Avoid the pesky widow words in your screenplay…

September 26, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s very important how a screenplay “reads” on the page, but you must first remember that nobody likes to actually read.  It’s a sad fact that I’ve come to accept.  Strange in a business of words, right?  That is why loglines exist and scripts get “coverage. ”  If producers finally decide to read your script, they’ll enjoy seeing more white space on the page than a script cluttered with useless words.

Many beginning writers tend to overwrite and micromanage their scenes with detailed descriptions of how the character “sighs, shrugs his shoulders, smiles, and turns.” These beginners have not yet learned to let go and trust the director and actors to “get it.”  If your scene and dialogue are properly written, the other contributors will bring your script to an entirely new level.  You must stay the hell out-of-the-way of the story and write only what is of primary importance to push the story forward.  Anything extra hurts and will immediately show producers that you are a beginning writer trying to micromanage the script.  The old axiom still holds true: Less is more.  Avoid being “precious” with your screenplay.  It’s a blueprint that will be altered and changed by your collaborators—the producer, the executive, the director and even the actors. When you type FADE IN, lose any trace of ego and don’t hang on to your words so tightly.  Trust me, there will be notes and changes — even during production.

I don’t recall where I read this nugget of screenwriting advice, but I believe it works every time: When writing the action block of a script, never leave a line with only one word dangling — a “widow word.”  It’s also officially known as the “orphan word” — it doesn’t matter by what name this pesky gremlin is called, here’s an example of what it looks like on the page:   

Jennifer hesitates and in silence she lowers her

sunglasses.

The widow/orphan word above is sunglasses and it’s jarring to the eye when you read the script to have just one word taking up an entire line on the page.  It’s also a waste of precious real estate on the page.  The one word takes up an entire line of space. You may leave a half-dozen widow words per page and never realize it unless you go on a hunt for them.  If you do this about fifty times or more throughout the script, you will have added an extra page to the length just based on the underutilized lines.

In almost every case, I have found that a widow word is a red flag that the previous sentence could be rewritten and will read better in the second pass.  So, if I find a widow word, I analyze the previous sentence and either cut a few words or make sure there is more than one word on the second line:

Jennifer hesitates and lowers her sunglasses.

It’s Hemingway’s economy of writing.  When you read your scripts, keep an eye out for widow words and clean them up.  Your script will read much better and the action lines will get right to the point.  You also just saved a wasted line on the page and that works in your script’s favor.

Winning!

Scriptcat out!

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In rewriting what you have to be able to do is read a piece of material, say what’s wrong with it, know how to say what’s right with it, and then be able to do it yourself. That’s really what it comes down to.  Some people say what’s wrong with something, some people can even say what’s right with it, and some people can do all three, but, you know, the more things that are required, the fewer people can do it.  I think I can do it.”— Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown, Hollywood’s major uncredited script doctor.

“What I’m saying is that is it frustrating.  If a painter paints a picture, he can scrape it off and do it again, if he doesn’t like it.  In a film, it will cost you forty thousand dollars to do that again, just for that once scene that didn’t come out the way you wanted.  All the time I hear young filmmakers say, “But I’ll never make a compromise.”  Baloney!  All of life is a compromise. It’s one succession of compromises after another.”Stanley Kramer

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§ 7 Responses to Avoid the pesky widow words in your screenplay…

  • […] These rules apply to writers as well as designers. Screenwriter Mark Sanderson’s informative article on avoiding widow words when writing scripts is an interesting read. He observes that widows in […]

  • Glad to see something I am already doing.

  • F says:

    Thanks for the useful tips! I’ve been incorporating your advice on not over-dressing my script.

    One question: I understand that orphan words are a problem, but what about orphan lines? I’m talking about very short action paragraphs (2-4 lines long) that get cut off somewhere in the middle, leaving a line or two “orphaned.” Is it better to let them break naturally or to leave a little more space at the bottom of the first page so the short paragraph can be read in one piece on the second page?

    Thanks!

    • scriptcat says:

      No hard and fast rule – just what looks good to the eye – always break something on the following page so it’s a “page turner” – don’t be crazy about it, but if you can do that it’s life a cliffhanger – as far as the orphaned LINES – it would be find (again no hard and fast rule) to have a line break in the middle. Not every paragraph is going to be perfectly flush right. Again, use your good visual judgement how it “reads” and looks to the eye. Thanks for the read and keep the faith and screenwriting!

  • I’ve noticed this but now I’m going to be a lot more vigilant because you pointed it out. Love your articles, some great lessons.

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