Screenwriting : Hmmm is less on page necessarily better? by Alden Tan

Hmmm is less on page necessarily better?

Yo guys,

I was just reading this and found it interesting:

Here's a couple of screenshots from the article.

From what I read and learnt so far, I've been under the impression that less is better, like if you can articulate something with less words it'd be easier to read.

Doesn't seem so in this article no?

I am probably missing something here as I see these two shots. What do you all think?

Alden Tan

Here's the other shot

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, the first version is certainly efficient, but rather "thin" meaning it lacks tone/emotion. However, the expanded rewrite goes a bit too far in my opinion; it's overwritten, redundant. There's probably a happy medium between the two. The point of this article... When writing a spec you are writing for a reader, for an audience of one. And you are the only person responsible. Only your words and your execution create an experience for your reader. No director, no music, no cinematographer, no actors, no wonderful teams of collaborators -- just you. So with a spec the narrative is more important than the general "blue print" (production) aspects of your script. You must accomplish a helluva lot before someone or yourself takes that spec, invests in it, and develops it into the makings of a film. It all starts on the page. You gotta win over that reader first. ;)

James Chalker

It's also a little hard to judge them on their own, without knowing what came before. It seems like much of the information in the rewrite should have been conveyed in an earlier scene or scenes.

"[H]ot desert heat" yikes: cliche city.

Doug Nelson

I agree with Beth & James on this. The first rendition is lifeless, flat and passive - avoid those "ing" words. The second version is redundant. This is one scene in the story's flow - we already know when and where we are. Why waste precious story time and page count with the excessive exposition? You have 100 pages (mol) to work with - don't waste 'em.

C Harris Lynn

Agreed, although I'm sure the writer exaggerated to make the point. My guess is they didn't use an example from a produced script due to legal reasons, although they would have been well within their rights to do so, as it's for educational purposes.

Owen Mowatt

I think the revised version is horribly written.

A Mexican girl lying nearby on her back

What does a Mexican girl look like gain?? If he's actually IN Mexico then she wouldn't be Dutch would she?

Sean steps over to her in a daze

Shouldn't this be staggered over, as you've already told us he's been shot in the head? Unless he is delusional and thinks he's Gene Kelly?

Sorry folks, I'm in one of my sarcastic moods today. Haha

James Chalker

C Harris: the script was taken from the article writer's consulting business. It was a spec from a client.

Bill Costantini

Less is better when more is not needed.

Chad Stroman

Agree with the thoughts above with one afterthought. Be judicious in when to employ exposition. If it's a scene of a guy just driving and searching the streets for something and not pivotal, probably less is more. If it's a pivotal moment then a bit more exposition would do some good. Too much exposition can slow things down however as well. I agree with Beth above that the second iteration might have gone a bit too far.

The guy basically climbs out of the grave and we have two separate action lines where he stands there in the sun and then checks his wound then notices the girl laying their dying. I kinda wonder if a girl bleeding (I guess she is completely silent?) would be the third thing you'd just notice/become aware of after climbing out of a grave.

It became a little too slow.

Dan Guardino

The long version is horrible and the second version is not good.

Jorge J Prieto

Show don't tell. I think it applies here, so if I had to chose, the second version is better, only if this is the beginning of the script, to set the tone, let us know about the characters...I hope this makes sense..? I agree with what our BETH Fox said, great hearing from all of you here, fellow writers.

Doug Nelson

As an exercise, how many of you would be willing to rewrite that scene and make your version available for educational purposes?

Martina Cook

That's an excellent idea Doug! Maybe the more advanced here could give it a shot for us beginners?

Doug Nelson

Martina - I thought it would be helpful but I'll bet there will be few if any. Any comments at all will most likely why they can't (or won't) help. Sad.

Anthony Cawood

I will... assume you are too Doug, given it was your idea?

Dan MaxXx


What's the point of the scene? The scene before and after? Or do you want someone else to edit the page without knowing the story? The David Mamet scene rule: who wants what from Whom? Why now? What happens if they don't get it? Answer the 3 Mamet questions with the example scene cause I have no idea what the Writer is doing.

Dan Guardino

Dan M. Doug didn't post the scene.

Anthony Cawood

Dan M - it's just an exercise, answer the 3 Mamet questions (assume you've started the course now?) for yourself, i.e. make it up ;-)

Then you can edit the scene as the characters are now yours.

Dan Guardino

Martina. FWIW here is how I would write that scene.


Sean, gunshot wound to the head, climbs out from a grave. Sees a small Mexican Girl with a gunshot wound to the stomach. She looks at a doll. Stares up at Sean. Shawn picks it up, hands it to her. takes her last breath, dies.

Anthony Cawood

So for educational purposes only, a quick re-draft, hopefully an improvement on the first version but not as purple as the second one...


A MEXICAN GIRL writhes on the ground and MOANS in pain as blood seeps from the ragged wound in her side. She tries to stem the flow, but her tiny hands are no match for the violence she's suffered.

An arm appears over the lip of the pit, and another as Sean uses his elbows to clamber out and complete his unlikely resurrection.

He gingerly touches the bullet wound on his forehead, winces; it's deep, still bleeding, but not fatal.

The girl MOANS again.

Sean looks to her, registers the panic in her eyes as she reaches out for him. He moves to her, but she shakes her head, points at something beyond him.

A small doll, half buried in the earth.

He gives her the doll, which she hugs tenderly and mouths 'Gracias' at him, before drawing her final shallow breath.

Doug Nelson

Dan M, that is correct - we don't know the story line, we have no idea where the scene falls within the story flow. There is much that we don't know so make it up. If you want to be a staff writer, you face this sort of thing every morning when you stumble into the Writer's Room with your latté. Show us what you got, but don't come up with some excuse that you can't'

Martina Cook

Thanks Dan and Anthony, it's great to see more experienced writers' approach, it's super-helpful in understanding the concept of voice. Very much appreciated :)

Dan MaxXx

no excuses, Doug, I just don't care. But it's your challenge. Where's your scene?

Beth Fox Heisinger

Dan M: Writing style helps tell a story visually, does it not? LOL! ;)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Okay, below is my quick and dirty rewrite, or rather edit — just for educational purposes, just for fun, right? Working with the writer's cues, her/his words and intent; Sean being the protagonist, the girl just happening to be there. I tried to blend the two versions somewhat, fixing the grammatical errors, the many redundancies, etc. ;)


An arm reaches out of the freshly dug hole, then another. Sean pulls, claws his way out of his supposed final resting place.

He stands there in the Mexican desert heat. Dazed. Confused. Covered in dirt, blood, and lime powder.

He checks the bullet wound to his forehead, grimaces -- it hurts like hell, but not fatal. He notices…


lying on her back in a pool of blood. She clutches at a shotgun blast to her stomach, gasping for air. She clamors for him, desperate.

Sean stumbles over to her, drops to his knees.

He takes her hand, but she pulls away and points. Sean follows her gaze to a toy doll laying in the dirt.

He grabs it, places it into her arms. She cradles the doll, almost motherly.

Sean stares down at her. There’s a flicker of gratitude, then sadness in her eyes.

The girl takes her last breath, and dies.

Linda Hullinger

I agree with Martina. Reading more experienced writers' approaches, who are currently having their work produced, is super helpful, and greatly appreciated. Thanks, Anthony and Dan. And also thanks Doug for proposing the idea. I agree with Beth, too, that writing style does help tell a story visually. Each of the examples created different images in my mind, even though it had the same story idea.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Anthony: Really like your added touch of the girl mouthing "gracias." With that language detail, it defines her without calling her "a Mexican girl." Read over your version without that label. I'm with Owen on that... I found it unnecessary. If we are in Mexico, then why label her? Of course we don't have prior scenes to inform the one we are rewriting, but it goes to reason that the location and people have been established before this scene. So to me, labeling her is not needed and redundant. ;)

Anthony Cawood

Tx Beth...

And I don't normally mention the race of anyone in my scripts, just took the cue from the original... and then came up with the 'gracias' bit.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sure, absolutely, Anthony. Me too. ;) Just saying, that's a great way to inform your reader through authentic detail, subtext, etc. I think the biggest issue with the expanded scene example is the redundancy: repeated words, repeated information, etc. If you glance through all our rewrites/edits we all addressed that problem. ;)

Anthony Cawood

Agree Beth, wonder if the original writer is aware we're doing free script doctoring for him/her ;-)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Haha! :-) Yeah, perhaps we're doing our own version of a scene/page review, just like Scriptnotes' three page challenge. Love that! John August and Craig Mazin giving notes. ...BTW, in one of their more recent podcasts they take umbrage with that term/phrase, "script doctoring," saying it's not a thing, to not use that label. Where the hell did that come from?! No one calls it that within the industry. It's being hired as a writer to do a rewrite. So don't call yourself a "script doctor!"—just don't! LOL! ;)

Anthony Cawood

Yeah, always funny when Craig goes into an umbrage tirade ;-)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yeah, they crack me up!

Dan Guardino

Beth. The term 'Script Doctor' means the screenwriter has a PhD in screenwriting which means they can Pile it on Higher and Deeper than the rest of us.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Ah, I see, a degree in bullsh*t. Got it. Lol, Dan G! ;)))

Martina Cook

Dan G - I had to Google PhD in screenwriting 'cause I couldn't believe it! But you are right, it is a thing...

Dan Guardino

Here is what I found wrong with the scene.

(The scene takes place in the cemetery not in the grave.)

Sean slowly climbs out of the freshly dug grave he was supposed to be dead in.

(words that end in why aren’t needs to they don’t belong in a screenplay. Also you should only write what we can see on screen and you can’t see “he was supposed to be dead” on film.

He stands there in the hot desert heat. Dazed. In a total state of shock. He's covered in dirt, blood, and lime powder.

(you can’t see “a total state of shock” on film. The writer would have to write something tangible we can see on film.)

He checks the gunshot wound to his head, the one that should have killed him but amazingly grazed him.

(you can’t see “should have killed him” on screen so it shouldn’t be in the script)

He then notices... a Mexican girl laying nearby on her back. She's clutching her bleeding stomach. A shotgun blast to the gut. She's gasping for breath. A tiny toy doll lies near her in the dirt. Sean steps over to her in a daze. She's still alive. Barely.

(could have left out Barely)

The girl looks over to the toy doll lying in the dirt and then stares up at Sean.

(action happens as it occurs on film so you don’t need words like “then” in a screenplay.

Sean realizes she wants it.

(can’t see what someone is thinking on screen so that doesn’t belong in the screenplay)

He grabs the doll. Gives it to her. She hugs it gently. Almost motherly.

(a writer doesn’t need to tell an actor how to hug the doll)

Sean stares down at her. Sees a sadness in her eyes. The girl then takes her last breath and dies.

(don’t need the word “then”.

Ryan Rodriguez


Ennio climbs out of the grave. A gunshot wound to the head but he makes it to his feet.

Then, he sees a bloodied little girl in the sand.

She covers a shotgun wound to her stomach with her hands. There's a one-eyed rag doll within arm’s reach.

Ennio approaches her, picks up the doll, and places it in her hand.



She’s dead.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Good catch with the scene heading, Dan G. Yeah, GRAVE, probably would be a secondary heading? But we don't have prior scenes to analyze. ...Anyway, some of those choices are exposition and description of what we are seeing; what emotion, or what a character may be evoking, what's crossing over their face, what's happening. "Sean realizes," not a great choice here, true, but that paints a picture in my mind: a look, or a synapse (got it, I understand), or a subtle action. "Almost motherly" that creates an image too, a look of known emotion/meaning. It also describes a subtext and/or raises a question. Okay, how old is this girl? Does she have a child? Is the doll hers? Or her child's? It's also style, an attempt at tone. I think if this writer just kept going, kept reworking this scene, it probably would be better. Those "tells" would be better crafted. ;)

Dan Guardino

Beth. A screenwriter should only describe relevant information and only what can be seen on screen. A screenwriter should not write thoughts or anything intangible such as emotions that we can’t see on film. If you want your audience to know what someone is thinking or feeling you must write the physical manifestation of their emotions. This is one of the biggest differences between an author and a screenwriter. Unlike authors our audience won’t read what we wrote they will only see what appears on screen.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, Dan G, I know. Absolutely. And yet I see exception to that everywhere, in every single screenplay I read. Lol! ;)

Dan Guardino

I know you know and I do it in production scripts but I tried to avoid doing it when I was writing spec screenplays because a lot of people in the business consider it poor writing. The only writing I consider to be poor is my own.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh, c'mon now, I highly doubt your writing is poor. Highly doubt it! Lol! ;) Besides, don't all creatives hate their own work? I guess that's what drives us: to keep improving, building, discovering. ;) ....I dunno, I've had the opposite experience writing specs, studying the craft, the encouraging advice I receive and actively seek out... As long as it is engaging, or it just works, right? It seems to always boil down to the intangible qualities of a particular screenplay and its specific context. What works in one may not fly in another. I read a ton of scripts, of all kinds, from all different levels of writers. So perhaps I'm seeing a really wide variety of writing styles/voices? I don't mean to sound dismissive about common practices, not at all. I study them. And I know you have extensive professional experience, Dan G. As an aspiring writer myself, I always appreciate your insights. :)

Owen Mowatt

I think this exercise just goes to show how important context is, as in some of the rewritten offers, I'm still none the wiser (that's not to say they are wrong/bad).

Visual information that should have been clear in previous pages, have been repeated. We also don't know the significance of him seeing this dying girl and his act of tenderness towards her. For all we know, she could have been part of the set up that got him shot, and then was betrayed herself. Maybe his tenderness was a way of forgiving her nativity.

Interesting exercise if it was asked of a film we have all seen perhaps?

Beth Fox Heisinger

Getting back to the article that Alden posted... When writing a spec, the narrative is extremely important in your execution — avoiding ambiguity and confusion, creating an engaging/emotional experience for your reader, style, tone, clarity, better articulating and understanding nuance. You must capture the intuitive on the page. From the article: "Executing the story on the page is everything. It’s the difference between the reader understanding the nuance of your story or not. Between them being engaged in the read or not. Between them continuing to read it or tossing it." ;) Anyhoo, I agree with Owen in that without further context this little exercise is limiting. But... it also allowed us to demonstrate/discuss how to balance visual storytelling (what's shown) with elements (nuances) without redundancies and overwriting. That when used well they paint a vivid picture in the mind of your reader and create an emotional response. ;)

Dan Guardino

Beth. I agree everyone has their own style. My style if you want to call it that changed over the years. When I first started out I preferred overwriting because I liked the way my scripts read. After a couple hundred years I realized screenplays have a certain cadence that comes from writing economically so I changed my style. I guess there really is no right or wrong so people should learn the basics and then decide to do what they feel will give them their best advantage.

Martina Cook

This exercise was very helpful to me not because I was looking for a right/wrong way of rewriting that particular scene, but to see the different ways people write - different voices. Plus this discussion is very beneficial to me because there isn't a big choice of writing groups where I live. I just joined one but it's very broad (novels, poetry etc...), so having this group is a sort of "writers room", which not everybody likes but I do, the brainstorming is fantastic and having more experienced writers is a bonus. Thank you all for the input.

Anthony Cawood


Alden Tan

Okay Ima take a shot at it myself... Here we go!


Sean comes back to life and digs his way out of his own grave.

He stands, confused and disoriented. He looks around, like what the fuck?

There is a gunshot wound to his head. He touches it. He notices


Lying on her back nearby. She has a shotgun wound to her stomach. Blood pours out, like everywhere. She rasps, struggling to stay alive. It's a gruesome sight.

Sean stumbles over to her. He notices her staring at a TINY TOY DOLL by her side, her trembling hand reaching out desperately for it.

Sean dives down for the doll and hands it to her.

The girl takes it with the last of her strength, barely able to hold it up.

The doll falls into her own blood as she dies.

Owen Mowatt

Please, please, please stop saying, Mexican girl!

It was a silly line to begin with, it's still silly now.

Dan MaxXx

What's the scene lesson here? Re-editing? That's Monday morning QB, like youtube movie Critics nit-picking and analyzing why certain movies suck.

The craft & experience is doing it first on the page, then rewrite on location, in front of Actors and crew.

Let's see in real world time how many hours for a Crew to dig a grave, then safely position Actors inside a grave, make-up to look bloodied, then set camera position, shoot scene.
Write an original scene if you wanna practice. Anybody can edit.

Owen Mowatt

...have all that in place, then need to wait for the sun to come from behind a cloud.

Anthony Cawood

Dan M, the challenge from Doug was specifically to re-write this particular scene, I think a bunch of us did it as he kinda called out the regs on here, suggesting we wouldn't (couldn't?) re-write it. I think the assertion was that a lot of people on here talk about writing but don't evidence it, and Doug may be right on that.

Personally happy to show otherwise, but I also post all my short scripts on here too, so anyone can check out my writing if they're interested enough.

Surely a re-write on location depends on if the writer is there, which is not the case for all (many) movies or TV, so in those circumstances on the fly re-writes are likely producer/director(?)

And of course this is a spec, nowhere near production as far as I'm aware, producer could well say 'grave scene, nope, edit it out'.

Dan MaxXx


agree. lots of talkers, Monday morning Critics, and book theories. Still waiting on Doug to post his scene. It was his idea. But not sure what's the lesson other than editing.

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