Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A writer's handiest tool

The reading went well. I'm still alive. More details later but thanks again to all the incredibly talented and dedicated people who made it happen. One was Mike McCann who read the stage directions. I felt bad because before the reading I cut half his lines. Here's why:

There was an organization in New York a few years ago that held screenplay readings. They provided the theatre, casting director, publicity, and audiences. Okay, it was in a neighborhood that gang members wouldn’t enter, but still. I submitted a spec I had written and it was selected. They also provided an editor who would thin out stage directions if I was agreeable. Long stage directions read aloud bogged down the readings. The editor’s cuts would be merely suggestions. I said, “Sure, bring it on”, knowing full well that my stage directions tended to be lean and mean and he would find very little to trim.

A week later I received his draft. Holy shit! There were cross-outs EVERYWHERE. Page after page, lines drawn through my well chiseled stage directions. What the fuck?!

Then I started going through it carefully. And damn, he was right!! Redundant, unnecessary words and sentences were flagged throughout. I wound up keeping 90% of his changes. And now when I write stage directions I always think of him. Would he cut this?

I can’t state this strongly enough – less is more. Get out your samurai sword and CUT.

I know, I know. You’re going to say that film is a visual medium. You need to describe settings, create moods, convey the excitement of action scenes. And words are your only tool. That’s true, but here’s the thing…

Readers don’t read stage directions.

Even the ones who say they do, don’t. If they see a big block of direction they skip it. (Writer/director, Billy Wilder was once asked if a director needs to know how to write and he said, “No, a director needs to know how to read.”)

It’s up to you to find clever super economical ways to convey your mood, world, action, etc. And here’s the good news. It’s often easier than you think. You just have to be in that mindset. Instead of…


Jessica enters, puts her hands to her mouth, and staggers two steps backwards when she sees the condition of the apartment. There is clutter everywhere. Soiled laundry strewn about the floor that’s under an inch of dust. Remnants of take out Chinese dinners and boxes containing half eaten cold pizzas are piled high on a coffee table already littered with magazines, unopened mail, and random CD’s separated from their jewel cases. Jackets hang on every chair. Filled ashtrays provide a stale aroma.

…what about??


A disaster. Jessica enters, stunned.

The reader gets it. Remember, this is not a John Updike novel. Think in terms of words like “upscale, lived in, boyishly handsome, bookish, early Ikea”.

If you do have an action sequence, break it up into short paragraphs. It’s easier to read and helps create the flow and tension.

Another trick I use is to sprinkle a joke or two in the stage directions as an incentive and reward for reading them (kind of like what I’ve done in this post).

Finally, when the script’s all done and the stage directions are air tight, I go through it once again and thin the hell out of them.

That's what I did with my play. But what Mike did get to read, he did beautifully.


Great Big Radio Guy said...

A big sloppy "Mazel Tov." Congratulations on ignition!

Anonymous said...


Joshua James said...


Great reading, the audience loved it . . . I'm still laughing about the C-word line (you know the one, I ain't spoiling it for the gallery here) today, yet.

Great to see you and hope you have a safe trip back.

Josh Daws said...

Hey Ken,

Congrats on a successful reading.

I just wanted to thank you for writing such an entertaining and useful blog. Your's is among the few I'm subscribed to that I read immediately when I see that there has been a new posting.

As an aspiring writer-director, your blog provides the much needed encouragement to keep on going after all the "no's" and closed doors. I know it must take up a good bit of your time, and I just wanted to let you know it is not unappreciated.


Emily Blake said...

Thank you thank you thank you! My writing partner is always on my ass about my sparse stage directions. Now I can shove this post in his face.

Beth Ciotta said...

So glad to hear the read went well, Ken. Not surprised. Congrats!

Anonymous said...

I would say congrats on the reading etc, but I'll be selfish.

Your "Jessica" example of stage direction ...ROCKS. Seriously. Fantastic.


Grubber said...

What Sam said about the Jessica post, so true.

Also, congratulations on the reading, wish I could either see that or the play when it opens. I am enjoying 30 Rock, so I imagine I would love your play as well.


Anonymous said...

The Mrs. Poor Man and I were also remarking on Mr. McCann's great pipes.

We had a great time, and it was a pleasure meeting you. What's the next step for the show?

Ken Levine said...

Thanks so much to everyone for the nice comments. Next step is rewriting, using the reading to make the play even better, and then hopefully interest someone in mounting a production.