Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Proof that less is usually more

Over at her blog write here, write now, Lucy's got a great posting about how writers will often include something in a script that gets missed by readers. The writer knows what they meant, but it's passed by everybody else who read it. Why? Maybe it was too subtle, maybe it got lost in too much density of action text. Whatever the reason, there's one common cause: the writer. Most scripts only get skim-reads and many people only read the dialogue after the first few pages - I know I do. And stuff gets lost in a skim-read. So, make your script as reader-friendly as possible. Here's an example from my own writing that cropped up when Lucy read one of my scripts, Danny's Toys, beginning with what I sent Lucy...
Danny and his mother walk away.

The CREAKING of Danny’s callipers remains audible as we



The CREAKING of Danny’s callipers is heard before his legs
walk into view. Danny (17) is now taller and older. He
wears a school uniform and has a satchel over one shoulder.
His left fist clenches the satchel’s strap above his heart.


Lucy remined me that using the royal 'we' in a script will irk some readers, so that was first to go. She also pointed out the correct way to indicate an on-screen caption is SUPER:, not TITLE: - a good technical tip. But the most interesting piece of feedback came when Lucy picked up this particular scene description as an example of having too much density. Here's what she said...
This is a massive amount of scene description to describe just Danny standing at the gate. It also contains what readers call EXTRANEOUS INFORMATION – in other words, information that doesn’t 1) feed into the plot and/or 2) help the script in some way – ie. arena. Why do we have to hear the creaking before his legs appear? Why does it have to be his left fist and not his right? I’m not asking these questions to be facetious, I promise you – just to illustrate my point that sometimes a writer can be TOO DETAILED about how a scene should look. Had I been asked to be a script editor on DANNY’S TOYS, I might have cut your description down to this:

Danny, still in callipers but older – 17ish. In school uniform, at the hospital gates. He looks up, smiles.

Whereas your description was 42 words and four lines, mine was two lines and 18 words. I don’t mean to say MINE IS BETTER – just that economy is everything in screenwriting; not just because the director and actors etc need their “shot” and their interpretation of your material, but because nearly all new writers put loads and loads of information in their scripts like this: you are unusual if you don’t, ergo you have more chance of getting noticed. However, it’s up to you what you think about this.

Now I had my reasons for doing what I did. I wanted the creaking of Danny's calipers to act as an aural link carrying the audience through passage of time. And the business with his fist? That's to mask the fact a fact revealed further down the page - his clothes have a yellow Star of David sewn into them, because Danny is a Jew and he's living under Nazi rule. Anyway, here's my tweaked version, taking Lucy's comments into account...
Danny and his mother walk away, accompanied by the creaking
of Danny’s calipers.



The creaking continues as Danny (17) walks into view. He’s
grown, but still has a distinctive mechanical gait. Danny’s
in school uniform, a satchel over one shoulder.


My scene description is down from 42 to 27 words, but still achieves all I want to. Is it better? Hopefully. It's clearer and easier to read.


Lucy said...

Thanks for the shout-out, David.

Of course, one can be too prescriptive and nothing in this biz is ever set in stone, hence the outraged roars of "Shane Black does it!" etc by new writers when consultants, readers and so on say "You shouldn't do this..." However, on the basis of probability, I think one can never be too "careful" when it comes to economy of words. You can always say it a shorter, just as effective way.

And I prefer your second version by miles : )

wcdixon said...

Nice exercise...