Sunday, January 20, 2008

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.

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 will be unseen. 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.)


MrCarlson said...

Very informative post. I especially took to heart the "Too many stage directions" tip. I tend to do that while I'm writting, and I always have to go back and trim those. As far as big speeches go, hasn't comedy on television lost ANY kind of time for big speeches? Usually, nowadays, the scenes are quick setups for one or two jokes, and than, onto something else. It's a schame. When done is context and with restraint, a big speech can be very well received (I'm reminded of the "I carry a tune, carry over, Carry Grant" speech from Hawkeye).

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed that all writers don't, as a matter of course, read their lines aloud as they're being committed to whatever program the scribe (who'd use THAT word in normal conversation?) uses.

Possibly if they did, actors would feel less need to play around with the script.

Of course, I'm also sensitive to "wrong" line readings -- when an actor clearly (to me) emphasizes the wrong word in a line, and it makes it to tape/film/air.

PS: RIP Suzanne Pleshette!

By Ken Levine said...

My post tomorrow will be a tribute to Suzanne Pleshette

Anonymous said...

Ken, just saw the Sam comes to Seattle "Frasier" episode again, and I wanted to tell you that, although I was by myself, I laughed out loud repeatedly. You and David seem to be a large part of my comedic cultural heritage...

MrCarlson said...

Actually, can I just make a comment about that episode? I loved the first 2 scenes (you know when Sam appears in the radio station, and than the dinner). I also loved how that episode managed to put to rest the inconsistecies of Frasier's parents being dead on Cheers. Frasier says he lied because "They had an argument". It was dealt with very well. However, the episode does start to go south on me, when the whole plot with "Sam Getting married" kicks in. I realise it must be very tough to integrate a character from one show on another show, but I'd have loved to see that being an episode where they shared stories after dinner, rather than it going on another direction. Maybe the best Cheers on Frasier episode was the first with Shelley Long. That one hit all the marks, and it had a very nice dramatic undertone. Maybe it's my deslike for Tea Leoni that kicks in, when I watch that "Sam" episode.

blogward said...

My original post was 40 lines.

Anonymous said...

As usual, instructive and appreciated.

But I have to say, Tea Leoni still does it for me. The naked truth is she finally had me in The Family Man. More than the suggestion of athleticism and great bone structure. Most likely the enigmatic mouth. Enigmatic in the sense that I haven’t determined whether my infatuation with it is maxillary or mandibular. Maybe just the right overbite, as if God had been going for Joe Pantoliano, thought better of it, and stopped just in time?

Anonymous said...


In regard to writing scripts for MASH, what was the deal with using helicopters? I expect they weren't exactly cheap to hire and film, so was there any kind of ruling on using them in a script? Was there some sort of quota (budget would only allow use of them in X number of episodes per season) or was it a case of a writer having to put forward a really good case for including them in the episode they'd scripted?

B Smith

Cap'n Bob said...

Less is more. Kill your darlings. There you go, Ken, I distilled your post down to two lines. Do I get the job?

Dwacon said...

And, I would imagine, no Shane Black isms... I don't think even Shane uses those anymore.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken:

Just curious, is your 'plaint about overwritten stage plays or stage plays in general?


Ger Apeldoorn said...

When I first got a few real life Cheer scripts, what struck me was that there were so much more monologues than I would have expected it. and even laughs in the monologues. At that point, the dutch actors we were working with would always rush any monologue to the 'joke at the end'. I like that fact that you illustrate your point by saying you trim down a 11 line monologue to a 8 line one... you don't whittle the script down to a monotonous string of set-ups and jokes. Characters have to be able to feel their emotions before they can be cut down by a laugh.

When cutting I usually bolster myself by saying 'funny once is just as funny as funny twice'. That doesn't mean a topper is out of the question, but there is no need to go over the same ground to many times.

Still, when I attended a Wings taping - the episode where Tony joins a suicide watch line - a whole scene was shot but not used... what was your position as a director on under of over-shooting?

TCinLA said...

Not just comedy, folks. As an old college professor back in the days when you could be sexist and nobody would complain said of all writing in general, "good writing is like a bikini - enough to cover the subject."

A very good actor friend of mine once complimented my stuff by telling me "you write dialogue I can wrap my mouth around."

A very good piece of advice from a well-known actress after reading a script of mine: "If you cut a third of my dialogue out of this and make it still work, I'll say yes to doing it." She was right. (And she did)

As Billy Wilder once put it to me: "Any writer who doesn't speak his lines aloud before committing to them is a... fool" (being Billy Wilder, there were several colorful adjectives between "a" and "fool"v that don't fit in a PG blog)

It's the old rule of art, folks: less is always more.

Thanks Ken for putting one of the real Secrets of Success up.

Rob said...

I blame the schools. Most of us received assignments that said, "Write a 10 page paper....."

So we wrote for length, not quality.

Of course, if you REALLY want to go nuts, go into the business world, where people say in 45 misused words what they could have said in 5.

As for that Potter line, I happen to like it, and I imagine that coming out of Harry Morgan's mouth it was funny.

Jon88 said...

"Free reign"? Such megalomania.

Anonymous said...

There's a great scene in "A River Runs THrough It" where the son - Norman Maclean - is writing a composition for his father. "That's wonderful," the father says. "Now cut it in half." He does, and dutifully returns to the study. "That's wonderful," the father says again. "Now cut it in half." And so it continues. You get the point.
Great post, by the way. Now cut it in half!

Anonymous said...

Yes, but as Niles once said "If less is more, think of how much more "more" will be." I believe John Sherman wrote the line.

Anonymous said...

Loved the observation on the MASH writing after you departed. Would you be able to elaborate on it sometime?