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The Art Of Words: Screenplay Optimization

Updated on July 9, 2014

FADE IN:

Hello Writers,

How are you? I am fine. Just want to take a moment to explain what this post is about: screenplay optimization. It's an important and (I believe) fundemental part of screenwriting. We're not talking about story optimization, which is getting the most effective use out of all your story components.

Screenplay optimization is forming and shaping the physical appearance of your script. Optimization is imperative, because the physical appearance of your script pages is as important as the story itself. Optimization is another tool to get the most out of your script pages.

Every Writer's Hidden Mission

It's been said the great Irish author James Joyce used a mathematical formula to determine the placement of each word, sentence and paragraph in every one of his manuscripts. Now, I'm not sure screenwriters need to go to that extent, but having an idea of how we want our scripts to look (or anything we write, for that matter) is an important part of our craft.

There's a certain perception versus reality when it comes to scriptwriting: just make the story great, and it will sell. Well, writing a great story is only half the battle. If the script doesn't look like a top shelf effort, it won't climb the ladder from a reader to an agent or producer or studio. We can accomplish this by editing stories down to a good "fighting weight", where word and page count is pared to a reasonable sum. Something I find helpful is assessing a "value" on the words I put into a story. It doesn't mean giving monetary value to each word (though, I'm sure many writers do). What valuating really means (to me) is that not just any word adds value to the story. Another way to think of it is "Am I using the very best and most useful words to tell my story in an efficient manner"? Most any presentation spec script* with an explosion of words on each page will quickly find its way to the trash bin in a production office.

Editing down to the highest value words affects everything from sluglines, to narrative descriptions, to lines of dialogue. The good news is editing/valuating can be done using any pad of paper, computer or typwriter; at any desk, table, or lap; in any room, classroom, office, studio, or Starbuck's.

An important agenda is to always make the script as lean as possible. This is where word valuation (aka economizing) comes into play: using the fewest, and best, words to tell the most story. Television embraces the optimized manner of writing because the confines of TV (30 min. and 60 min. formats; accelerated production schedules) dictates the necessity of a lean, tight approach.

We can learn script optimization by example. Read produced scripts from past decades to present, and you'll notice by comparison that screenwriting has made huge leaps forward in formatting, structure, and efficiency. For instance, the format of Citizen Kane is quite different from that of The Godfather. Both are epic in scope and scale. Both exceptionally well told. Both worthy of the admiration they garner. But there's an efficiency to Godfather's format that didn't exist when Welles and Mankiewicz were writing. That has to do with writers and studios coming together over the years to work out better, more effective standards. Much of the reason is that producers don't have time to read. They want efficient stories that are solid, lean, and sellable. And it's our job to write 'em that way.

* Note: There's a difference between a presentation script and a production script. A presentation script is the spec you want to sell to a producer or production company. A production script is what you write after the story has been sold, and is being drafted for production.

Wait A Minute. Less Words = More Story?

I recently read an unproduced script that I knew right away would not get past a reader at any production company or agency. It's not that the story was weak (though not as compelling as it could have been), it's not that the formatting was wrong, or that the characters weren't engaging (though, except for the two leads, most weren't as strong as they should have been).

And the problem was? The opening narrative description was 5 1/2 inches long! The standard script page is 8 1/2" x 11", which means half this opening page was description! This heavy-handed attention to detail replayed on every page to the end of the script. I believe most any reader would have put it in the rejection pile after 5 pages of this bombardment.

I have no doubt that if the writer optomized the script and used only high value words, keeping the descriptive blocks at 2-3 lines, they'd cut at least 20 pages of dead-weight from the script. That means 20 pages of story expansion, character growth, and emotional involvement for the audience were buried under a desert of unnecessary wordage.

Expanded description might work well for a novel, a magazine article, or an amazing blog on writing, but a screenplay has to be lean and lucid. The effect is two-fold:

1. The story reads faster, which is a more pleasent experience for the reader (and the level of pleasure in their reading experience does count towards your script getting a Yes or Pass).

2. The more "white space" there is on the page has a psychological effect, relaxing the reader emotionally and suggesting there's less work for them mentally (script appearance also counts towards a Yes or Pass).

If a reader at most any production company or studio has a stack of scripts to cover (or a logjam of PDF's), the last thing they want to see are script pages covered in a dense fog of Courier type. If you've ever had to sign a stack of important documents, and seen an ocean of words on page after page, you know that can be intimidating. So imagine a poor reader having 50 scripts to cover, and each possesed a tidal wave of verbiage. The tears would be endless. Help them (and your story) by having tight, lean and clean script pages.

So what does a "lean" screenplay really mean? Is it less pages making a thinner script? Yes and no. A script that's been optimized refers to the amount of words used to tell a story in the confines of standard format (aka "trimming the fat"; "cutting the excess"). Less word count doesn't always mean less pages. But fewer words should mean tighter structure and efficiency, helping you serve all aspects of your story.

So, how do we do it?

Script Lipo 101

There's a learning curve when it comes to putting a script on a "diet". While it isn't always easy to make cuts, it does give us another opportunity to show our creativity within the body of the script. If we've done all the necessary grunt work to prepare our story (outlines, index cards, bullet sheets, treatments, or whatever our weapon of choice), we should be able to breakdown the essential narrative components relatively easily. The hard part comes in choosing which words to keep.

As we write, we fall into comfortable patterns, ones that help shape our "voice" as writers. Those patterns can be counter-productive because when it comes to editing, we tend to love our words a little too much. Sometimes it's a question of confidence: do we trust what we've written will be underdstood? If we take words away, will it lessen the impact of our writing? It's at this point we need to take a step back, and decide what's in the best interest of our work.

Example:

Let's say we have a common action/thriller scenario: Joe, our protagonist, is in a situation where Phil, our antagonist, will force Joe to rob the bank they're about to enter. Joe's wife and son are held hostage by Phil's henchmen, so if Joe doesn't rob the bank it will mean the end for his family.

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EXT. BANK - DAY

Phil's car pulls up front. Joe drives even though he doesn't want to, but Phil is making him. Joe has a trickle of sweat that starts at the top of his forehead, pauses, then beads down. He's trying to think of a way to get the gun away from Phil, because he thinks Phil will kill him and his family anyway after the bank robbery, even though Phil says he won't. They get out of the car together, and walk together to the front of the bank. They stand together and look at the entrance to the bank. Phil has a gun hidden under his coat and pokes Joe in the ribs with it. It hurts, but Joe doesn't say anything because he's kind of scared. Joe walks toward the bank doors, worried about what could go wrong after he goes in.

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Obviously, there is way too much information in this scene. There's misplaced information, irrelevant information, and needless redundancy.

Let's fix it up:

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EXT. BANK - DAY

Phil's car pulls up, Joe drives. Phil conceals his gun under his coat. Motions for Joe to get out. They exit.

They stand in front of the bank. Phil's gun jabs Joe in the ribs, reminding him the clock is ticking. Joe glances at his wedding ring. Knows what's at stake. Hesitantly approaches the bank doors.

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Much cleaner, more fluid. There's a hundred ways to give this same info in an equally effective manner, as long as we keep the page as clean as possible.

Scenes that require more intricate detail still apply the same principle: use only what's necessary.

Below is the first page of a screenplay I recently finished, titled The Den Of The Damned. I believe it follows the optimization principle quite closely.

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Excerpt from the screenplay, The Den Of The Damned, written by Charles Dalrymple

FADE IN:

EXT. DESERT - DAY

SUPER: NEW MEXICO TERRITORY - 1866

Harsh sunlight blankets the desert floor, and the path of -

A MAN (face unseen), slight limp. Something intense about him. Leads a PALE HORSE. The man's wide hat and long coat are dusted from the land he's crossed.

EXT. ROCCA BLANCO - TOWN CENTER - DAY (LATER)

Sun-blanched buildings hint at faded promise of a boomtown.

BULLET-POCKED SIGN: "WELCOME TO ROCCA BLANCO"

DUSTY BOOTS

Tow the pale horse past the sign to a weather-beaten water trough.

LEATHER GLOVES

Tie the horse to a hitch.

WATER TROUGH

A glove scoops water. Face, hidden by wide hat, drinks.

PALE HORSE

The gloves remove a battle-scarred .44 1863 Henry Repeating Rifle - STAMPED U.S. ON THE BUTT - from its saddle scabbard.

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The page sets the tone/mood immediately, gives character details, gives location details, and a bit of foreshadowing, all with a minimum of wordage. Later in the story, I fill in the blanks of how the man came to acquire the clothes, horse and Henry rifle. So, the story is served from beginning to end. Also, notice that I didn't include blatant camera angles or editing direction. They clutter the page and take up valuable "white space". Don't include them until the script is in production.

Epilogue

There's no "one size fits all" approach to anything creative. And there are exceptions to every rule. Any number of recently produced scripts fly in the face of what I've posted here. But there are varying forces at work: a script produced by a studio can look however the studio wants it to look. If a particular writer's style suits a particular studio's needs, then the script will be built accordingly.

Case in point - Quentin Tarantino and the Weinstein Company. Tarantino's scripts are 180 degrees opposite of lean. But his use of extensive narrative is masterful, and his style has garnered two Oscars, as well as a niche for himself and the Weinsteins. But, again, I feel this is the exception to the rule. By and large, optimized scripts are the industry preference.

For every "full figured" script, there's one that's "lean". Check out the script for Alien by Walter Hill and David Giler. It feels like the whole story is told in one-word sentances. That's an exaggeration, but not by much. As lean as it is, the whole story is on the pages, built for maximum effect and efficiency. The opposite might be the script for Amadeus. Thick, intricate narrative blocks fill the pages - and it won an Oscar. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid - lean, tight. And it won an Oscar. The Godfather, fits in the "full figured" catagory. Won an Oscar. No Country For Old Men, fits the "lean" catagory. Won an Oscar. The list goes on...

I've read well over 200 produced scripts. From what I can see, lean scriptwriting has been the trend for at least 30 years. I truly believe that's the best approach, especially for a new writer. Create a lean, tight, efficient script, and your chances for success increase exponentially.

These are just my opinions. Do with them what you will. Best of luck.

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A few writers whom adhere to script optimization:

Christopher Nolan

Shane Black

Walter Hill

Tony Gilroy

Darren Aronofsky

The Wachowskis

Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant

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Useful links:

Writer's Guild of America - www.wga.org - Register your script!

Screenplay - www.screenplay.com - Movie magic Screenwriter 6

Writer's Store - www.writersstore.com - Books, vids, seminars, software, etc.

Wordplay - www.wordplayer.com - Website of writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio

Simply Scripts - www.simplyscripts.com - Library of produced and unproduced scripts

The Script Mentor - www.thescriptmentor.com - Script mentoring, coverage

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A Few Quotes:

Though this be madness, there is method to it - William Shakespeare

Writing begins when you've finished. Only then do you know what you're trying to say - Mark Twain

There can't be art, without risk - Francis Ford Coppola

I don't believe in writer's block - Elmore Leonard

First, find out what your hero wants. Then, just follow him - Ray Bradbury

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense - Tom Clancy

It's impossible to discourage real writers - Sinclair Lewis

Screenwriting is really no more complicated than old French torture chambers - James L. Brooks

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    • Snackula profile image
      Author

      Charlie Dalrymple 4 years ago

      Thanks for checking out the blog, Wayne. But I disagree. Optimizing is for the ENTIRE script, not just the first ten. No company reads the first ten pages of a script and decides to buy it. Like I mention in the blog, looklien the Alien script by Walter Hill. Or read The Dark Knight by Chistopher Nolan and Joanathan Nolan. Read any of the Bourne Identity scripts. They're all lean and efficient all the way through. I think optimizing/economizing their screenwriting is one of the better habits a writer can form, and to their repertoire. Thanks for your comments.

    • profile image

      Wayne 4 years ago

      The biggest reason for lean -is to get the most out of your first ten pages...AS a new writer.. Very important not to over explain

    • Snackula profile image
      Author

      Charlie Dalrymple 4 years ago

      Thanks, Geno. Means a lot to me that you took the time to post.

      Part of the reason for writing the "bank" scene was exactly what you said, you can't show what a character's thinking. But I wanted to concentrate more on words density, at least for this post.

    • thescriptmentor profile image

      thescriptmentor 4 years ago

      You can add me to the list of writers who watch their "word weight". I target 150-180 words per page. To me, that's lean. Btw, the bigger issue with the "bank" scene example is the fact that the writer is writing things that cannot be shown on film, i.e. what the character is thinking. No word diet in the world is going to salvage that script. Also, I'd change the "ing" words to more active verbs: "driving" becomes drives, "ticking"= ticks, etc. I realize it's only an example, though. Good article, nice blog...