Sunday, August 22, 2010

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.

First thing I do when receiving a spec 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 COUGAR TOWN and it’s 50 pages, I can tell you sight unseen it’s waaaay too long. HOT IN CLEVELAND scripts (multi-camera) generally topped out in the low 40’s. When I was consulting on WINGS 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 or 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 Sheldo utter something a little technical and think that every word out of his mouth has to be quantum theory. 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.

Writer/blogger Earl Pomerantz contends you could always lose page 8. He's usually right.

So go back through your script. I bet you could lose two pages. Page 8 and one other.

As always, very best of luck.


Max Clarke said...

Good advice, as usual.

There's a story attributed to Harrison Ford, I think. He thanked a screenwriter for a "speech" in the script. It was well-written. The screenwriter felt good about the compliment.

When the movie came out, the speech had been edited out. All those words had been reduced to Harrison Ford's turning to the other character and giving him "a look." One glance did what a paragraph had, so the director went with that.

In discussing "The Departed," Martin Scorsese also complimented Jack Nicholson on the way he helped shorten a script. One expression from Nicholson replaced a couple of sentences.

rock golf said...

Is there an Aaron Sorkin exception?

Tom Quigley said...
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Tom Quigley said...

Great post, Ken. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given about scriptwriting was: make a point in a scene once, as briefly and succinctly as possible and then get off it. It teaches you to make every word you put down count. A good example is one used by Richard Walter (chairman of the UCLA screenwriting department) in his books and lectures. In the film ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, there's a scene where a prison official asks Clint Eastwood's character "What was your childhood like?" Eastwood's response was "Short." No long explanation ("my father beat me, my mother abandoned me, etc."). One word summed up all you had to know.

I could go on, but I've probably already written too much...

-bee said...

Funny you mention Paddy Chayefsky - I just re-watched "Network" for the first time in many years - and while I think there are many brilliant observations in the film - a lot of the dialogue made me cringe.

A speech where William Holden explains to Faye Dunaway's character how she 'symbolizes' television was just ridiculous.

D. McEwan said...

Stunk and White put it extremely succinctly: "Omit needles words."

That said, I am often guilty of overwriting.

I kind of like “It was curiosity that KO’d the feline,” though I'd have used "kitty" rather than "feline," so the alliteration could make it sing a bit more.

D. McEwan said...

Good Grief! I must proof-read more closely. Strunk and White of course wrote "Omit needless words," though omitting needles from words will help prevent the actors from pricking their tongues.

Larry said...

Keep it short, no question, but all those stories about glances replacing dialogue in movies aren't too helpful. Yeah, that's how it works when you shoot, but if you want to sell a screenplay, you sometimes have to spell things out a bit. Entertainingly, of course, but some readers hardly look at anything that isn't dialogue.

BTW, I agree Chayefksy overwrites, especially in his later works. Still, historically, he was one of the first guys to insist the screenwriter should have as much power as the director, and we should thank him for it. Furthermore, I miss all the literary dialogue in old movies. Today, dialogue usually sounds like they made it up on the set--which is true half the time. I'd rather have dialogue sound like someone planned it, even if it means it sounds a little unnatural. TV has become the last refuge of real writers--the lower budgets mean they can't afford all those beautiful explosions, so their greatest special effect is words.

Andy Ihnatko said...
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Andy Ihnatko said...

I liked a certain explanation of the use of character actors: the casting of Patton Oswalt (for example) in a certain role can take the place of two pages of script. The audience sees him on the screen and instantly "gets" who this character is and what he's about.

How big of a mistake is it to communicate what a character's emotions and intents are? Is there an understanding that it's the director and the actor, and not the writer, who gets to decide whether a character is angry or complacent when he says something like "I guess there's no point in discussing it further"?

Matt Patton said...

You have me going back to look at a sketch I wrote earlier this yea. It was basically a monologue and it originally ran about five pages (I know). Someone told me that I could probably cut it to one page. Alas, none of those pages is numbered "8," so I'm NOT quite sure where to start . . .

James said...

Trimmed to: brevity is the soul of wit.

Mac said...

Great post.
Point made in two words!

Anonymous said...

This is part of why I finish all projects at least a little bit ahead of deadlines. I like to go through twice, at a minimum, to get rid of extraneous babbling. I can babble a LOT, so it takes at least twice to do it.

Anonymous said...

RE: James
Brevity is... wit.

Anonymous said...

I always wondered what a Gilmore Girls script looked like. Given the babbling of every cast member per episode, I assumed it would be the size of a phone book.

Michael said...

As I remember the story, the script for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" was too long, so one of the producers cut out the stage directions to make it shorter. Uh, yeah.

Not apropos to comedy, it may seem, but since he was actually one of the funniest men on television, Steven Hill once said of his Adam Schiff character on "Law & Order" that he never should have a sentence when he could have a word, and never have a word when he could have a look. Since Hill is one of the great actors of our time, he made it work.

Anonymous said...

It took Gelbart and Shevelove years to write the intricate book of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum." Along the way, many scenes, jokes and even characters were cut, of course. Still, the plot was pretty complex. More so than anything Plautus, their inspiration, had ever written.

Out of town, the show wasn't playing. Director George Abbott, a man who could cut ruthlessly, started taking out plot complications, which made it much worse. Later Jerome Robbins helpede doctor the play with a new opening, but all the cuts wre restored. If they weren't, you'd have a farce with no complications.

It reminds me a bit of another classic Broadway story, where a new director is brought in and says "let take out all the improvements." Often, the original script was written that way for a reason.

Gilmore Gal said...

Gilmore Girls scripts were 80 - 85 pages. Shot in 8 days. They were masterfully written and exquisitely acted. On the rare occasion that they came in long, it was hard to edit down to time..."no fat" in words or actions.

A.Buck BuyMyShorts said...

‘nuff said.

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Jim Pope said...


Good advice and to the point.

You can go overboard on the white space. There's a story screenwriter Robert Riskin, not happy with Frank Capra getting nearly all creative credit for the pictures they made together, bound 120 blank pages and said "Hey Frank, why don't you give this 'the Capra Touch'"

Paul Duca said...

Ken...speaking of writing and HOT IN CLEVELAND, don't give up hope on getting your book published. It may be just a couple of decades away.

For those who haven't heard, Putnam just signed Betty White to a 2-book deal. Plus, her stint hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE just earned her an Emmy--her seventh.

That's in case anyone needs any more evidence that it's Betty's world, we just live in it.

WV: torthock--what always seems to happen when you need to pay for a lawyer

Charles H. Bryan said...

Excellent advice for any endeavor, but the main reason I'm posting is for the word verification:


I regret that this opportunity was not presented to another frequent commenter.

Matt said...


You are so right about the later seasons of MASH.

From "As Time Goes By":

Hawkeye: "Can I help? Can I help?"

Hot Lips: "You?

B.J.: "Our delegate to the United Insubordinations?"


Hot Lips: "Oh, pooh on you turkeys."

Hawkeye: "Margaret, wait. Don't put words in my beak."


Or how many times did Potter burst into Klinger's office shouting for him, and Klinger respond with "Yes, your colonelness?"

escalante blogger said...

Perhaps they have their own idea to critic some points of yours.

Albert Giesbrecht said...
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