Thursday, July 27, 2006

Overwriting and why it's bad to write more than you need to make the same point

When reading a spec, one of the most common traps I see young writers falling into is overwriting. “Marshall’s Brother” (see yesterday’s post) may be rotten it’s economical. (I’m proud to say it’s well crafted shit.)

When I receive a spec the first thing I always do is check its length. If I get a hernia lifting it, that’s not good. A comedy screenplay should be no more than 120 pages and that’s stretching it. Sitcoms vary depending on the rhythm and format of the show. But if you write a spec EARL and it’s 50 pages, I can tell you sight unseen it’s waaaay too long. WINGS scripts (multi-camera) generally topped out in the low 40’s. When I was consulting on the show we had a writer who routinely turned in 65 page drafts. His rationale was that he gave us choices. We could whittle it down to the best 42 pages. Fine and dandy except THAT’S HIS JOB!!! If you can’t tell your story in the allotted time then maybe you’re not telling the story right. Or there’s too much story and that has to be addressed.

The only thing worse than a TV script of screenplay that’s overwritten is a stage play. Plays have no length requirement so the playwright has free reign to torture us long into next month. When a two character piece about what to pack for a vacation is longer than NICHOLAS NICKLEBY that should be a clue.

And then there’s the dialogue.

This may sound obvious but worth stating anyway: Always remember that actors have to perform your script.

Soooo many times I’ll see full page speeches with sentences so long and complicated that no human being on earth could ever deliver them. And certainly not in one breath. Read your script out loud. If you need CPR by the end of a speech, rethink. Dialogue has to sound natural, conversational. And rarely do we speak in big whoppin’ speeches.

When writing a TV spec, writers often go overboard on character quirks. They’ll hear Frasier utter something a little flowery and think that every word out of his mouth has to be Noel Coward. In fairness, shows themselves get caught up in that trap. On MASH the tendency to give every line a spin evolved into absurdity. In a later season (after I had left the series) Potter once said to Klinger, “It was curiosity that KO’d the feline.” WTF?? Who would ever say that? And why?

There is a tendency to want to impress by working in all kinds of complex themes and philosophies – show how you’re the next Paddy Chayefsky. In truth, it’s your inexperience not intellect that’s being put on display. If long intricate theories and complicated Byzantine ideas are your cup of tea, write a book.

More often than not these long speeches have characters express in detail their emotions and attitudes. Not only is it taxing to listen to this balloon juice it also gives the actor nothing to play. Might as well go on to the next scene. Sometimes a look or a gesture can say volumes more a two page speech that James Joyce would find too convoluted.

Whenever my partner, David and I go back to polish a draft we thin out the big speeches. If the speech is 14 lines we make it 11, if it’s 11 lines we make it 9. There are ALWAYS trims.

Same is true in stage direction. A reader sees a big block of stage direction I GUARANTEE he will not read it. You could describe a sex act in detail and he’ll flip the page.

As a rule it’s better to underwrite than overwrite. We have an expression. We like “open pages”. Much more white than type. This may sound obvious too but: You don’t get paid by the word.

Go back through your script. I bet you could lose two pages. (Probably page 8 and one other.)

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

What's special about page 8?

Peter Martin said...

OK. That Potter line got me giggling. That's exactly the sort of thing that I say after a couple of beers.

Ken Levine said...

Writer Earl Pommerantz has a theory that every script could lose page 8. It's eerie how many times he's right.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to get copies of Cheers scripts to study? That to me is still the gold standard.

Robert Hogan said...

I have the opposite problem. I tend to underwrite my scripts. I’ll have a feature script that ends at 90 pages. On one hand I hear people say that you shouldn’t worry about page count so much, as long as it’s between 90-120 pages you are okay. On the other hand I hear people say that if a producer or reader looks at your script and it comes up short (for instance I have a comedy that ends on page 85) they will think you are missing something. Is this worth worrying about?

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

Robert Hogan:

At least from my stand point as a producer, a comedy script that runs 85-90 pages is fine. Comedies tend to have a bit more physical things that are happening on screen so it tends to warp the minute per page rule.

Especially farces.

A farce can be wildly entertaining like say, Noises Off, but on the page it will be a little shorter.

On the 120 page side, nowadays, that's considered a bit too long. My films aren't considered necessarily commercial so they run a bit longer but I think anything longer than 110 pages can scare people.

Don't feel bad, though. Two months ago I got a screenplay that was 286 pages. In Microsoft Word. He said it was a "trilogy". I said "good-bye".

--Tenspeed

Joshua James said...

Best advice on rewriting came from King's book ON WRITING, where he stated that the 2nd draft was the first draft minus ten percent.

Callaghan said...

That Potter line is exactly what turns me off the last couple of seasons of MASH. Don't get me wrong....along with Faulty Towers, MASH is my favourite half hour show ever.

But right near the end, every line of dialogue seemed so overwritten.

Danny Bayer said...

What if one was writing a spec Entourage? The show runs about 27 minutes, but ALL of their produced scripts are in the 35-38 page range of standard script format (and they usually don't cut anything, they just use fast-paced dialogue). Should I cut my episode down to 27 pages, since that is what most people would probably guess it should be, or do I leave it as a 34 or 35 pager to show that I know the show?

p.s. I've never commented or asked a question, but I have been following your blog religiously from the beginning. I heard you speak at Ed Scharlach's UCLA panel a while back and since then I have told a lot of my friends about you. I always said that Ken Levine should have a blog, and then you did. Thanks.

Jay said...

I don't see a problem with Potter saying that line.

This, coming from a man who used phrases like "Mule feathers" and "Horse Hockey." It feels colloquially appropriate.

Is it over-written? Sure. Can the viewer believe that he would say something like that? I think so.

Coren said...

I agree. When I read scripts the writers who use the page sparingly seem to get their point across much more easily than those who use full pages of text.

A writer who spends the time to not only be concise in their story but in also how it is presented appears much more professional. When it comes time for me to write my comments if I don't have to critique simple format (length being one of them) and writing problems I can focus more on the important things; character, tone, and story.

To you Mr. Levine, thank you. This site has been a wonderful insight into the world of a working writer. I only get to sit in a room and give my two cents as a reader, so it is valuable to get the other side's perspective.

Jenius said...

I booked an acting gig on "Surface" last summer. Script was 60 pages and they shot every bit of it. All the trimming came in post. And my most brilliant scene ever found the cutting room floor. Geez, I've had an awful run! Nary a break since.

I'm polishing up the first screenplay I've ever finished, and it's heartening to know that I have some fat to be trimmed. 108 pages has become 104, and I'm going to do a read-thru just to look for dialogue that could be eliminated in favor of visuals. Might do another read-thru to eliminate extraneous scenes for subtext purposes...I have so many themes going on at once it might do me well to simplify.

It's "Election" meets "The Wonder Years." Is that even allowed? A meeting between movie and TV series?

Zach said...

My page eight has three great jokes on it. Two closing one scene (one character joke and one visual gag) and the last opens the next scene.

Though I recently did a pass and there were 12 other pages that I cut. So I could well have moved up what had previously been page nine. I better cut page seven.

Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

I have to agree with Jay. The feline line is pure Potter and belongs in a book of classic Potterisms.

Loved that episode, BTW. A kitten trips a land mine and dies. Convinced that it's his fault, Radar sinks into a debilitating depression even Sydney can't figure. Okay, I'm totally making this up. Sue me.