Avoid the bad habit of overwriting your screenplay…

March 13, 2013 § 10 Comments

big booksFADE IN:


Jack walks into the living room and cautiously glances around. He’s sweating, his eyes dart everywhere, he breathes heavily and turns as the flowered wallpaper catches his eye. It’s a pattern he remembers from his own house and he looks curious. The wind kicks up the flowing drapes and he pulls out his Glock pistol aiming it in every direction of the living room. As he remembers that he’s been in the room before, a noise comes from the kitchen, his eyes go wide as he slinks over to the outside of the kitchen door and peers inside. He enters the kitchen.

YIKES! Write like this enough and you’ll not only have a horribly written script but one that’s probably 150 pages. And you’ll suffer through a brutal rewrite process to shorten everything. More is not a good thing especially in a screenplay. Less is more every time.



Jack slinks inside and hesitates, he’s anxious as his eyes measure the room — it’s empty.  The wind kicks up the drapes, he draws his gun and aims it in every direction — nothing. A noise comes from the kitchen, his eyes narrow as he steadies his gun and inches across the room toward the kitchen door.


“Your first draft is dangerously important.  Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve already gone in another direction.  The longer you can hold off putting a word down on paper, the better you are.  Rewriting is largely cleaning up things that aren’t clear to you, or trying to shorten a scene that’s too long, or realizing now that you’ve written scenes at the end of the story, maybe the scenes at the beginning should be a little different to help set up a scene that comes at the end.“—Ernest Lehman, Screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

new pilotI find too many times in my screenplay consultation that beginning screenwriters suffer from the bad habit of overwriting. It detracts from your screenplay and will immediately brand you as an amateur. I’ve read scripts with ten page scenes that are overwritten and should be no longer than three pages. This type of overwriting will harm your screenplay’s structure and the projection of your talent. It will also lead to horrific rewrites.

Make sure to practice the economy of screenwriting: don’t use fourteen words to explain your scene when four will better serve the same purpose. You have precious real estate on those blank pages so treat it as such and only write what is completely necessary. Don’t describe every little thing in the scene from the color of the wallpaper to the antique chairs. The set designer and art director will fill in those blanks. That’s their job. Now, if the chandler is important because it’s made of diamonds and the thieves are planning to steal it—of course you must describe it, but otherwise leave the page mostly white with minimal descriptions. You’ll never go wrong if you always show and not tell with your screenwriting. Allow the actors to act and always cut the dialogue as much as you can. The Production Designer decides how the set looks, the Cinematographer decides  how the shot looks, and your job is to write the blueprint for the film in the form of the screenplay.

Also, don’t micromanage scenes and try to put your imprint all over them for fear the actor or director “won’t understand” what you are trying to do. They’ll get it if the scene is properly written. Only include the most important action descriptions and avoid the unnecessary ones: “Frank rolls his eyes, smiles, takes a deep breath, shrugs and turns toward the window.” Actors hate this and they will hate your writing even more on the set. The director and actors will figure out how stage the action in the scene from the character’s motivations, etc. Actors love to create their film character’s “business.” I’m reminded of a famous Spencer Tracy acting story from director Stanley Kramer. He tells of directing Tracy in the classic comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Tracy did not like heavy-handed direction and only wanted Kramer to tell him where he was needed at the end of the scene. Kramer told Tracy the scene ended with him at the door of the office. The camera rolled and Tracy started off behind his desk and said his dialogue as he made his way around the office toward the door. He paused at points along the way and created every action himself as part of his “business.”

Trust me, I’ve been on the sets of the films I’ve written and actors are always scratching out dialogue that does not work to improve their characterization. This is why you need to detach from your work and allow the scenes on your pages to breathe. Allow the actors and director to fill in the blanks with proper character bits and emotions. Once the actor “becomes the character” they will know what to do. Directors and actors look at the dramatic core of your scenes and build from there, but you first must have created a solid foundation they can use to elevate the material.

Most of the time you will be pleasantly surprised by their contributions to your material as they bring it to life. Remember that your script is a road map so the characters can get to their destination: FADE OUT—THE END. The actors may take a slight detour if the director allows them, but they will always be able to come back to the road and continue on their journey.

You should make your first draft the best draft because you forge the story’s DNA in those virgin pages. It’s true, about 75% of your heavy lifting is done with creating the story and characters.  If you work on a solid story treatment before you begin pages, you won’t end up with a script that is 130 pages and then spend precious time trying to figure out how to cut your favorite scenes out.  Screenwriters easily fall in love with their words so you have to stand back from your work and view it from an outside perspective. Remember, it’s film and a visual medium—you can tell so much with just a look, a glance or an image than any dialogue or overwritten description in a screenplay.  A bloated and overwritten screenplay is not effective storytelling. Poorly written scripts usually don’t sell and certainly don’t reflect well on the screenwriter’s talent either.  Train yourself to avoid overwriting in all of your screenwriting endeavors.

Scriptcat out!

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“Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.  Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal.  You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.”—Robert McKee, “Story”

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”—Stephen King

“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of a writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have. It is learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and utter lack of sentimentality.”—Alexander MacKendrick, The Lady Killers, Sweet Smell of Success.

“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.”—Ernest Hemingway

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§ 10 Responses to Avoid the bad habit of overwriting your screenplay…

  • Thank you for this! Very helpful info for this aspiring screenwriter. I know these things in principle, but in practice, I fear I’m still over doing it.

    I really struggle with the idea of directing in the Action sections. Aren’t we supposed to “show” what the audience would see? How do you strike the right balance? In particular, how do you manage pacing and timing?

    I want to introduce natural breaks in the dialog, little quiet moments of no talking. The way I’ve been doing that is often to describe something the characters are doing, or sometimes describing something in the environment. My current script is just littered with that stuff.

    Here’s an example snippet (pardon the lack of correct margins). I break up Henry’s lines, primarily for pacing, by describing what Henry does. I use little lines like this frequently. Is this bad? And if so…what’s the alternative? I’m convinced (beat) or similar techniques are by far worse, as they add nothing to the emotion of the story.

    I’m sorry, Henry. Drag you here on a Sunday. Dump this on you.

    It’s good to get outta the house.

    Henry leans on the desk, eyes fixed on Jacob.

    You’re here for advice, so I’m giving it. Take this offer, Jacob!

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

    Nick – aspiring screenwriter

    • scriptcat says:

      Think if someone gave you $100 for every word you cut. Scenes have to be cut to the bone. I don’t see how “Henry leans on the desk, eyes fixed on Jacob” really needs to be described. Usually if an actor is talking to another actor they are looking at them (unless you state otherwise). Now, if Henry leaned on the desk and swiped an important document (that furthers the story) —but avoid unnecessary actor’s business type descriptions. The actors and director will fill in the blanks between lines and even within lines of dialogue. I am still amazed, having been on every set of every film that I’ve written and has been produced, how actors create their character’s business and elevate what the writer has written to a level we never thought possible. Less is more! Thanks for the read and best wishes for all of your screenwriting endeavors.

      • I get what you’re saying, and I know the actors will breathe life into the characters far beyond what I can imagine. And I get that there are no right or wrong answers here, but it’s still not sinking in for me.

        The question still stands: is there another way to let some “air” into the dialog. In real life, people don’t just go back and forth constantly until there is nothing left to say. Right?

        I’ve tried removing these actions from some sections of my script, and the pacing just feels wrong to me. It feels rushed.

        In scenes when an actor is alone, it’s all about the action. There is no dialog. And so then you have to rely on the action to carry the emotion along. So I guess I don’t understand why people seem to think that when dialog kicks in – SNAP – there is no more action allowed – it’s an Action no-man’s land. All dialog or nothing. It’s inconsistent with how the rest of the script works.

        My example above is not going to win any awards. I know this. But, there is a transition in the discussion – Henry deflects Jacob’s apology, and then tries to get the conversation back on track. Makes sense to me that there would be a break there, and I think some kind of action line achieves that.

        Of all my screenwriting struggles, I think this may be my biggest one at the moment.

        Thanks again.

  • […]  Avoid The Bad Habit Of Overwriting Your Screenplay | My Blank Page […]

  • […] Avoid the habit of overwriting your screenplay | My Blank Page […]

  • Phil says:

    I am, by no means, a pro, or anything. I’ve only completed one screenplay, so far, and have started my second. However, I’ll show you what I’d do, here.

    First off, before the action break, my first problem would be with the dialogue. This really depends on the actual characters and how well they know each other, etc, but in my own real life conversations, I hardly ever say the other person’s name. For the first line, I’d have written it as below. Then, I’d have followed THAT line with action, but written as a parenthetical in the next dialogue. Again, I don’t know the rest of the story, or what’s going on here, but I feel like it adds more emotional impact if Jacob DOESN’T look Henry in the eye. As if he really doesn’t want to be there, but is trying to be nice.

    I’m sorry, man… draggin’ you here on a Sunday to dump this on you.

    (avoids eye contact)
    Eh… It’s good to get outta the house.
    (now looks him over)
    Look, you’re here for advice, so I’m giving it. Take the offer.

    • scriptcat says:

      Don’t use parentheticals for action (avoids eye contact) – that is an action beat. Use (parentheticals or wrylys) sparingly! If it’s an action beat, write it in the action description line. And don’t micromanage every tiny detail of the character — trust me, great actors find their “business” and don’t really like to be told to “shrug, roll eyes, breath deeply, turn, etc. If you write the scene properly and give it some breathing room, the will make it better. Don’t be afraid they will MISS something. Now it it’s totally necessary for Henry to look at Jacob because at that moment, he sees a gun in his hand (bad example, but you get the idea), then of course you need to write it. But try as much as you can to stay out of the way. Don’t micromanage.

  • […] I was fortunate to have stumbled upon My Blank Page during my morning skim of tweets and “Avoid the habit of overwriting your screenplay” topic caught my attention. It was great post. It definitely made think of the current screenplay […]

  • raine286 says:

    This is very helpful and I’m glad I caught this tweet last Monday or I would have missed it when reviewing. I’m trying to write as lean as possible and still find little things on the page.

  • […] was keeping in mind those pointers from Blank Page’s topic “Avoid the habit of overwriting your screenplay” which made me re-read my draft. I know it wasn’t good  to start re-writing this early in […]

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