Screenwriting tip for today… avoid the “widow words” in your screenplay…

February 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

karloff scriptIt’s 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? It’s probably the volume of screenplays out there all competing for attention. I’ve read reports upward to 50,000 projects a year registered with the WGA. 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. It’s vital to know what you need to write and what you need to leave out of a screenplay.

Many beginning writers tend to overwrite and micromanage their scenes with detailed descriptions of how the character “sighs, shrugs, smiles, clenches teeth, folds arms, 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 believe me 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


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.  t’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. I consulted recently on a screenplay and pointed out the “widow words” to the writer and she was able in a rewrite to cut out three pages just by eliminating the widow words.

In almost every case, I have found that a widow word is a red flag that the previous sentence could be rewritten and will be a 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.

Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith!

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2019 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.

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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

Just do the best you can every time.  And if you’re going to stay in the movies, and you like movies—and I love them—you’d better love them a lot, because it’s going to take all of your time.  If you want to be in the movies, it’s going to break your heart.”—Richard Brooks

When you start a movie script, it’s like entering a dark room: You may find your way around all right, but you also may fall over a piece of furniture and break your neck. Some of us can see a little better than others in the dark, but there is no guaranteeing the audience’s reaction.”—Billy Wilder


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