The Economy of Words

Posted by Thomas on February 19th, 2011 filed in Screenwriting tips

So, I’m gonna try and start off this here blog with some free advice. See, man? It ain’t all about you hiring me to give you script notes. I mean, brother’s gotta earn a living but I wanna help. Y’know… out of the goodness of my heart or whatever.

So, my first topic is on what I think is the most overlooked element of a screenplay: The action and descriptives. Now, you can have a script that can be turned into a great film without being good at or paying a lot of attention to these things but the chances are it won’t get made for one reason: It’s what makes your screenplay read like a movie rather than a book.

And, without making that good, your great story with amazing characters and expertly crafted dialogue will be bogged down in clunky, extraneous shit. It’s like a really hot girl with a beard like Fidel Castro. I don’t care how stunningly beautiful she is, you won’t be able to see past the beard. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much but still the point is valid… Moving on…

Screenwriting is the art of writing as concisely as possible. That means the more you can pack into a word or phrase and the less words you can use, the better. Now, with dialogue maybe that’s not always true. It depends on the character and the situation. However, with the action/descriptives it is ALWAYS true.

And overwhelmingly, this is the element I find lacking in screenplays I read. Such care is paid to story, structure, dialogue and character development but almost none to the descriptives and action and how the script reads and, ultimately, how effective it is at letting the reader see it in their mind.

First there’s action. Joss Whedon said something along the lines of “when you’re writing your action, think like a director and when you’re writing your dialogue, think like an actor” –which may be the greatest piece of screenwriting advice ever –certainly the best in one sentence. For the purposes of this article, I’m not concerned with dialogue. So let’s take the first part and look at what that means. “Think like a director” DOESN’T MEAN start writing camera directions! It means write visually and that can include implying some direction without saying it.

So, as opposed to: CLOSE UP on Jim’s eyes as they dart around nervously.

You might write: Jim’s eyes dart around. Nervous. Bordering on panic.

The first example not only breaks the cardinal rule of telling the director his job with camera shots, it also reads like an instruction on how to film it. “But, Tom, isn’t a screenplay a blueprint for a film?” NO!! You heard me. NO! It is a story told in a cinematic way. Not the same thing. The first example tries to be a “blueprint for a film” but the second example shows or implies how the director should film it without telling how to film it, specifically. Subtle but important difference.

As you read the 2nd example, you are SEEING it, there’s also information on Jim’s mental state (direction for the actor) without actually writing how someone is feeling. It’s obvious, it’s immediate and it’s visual. There are NO extraneous words. This isn’t Ms. Crabtree’s 5th grade English class. Sentence fragments are good. They are your friend. You may think it doesn’t matter because the same information is conveyed but it matters to the person who has to read your script. It makes it easier and faster to read and it helps them SEE it as they read which makes them think: you’re a professional level screenwriter because they didn’t have to work to envision it on the screen. If you did your job, you did that for them.

Let’s do another exercise. Let’s say this Jim dude above is nervous because he just stole 10 grand from his boss who happens to be mob connected. He’s at the bar trying to act inconspicuous but obviously having a hard time. First, I’ll write it in what I call the “police report” style and then I’ll write it like I want you to see it.

Jim enters the bar. He looks around making sure no one from Vito’s crew is around. The coast is clear. He heads over to the bar and sits on the stool.

DAVEY, the bartender, nods at him as he sits.

DAVEY
The usual, Jimbo?

Jim nods and reaches into his pocket and pulls out a big wad of hundred dollar bills. In a panic, he tries to yank his hand off the bar and out of Davey’s view.  But Dave’s raised eyebrows reveal that he saw the money.

Now, there’s nothing essentially wrong with this. All the relevant information is there. But, it reads like a novel not a screenplay. Let’s try it again.

Jim enters the bar. Hesitant. He stops. Eyes scan the room. No one from Vito’s crew. Relieved, he heads to the bar, sits.

DAVEY, the bartender, nods.

DAVEY
The usual, Jimbo?

Jim nods. Reaches into his pocket and absentmindedly pulls out a wad of hundreds.  Realizes it and looks up at Davey as he YANKS his hand off the bar.

Davey stops in his tracks. Their eyes meet. Davey raises his eyebrows. He saw the money.

Again, not that different in terms of the information conveyed but if you read them both again, you’ll notice the first one has a more passive voice with lots of words that don’t need to be there. The second reads much easier and is much more visual, it’s written like a series of shots –without being an actual series of shots.

“This. That. This and the other. Something else. A moment. This.”  Instead of “This happens and then that happens. This and the other are also happening. Then something else happens. There is a moment that leads to this.”

The economy of words. This economy is also important in descriptions of characters and settings. The idea is to get the essence, the vibe and inspire images in the reader’s mind rather than describing them. You’re not a set designer or a casting director and again, it’s not a police report.

So, let’s describe the bar and Jim. Let’s pretend this is the opening scene. First, the wrong way:

INT. BAR – EVENING

JIM, early 40s, enters the bar. Jim has graying hair and is a stocky guy who is now a bit out of shape. He wears a worn, frayed peacoat, basic jeans with some dirt smeared on the thighs and brown construction boots.

The bar is a working class neighborhood joint that is only populated by regulars -townies that all know each other.

DAVEY, the bartender, a heavyset Italian-American who has seen it all is wiping off the bar when he looks up and notices Jim.

Okay, let’s try again.

INT. BAR – EVENING

JIM, Early 40s enters. Jim is a working-class, blue collar guy -from his worn, dirty clothes to his worn, exhausted face. The kinda guy who might’ve been a boxer twenty years ago but definitely came out on the wrong side of a long bout with a hard life.

The bar is the kinda place guys like Jim hang out after work to drown their sorrow.

DAVEY, the bartender, looks up and acknowledges Jim with a nod. Jim is clearly a regular.

Okay, so what’s the difference here? In the first example, a lot of words are wasted detailing what, specifically, Jim is wearing –all to express that he’s a working class guy. “from his worn, dirty clothes to his worn, exhausted face” covers it. We don’t need to detail every article of clothing or that he has gray hair. You want to acknowledge that Jim is a big guy but past his prime. “Stocky but a bit out of shape” is too “police report”. What we want to convey is that he was once a tough guy but those days are past.

This brings me to the concept of “unfilmables”.  There is an old school screenwriting rule that you shouldn’t write anything that can’t be filmed. My feeling on this rule is: Yes and no. “The kinda guy who might’ve been a boxer twenty years ago but definitely came out on the wrong side of a long bout with a hard life” is an “unfilmable” but I think the economy of words rule outweighs it. With that description you’re getting to the heart and essence of what you want to convey. It is technically “unfilmable” but, then again, it’s not -because you’re giving information to the director, the actor and the reader of what you want to get across. How they interpret that visually is up to them. On the other hand, describing Davey as a guy “who has seen it all” is an unfilmable that is too vague to be of any use to anyone. I think the unfilmable rule being adhered to too strictly has lead to the police report style of descriptions. That is the balance and the art of it. You have to get to the essence of what you want to convey visually without getting into the inner life of someone that can’t easily be expressed on the screen. The trick is to express an essence or a vibe as concisely as possible yet making sure that what you write can be expressed visually.

Getting back to economy of words, notice the second version of the description of Davey, the bartender. If someone is a minor character of no importance to the story, don’t waste anytime on them. Don’t add useless information. Does it matter how old the bartender is, what ethnicity he is, his body type, his demeanor? If it doesn’t, then just write “Davey, the bartender” and leave it at that.  Picture the film unfolding in your mind and focus on what you need to focus on as concisely as possible and leave the rest in soft-focus (so to speak).

It sounds simple but it’s an art. You also don’t want to get cutesy and clever. Self-indulgence is not an economy of words.

Let’s close with one final example…

Let’s say you have a character that is a throw back to the 1980s hair metal days. In your mind you picture his hair, his hair dye, the exact rock shirt he’s wearing, the brown leather pants, the animal print bandanas he has tied around every appendage, etc.  To describe all of these things in detail would be pointless -as I said, you’re not the costume designer. So unless you’re trying to convey a scene where a long time is spent focusing on this guy and his wardrobe, don’t do it. “Floyd looks like he just stepped out of a Motley Crue concert in 1986”  would convey what the guy looks like, who he is or at least how he’s perceived. It can be conveyed visually and it doesn’t bog anyone down with extraneous details.

The important thing to remember is that before your script is filmed, someone has to read it and you wanna make that reader see your script in their mind. That’s not done with details, that’s done with economy of words. If your character is a bad ass, you can offer some essential specifics but basically, you wanna just say: “He’s a bad ass”. The reader will get it and down the line the director, actor and everyone else will do their job in making sure the audience knows that he’s a bad ass.

That’s all I got. I hope you found it enlightening. Please leave some comments and keep writing. Don’t forget, if you want some notes on your scripts, check out http://screenplayground.com for my affordable coverage services.

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