplay to “Tystnaden” (The Silence) It’s a seduction scene. The main character, Anna, is seduced by a waiter in a restaurant. Most amateurs (and even some professionals) would have written the scene with a long introduction : (wherein we see how the waiter spots her and becomes interested) and a long middle; wherein they strike up a conversation. She is. at first not interested, and then later, she is, and a long ending; wherein she waits for his shift to end, then follows him home in bed.


But not Bergman. This is how he wrote the scene: The waiter walks by her table and on purpose drops a napkin. He bends over to pick it up to an in the process he looks at her entire body from head to toe. She draws a long gasp. Cut to: The couple in bed.


Do this for all your scenes and I assure that it will immediately read like a lean, tightly written plot.

If you have any screenwriting questions, that require a professional answer, click on the free signup button on top of this blog page to receive free lessons, newsletters and shoot me a mail with your questions.


Happy writing !!!

Dan

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