Monday, April 24, 2006

White Space

If film is a visual medium, then lots of scenes won't have dialogue and will be description only. Yet 'the rule' is to keep the pages as 'white' as possible… How do you write visual scenes without putting too much ink on the page?

Readers and execs do like to read scripts that are easy on the eye. It’s a big plus to be able to flick through the pages with casual ease as it gives the sense that you’re not getting bogged down in the page-by-page rendition of the story.

The first thing a reader does when he picks up a script is check how many pages it has. The second is a quick flick through to see if the action and dialogue is laid out in attractive ‘white space’. If both boxes get ticked (script between 95-110 pages and white space ago-go) then the reader’s sitting down with a grateful approach to the script.

As Lucy, Nick and Grubber remarked in the comments of the previous post, it certainly does help to use the ‘Return’ key a lot to separate your lines of action into quick, terse sentences instead of keeping them together in one dense paragraph that’s a blot on the eye.

Spacing your sentences out does give a script a better sense of immediacy than grouping lines together in 12+ line paragraphs. However, I have read scripts that have been full of dense paragraphs and run over 130+ pages but have enjoyed the script regardless because of the quality and talent behind the words.

The real question of ‘white space’ is about using fewer words in a screenplay. Screenwriting as haiku, if you will.

“Fewer words” doesn’t mean plain expression. It is the opposite. From my post about Original Voice last year I made reference to the fact that most scripts are littered with lazy description, or phrases that have become accepted screenplay shorthand.

“John walks down the street, clearly drunk” is plain lazy but commonly used. This is where the advice of fewer words and making your description short is misunderstood. What the script should describe is John’s behaviour of being drunk, not just telling us that he’s clearly intoxicated.

It’s about making every word of your screenplay count. Not enough writers take the time to be visually arresting about the most basic parts of their narrative description.

What you want to do is SHOW YOU CAN WRITE and alert the reader to your ‘original voice’ on EVERY PAGE. It takes a little bit more effort, and of course talent, but is instantly recognised and appreciated by the people who have to wade through a sea of poor scripts every day.

Using fewer words will help broaden the white space in your script but the most expressive language will also help to heighten the emotional attachment to the story. For example, if a scene sees John Smith walking down the street in the rain, a bit drunk, and he stumbles to find an important piece of paper then the writing should reflect the tone and significance of what’s happening.

What you don’t want to read: “It’s raining. John stumbles down the street clearly drunk. He slips and finds a piece of paper and looks at the stained writing. His eyes light up at what he reads”.

Although simple, direct and to the point, it’s fairly bland and emotionless. Ideally, the writing should reflect the tone of what’s happening, ensuring that each word of narrative description is evoking the right visual and emotional response. If the scene is from a rom-com, it may go like this:

“John arches his head back and laughs as he lets the rain dance on his cheeks.

He skips along the road, starts to hum a bit of Gene Kelly, but with perfect drunken timing he slips on his sorry ass.

A piece of paper sails along the gutter towards him, gently nudging him at his feet.

John idly picks it up but his eyes go-wide as he reads what he’s been looking for: Sandra’s phone number”.

The action is deliberately spaced out but hopefully the language and tone makes it more enjoyable for the reader and gives them a better visual sense of what’s going on than the previous plain rendition.

Similarly, if the scene is from a thriller, you could go with:

“Rain lashes down in diagonal sheets, seemingly targeting John as he huddles himself from the weather’s direct onslaught.

He mumbles drunken misgivings at his plight, hiccups, and slips on the drenched pavement.

From the gutter, a piece of paper catches his eye and, picking it up, he can’t believe his eyes when he sees what’s written: “Kill John.”

You get the picture.

Space out the action.

Use fewer words.

But be evocative and visual in your expression.


FYI: BBC Drama Series Writers’ Academy is opening its doors again. Closing date for applications: 15th May 2006. You can read all about my near miss last year, here.


Tim Clague said...

I'm currently cutting down my descriptions in my next draft for "Circumference". To take it right does take a while. Its like the old saying - "Sorry for the long letter as I didn't have time to write a short one".

You need to cut it down without cutting it all out. Same goes for dialogue though really doesn't it.

James Moran said...

I have a personal rule: never go over 4 lines for a paragraph of non-dialogue. Preferably 3 or less, but 4 at the most. Keeps it moving along nicely, but not too zippy unless you make it so. For big shocks, I'll stick the thing on it's own line.

Like this.

Makes it seem more dramatic, and gets across that it's important or sudden...

I've just read the original James Cameron script for Rambo: First Blood Part 2, and it's fantastic. Still haven't seen the movie yet, but it can't possibly be as good, lean and mean as the script. Check that out for examples, it's mostly action, and terse, efficient description. And my old standbys, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, are textbook examples of action scripts that are a great read.

Dominic Carver said...

If I need to set up a scene with Danny struggling to come up with an idea for his latest blog I would write it like this:

Danny, sweating over his latest blog. Ideas have deserted him.

I've seen scripts that spend a whole paragraph (four or fives lines) setting up this image. What a waste.

James, the movie making God that is Mr. Cameron went a bit too far with the Titanic script though. It's like reading a Mills & Boon novel.

Adam Renfro said...

It seems to get hard right after FADE IN.

Somehow this reminds me of Faulkner. He was so boring that he had to write in italics when something actually happened in his novel — a visual clue to wake up the reader.

Anyhow, you’re right on. Thanks for the post.

Dan said...

Thanks for the BBC opportunity link. Think I'll give it a shot.

Just out of interest Danny, Can you apply to join the academy again even though you were unsuccessful last year?

Danny Stack said...

Hmmm, not sure Dan, I'd have to check.

Anonymous said...

Hello my pretties.

Does anyone know if one is required to be in London every single day for this course?

BTW, if it's TV writing you're interested in, check out the blog today for a Q&A with TV drama veteran Marc Pye.

Danny Stack said...

I think it alternates between BBC's Centre House and Elstree Studios for the first 3/4 months (Elstree mainly I think), then you go on the different shows for remainder...

Lucy V said...

So it is London-based for the main part, damn. That's me out the running then. But now of course, all the other writers have a much better chance...Far, far better thing I do... ; )

Anonymous said...

thank you, I have welcomed a lot of your advice since reading. I am a better writer because of it.

Anonymous said...

"John arches his head back and laughs as he lets the rain dance on his cheeks."

I studied scriptwriting at Bournemouth University (I wouldn't recommend it to anyone) and was "discouraged" from using such description in my work. He branded it "flowery", and called me describing a female charcter's cheekbones as 'plateaus' "Mills and Boon".

I'm glad to see you encouraging it. It's quite refreshing - as is pretty mcuh everything I've read here - after witnessing the cynical, formulaic conveyor belt spit out another by-the-numbers automaton.

The fact that this site is a greater resource than a three-year degree is quite a sad indictment.

Anonymous said...

(I'm sorry- by 'he', I was referring to a part-time lecturer, who shall not be named. His greatest achievements were writing for Sooty and Count Duckula).