Only include that which serves a purpose

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Exactly

A just-starting-out writer had contacted me, asking if I could take a look at their spec.

I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did.

The script had a lot of the usual problems. On-the-nose dialogue. One-dimensional characters. A story that was more a jumbled collection of random events rather than a cohesive series of scenes and sequences.

But even with all of that, what really stood out was the excessive overwriting when it came to setting up a scene, with excessive being a major understatement. The writer seemed to feel the need to provide an extraordinary amount of details – for just about everything.

Just to name a few:

-What kind of furniture is in every single house or apartment
-What kind of food is on the table during a dinner scene
-Why a character, who’s only in one scene, is wearing a particular item of clothing, along with what it looks like
-A detailed list of all the items of clothing a character removes when getting undressed
-The direction a character is driving, along with street names

Did any of these have anything to do with the story?

All together now – of course not.

Then why is it in there?

I posed this question to the writer as part of my notes. They haven’t responded yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they say about it.

I can’t remember the specific joke/comment about sculpting, but it’s something along the lines of “Start with a block of marble, and then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a (whatever you’re sculpting).”

Screenwriting’s very similar. While it’s true you should describe what we’re seeing, there’s no need to drastically overdo it. Some writers don’t know the difference between “painting a picture with words” and “overwhelming us with information”. Or worse, think they’re more or less the same thing.

They are most definitely not.

Everything on the page should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, take it out. Trust me, it will not be missed. If you argue that it should stay, you better have a mighty good reason why. Helpful tip – saying “Because I want it to” or “Because I like it” will totally invalidate your argument.

When the writing goes into Overly Descriptive Mode, it simply slams the brakes on the momentum of the story; things really do come to a screeching halt. Wouldn’t you rather the reader stayed interested in what’s going on, and not think “Hold on a second. Why is this here? Is it relevant?”

For a lot of writers starting out, they think they need to cover all the bases and include as much info and detail as possible. Only through constant self-educating will they eventually learn what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

I sincerely hope this writer takes my notes to heart and is able to figure out how to transition from the latter to the former.

5 thoughts on “Only include that which serves a purpose

  1. I always think that’s almost always the result of a writer not reading enough actual scripts. Which I totally get. Reading scripts can be a slog. Even reading a good script can be a little bit of a slog.

    Being an excellent writer takes years — or a lifetime (maybe that’s just me). I think when I see a page full of description, I automatically assume that the writer isn’t confident and can’t command the page.

    I tend to underwrite. So in some ways, I envy the writer that can just fill up the page with meaty blocks of text. Always easier to edit something down to something manageable.

  2. Look, all of you have your viewpoints on what you see, hear, watch and read. This week for example, what movies or screenplays are you excited about watching on the big screen?

    Let me count them,
    Zero, Zero, Zero

    Well it appears nothing comes up. There are actually better shows, drama, sci fiction, fantasy, action movies, historical era and documentary shows on television and premium cable television (HBO, Stars, Showtime, Netflix, and more to come with exclusive programming).

    The movie film industry is dying. How many more years will Super Hero’s, Marvel comics and their episodes last? Yea, I also include Star Wars in that mix.

    We need futuristic ideas, storytelling that curls my toes, action scenes that are realistic in my world – not transformers!

    We need love stories, mystery stories, political stories, family stories, bullying stories, old people helping the young, young people connecting with the world, 20-30 thirty genres, 30-40 genres, 40-50 genres, 50-60 genres, 60-70 genres and finally the 70 plus hero’s of the world that have made this world a better place.

    • I’m looking forward to BABY DRIVER.

      Plus, there are lots of quality scripts out there from quality writers trying to break in (such as yours truly), but it’s a lot easier for Hollywood to say “no” then to take a chance and say “yes”.

      So we keep trying.

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