Sunday, March 04, 2012

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 MODERN FAMILY and it’s 55 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 or screenplay that’s overwritten is a stage play. Plays have no length requirement so the playwright has free rein 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.  Writer/blogger extraordinaire Earl Pomerantz always maintained that you could lose page 8 from any script.  He's right!


Mitchell Hundred said...

If you ever doubt the value of brevity, look at the catalogue of Beatles songs. A lot of their best work does not go longer than two and a half minutes.

Brent said...

I remember that "Kayoed the feline" line. I totally bought it, probably because of Harry Morgan. It wouldn't have sounded right coming from anyone else.

Johnny Walker said...

I seem to remember the "KO'd the feline" line, too. I feel silly for not noticing how unnatural it sounds now it's been pointed out to me.

I guess Harry Morgan made it work, but from a writer's POV it's totally unnecessary and weird!

Bruce B. said...

In his book, Gary Marshall relates that Lucille Ball would look at pages and say how much she loved to see lots of BLACK. She loved stage directions because it meant physical comedy scenes. So, although you may like lots of white on the page, some of us, like Lucy and other fans of Buster Keaton, like lots of stage directions.

januaryfire said...

Hey Ken,

Just wondering if you've seen the new web series starring Tim & Sam Daly, "The Daly Show".

Katie Kosinski said...

Hi Ken,

I’m wondering about how a writer makes sure to do her job, but also doesn’t step on the toes of the director or actors? OR, is that less of a concern when you are a regular writer on a show? I feel like I’ve always been discouraged from including too much specific direction, but sometimes “a look” is the most efficient and powerful way to convey a character’s feelings. I'm guessing it’s just about finding a balance between giving the actor something to play and editing dialogue?
Thanks for your always helpful tips. Cutting pages/dialogue/unnecessary scenes can be very satisfying.

JenHartNSoul said...

Thanks for the super advice. It's hard to do. M*A*S*H was fullllll of unnatural speech, but the actors played it so well that it was as natural to M*A*S*H as asides are to The Office. It takes true talent in writing and acting to turn what could be viewed as awkwardness into a favorite characteristic.

Over-pushing buttons is something we naturally want to do. We learned as babies that if 1 round of peek-a-boo is good, 600 is even better. Some lessons are hard to unlearn... :)

Picky Picky said...

It's "free rein". Saved you a letter right there!

Tom Quigley said...

I learned from an experienced writer early on that you only need to make one reference to any point you're trying to make. If the reader (or viewer) misses it, it means one of two things: (1) the reader (or viewer) isn't paying attention, or (2) you haven't done a good enough job of establishing the point.

I wrote a screenply several years back about some friends who were attending Woodstock in 1969, and they were discussing what they were going to do with their lives after the experience of attending the concert. One of the characters announced he was joining the army. Everyone else tried to discourage him and offered alternatives, but his reply, instead of being a long drawn-out explanation of why he was doing it, was a simple "My dad was army. I have to."

I got a lot of smiles from the other members in my reading group when we covered that line that day.

Breadbaker said...

Interesting column. It made me think back to last Sunday and the screenplay for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" not winning the Oscar for best adapted screenplay (I didn't see The Descendants, so I can't compare). The screenwriters not only took a long, complex book and boiled it down to a manageable length while keeping in everything that was necessary to the plot, they left the director and cinematographer time for some long mood shots. How? In part because they could depend on so much of the action, which was Smiley's beginning to understand and unravel the mystery, would be conveyed by Gary Oldman's face, without dialogue. Is writing a screenplay that allows so much information to be imparted to the audience by using the actors' ability better than writing witty dialogue? That's a matter of opinion, but my opinion is yes.

Bruce P. said...

This is the 4th time this article has been posted since 2006. To heck with overwriting, isn't that overposting?

By Ken Levine said...


This is one of my most requested posts. Plus, there are a lot of new readers who haven't seen it.

Sorry you're not getting your money's worth on this free blog.

Powerhouse Salter said...

For people raised on computers instead of a beloved standard typewriter, I think it is hugely important for page-count advice to cite the typeface name, the type size, the line spacing, and the margin settings to be used in a spec script. Not everyone knows that a page of text or dialogue set in 12-point Times Roman could hold twice as many words as a page set in the standard typewriter font of 12-point Courier.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Given that this blog's schedule is seven entries per week, I'm not going to complain if Levine feels the need to pop in a repeat once in a while.

Steven said...

Dwight Schrute from the office is the perfect example of a character who the writers fell in love with, ratcheting up his once tolerable personality traits to the extreme while ignoring the other characters until the show itself began to decline, with no hope for redemption. Dwight that started out as a funny, quirky conspiracy theorist and starting around the 4 season the writers decided that he had to chew up scenery every time he opened his mouth. Now he's devolved into a character that is borderline insane/evil, but I don't think the writers will try to get him in touch with reality at this point because they've invested so much time turning him into a nut every other character is dull by comparison. Other people have caught on to the fact The Office isn't what it once was and I think Dwight dramatic shift in character is the biggest culprit, ruining a show that was on shaky creative ground even before Steve Carell's exit.

Breadbaker said...

Ken, I was driving around listening to this on CD today:

Isn't this what you were after? Btw, it's on a Blackadder CD put out by the BBC so apparently the question of its canonical status (noted on the website) has been answered.

Tania said...

I think this is something we need to be reminded of again and again. Thanks for (re)posting.

I think it's hilarious that people get annoyed with a blogger for blogging about something they don't want to read.

Walk away from the screen!
Control N!
Apple W!
Don't visit the blog!
You have the power!

I now have a strong desire to repeat what I've just written.

Ryan said...

Overwriting, definitely a problem. Brevity, absolutely. Though this reads a bit like a catalogue of things that make TV & film bland and samey.

These "gatekeeper rules" that make up a lot of writing advice, for the most part impose a limiting structure that has a homogenizing effect.

Not 110 pages? Not reading that!
Doesn't start with a bang? In the bin.
Wrong brass brads? Jog on.

I remember reading genuine disbelief that "The Artist" screenplay was only forty something pages.

Just bear in mind that this advice shouldn't be taken literally - we don't want to cut stage direction for the sake of brevity when that's the action.

Ed D. said...

In a correlary - Howard Harlan, considered to be the best ever songwriter in Nashville, started every song by tearing three sheets off a yellow legal pad. He thought that if you couldn't write a good song on those three sheets, it wasn't worth writing.

jbryant said...

Ed D.: His name was Harlan Howard, not Howard Harlan. :)

tb said...

Maybe talk about the flip-side. I've seen, (especially in '70s films)way too much of the "A look instead of a line" bit and that too can be way overdone

Careless Physics said...

I call it "Occam's Red Pen"

ChicagoJohn said...

Check. I'll make sure not to write in sentences so long, that no human being would actually say them out loud.

cough Juno cough

Spock said...

Worst dialog I've heard in quite a while, on Desperate Housewives:

"Why did you shoot me?"

"Because I wanted you to die."

cadavra said...

One of my all-time favorites, spoken by John Forsythe on "Dynasty"--

"Call the paramedics--and tell them to hurry!!"

T Beck said...

"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."

Unless you want to torture the actor. On the great British sci-fi comedy "Red Dwarf," the writers were aware that one of the actors had trouble remembering his lines. So they deliberately wrote some of the longest speeches in the history of television expressly for him. And he was aware that they were doing this. I'm sure read-throughs were all kinds of fun.