Screenwriting : How thin is too thin by Stacy Gentile

Stacy Gentile

How thin is too thin

OK. I have come to notice something. Seems to me that the ideal SPEC script is super thin. Lots of white space. I sense that folks (advisors to new writers) really want to see around 2 lines of action and 1-2 lines of dialogue at a time. I get that for many reasons. It forces economy of words and makes it an easy read. Here's the thing though. If you go and read hundreds / thousands of scripts from actual movies -- those scripts look nothing like that. So my question is how thin is too thin and does that differ at different points of the process? It's an interesting question. SIDE NOTE Does a thin script have the potential to 1) Move too quickly and 2) lack something in character development. I have read some thinly written scripts that have had great character development it can be done but I think it would be something new writers would really struggle with -- balancing thin with telling a story.

Richard Allis

A couple lines of action or dialogue is what you should shoot for, but it can be deviated from in certain situations. Just try not to make it all situations. -- For action descriptions, if I have a different action, esp. by a different person, I make it a new paragraph. Any script has the potential to move too quickly or lack in character development.

Stacy Gentile

Just to be clear I am not arguing against lean spec scripts, however, let me pose a question. Aren't most producer / script purchasers looking for projects that are as complete as possible to avoid re-writing costs? I swear I read this in like 20 articles and at least 5 videos I have watched in the last 90 days. With that being said, if you are trying to pitch a lean script (which is what are are all lead to believe is the way) then tell me how the industry fattens them back up? If you go and look at most movie scripts -- from a movie you have actually seen in the theater, they look nothing like the super lean scripts everyone keeps telling new writers to write. Am I making any sense? So the studio / prod wants to buy a lean spec, then fatten it up for production? is that what's happening or is that the reason so many Industry Ready Specs aren't selling? Just putting that out there. It's a good question. Does anyone actually know the answer?

Stacy Gentile mean Taken3 .... lol. Pretty sure that script read like this: FADE IN: Do the same shit and say the same shit from the last two movies -- make bank. FADE OUT:

Stacy Gentile

Let's get back on track. Does anyone know how Lean Spec Scripts get fattened up to what we see with most movie scripts? It seems weird that they want to buy lean and then fatten them up. Especially when I am reading and hearing things that lead me to believe they want something that is damn near shoot ready so they don't have to pay other writers.

Stacy Gentile

@ Dan -- I am primarily talking about folks who look at new writers scripts (which are fat, bloated and full of chunky dialogue and action). The typical response is trim it down. Your SPEC needs to be lean and mean - lots of white space. The 2 lines of anything was just an example to showcase a lean script. My point is that actual scripts don't look like that / this - through the whole script. It's a warm sunny day. Bill and Mary are sitting in a park. A group of kids are playing nearby on some swings. BILL Nice day, don't you think MARY It is beautiful, indeed. They kiss and then a band starts playing music.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Stacy, don't hyper-focus on this. The ideal is to have a well-executed screenplay that best serves the story. Every word, every line, every paragraph should be visual writing; should move the story forward. "Writing lean" or "create lots of white space" means to keep your writing terse. This is not novel writing. Being verbose is not a good thing here. Personal style and voice are very important -- how YOU tell a story -- however, being able to capture a scene, an essence of a character or an action in as few words as possible is ideal; is extremely difficult; is a true skill; and is industry expected. Those scripts that you are reading are shooting scripts of produced work that probably were developed on assignment or written by those who made the film themselves -- therefore you cannot compare them to a spec script. They're not even in the same ball park. "Fattening up" scripts is part of the development and production process in creating a film -- thus a shooting script. That's it. Do not compare those produced scripts to your own work. But, what you can do is learn from them. Study them.

Beth Fox Heisinger

...Okay, a better metaphor for comparing produced scripts to spec scripts might be: same game; different field. ;)

Stacy Gentile

@ Beth ... I get all of that. Pretty sure I am also not talking about shooting scripts.

Beth Fox Heisinger

But, Stacy, "scripts from actual movies" are shooting scripts. And, you seem to be comparing your script to them. To further answer your question, yes, it is a balancing act to write expressively, clearly, authentically and yet tersely, and within a story structure. A skill that is truly developed through practice and knowledge over time. As far as; is it "too thin" to cause problems with character development? Well, that depends on the script and the writer. There are too many variables and subjective elements to generalize. Each script is weighed by its own merits.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

Haven't we had this discussion before about stop comparing your work to established writer's work? You're not them. You can't get away with what they do. I do have the habit to scroll down a few pages to see if this script reads too "fat". Whether it does or doesn't I'm still going to read on, but it will affect how I view you as a writer before I read one word of your work. It's up to your STORY to change that view, whether it's for the good or the bad.

Shaun O'Banion

Personally, as producer, I prefer a script that gives a clear sense of geography. I know a lot of writers who would say that, say, the color of the curtains in a room are the decision of the director in concert with a DP, production designer and art director... but I don't want to read a script and have to do the work to envision the world. I want it there on the page. Having said that, scripts have gotten shorter, with the average these days being somewhere around 108 pages tops... But for me? I'd rather read a 120 pages script with lots of description than see a script that looks like it needs filler.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, personally, I prefer scripts with more flavor, more vivid imagery, description that has a tactile sense of authenticity. To me, the balancing act is being able to do just that but in a well-crafted, pithy manner. :)

Bob Brill

Shaun, Beth Fox, I love you. Where were you when I was pitching my scripts? The balance is always that "BLACK" vs. "WHITE" thing but to be honest I like the rest of you have trouble with the issue. If I were directing or producing I'd want more info, not less. I understand the Inet mentality, give them more in less time and space. I understand "color" isn't always necessary but basic description to me "is." and then the big issue of ; what if you have lots of action back and forth but NO DIALOGUE? How do you write the WHITE when it's all description and everything is BLACK? Seriously, looking for an answer on this one. By the way I totally understand shooting script vs. first script in the process, that is not my issue.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Awe, shucks Bob. Too kind of you! :) In turn, I kindly suggest that you try not to think of this as a black or white thing -- yeah, yeah, I know, it's a reference to the negative white space verses the positive black type on the page -- instead, consider it solely in terms of storytelling. It's much more complex -- gray, if you will. lol! :) One should use both, black and white, to construct a story on the page. Pithy description paints a vivid picture in the mind of your reader -- no less, no more. Utilizing white space by breaking up paragraphs helps to create a pleasing experience for your reader. White space can be used to guide your reader through your story -- create an easy flow. It can also give a sense of rhythm to your scenes. For example, an action scene broken up into short sentences and one line paragraphs causes the reader to read through it quickly, mirroring the action/emotion in the scene. Screenwriting has a cadence to it. One can use words to slow down the rhythm when needed, or speed it up. It's all up to the writer. :)

Lisa Molusis

I've got a spec that just got a 9 for dialogue and a 9 for plot on The Black List and there are plenty of dialogue lines that go over 3 lines with many with more. When dialogue is good it doesn't matter the length, only that it's good. With action lines I use a lot of one, two and three. It's rare that I go over three. What you want to avoid it big blocks of dense text, because the reader, any reader, begins to skim. This can result in the reader missing important information in the scene. Just break up the paragraph, no one is saying write that paragraph with fewer words. It can be efficient and economic and still be poetic and provocative. Write a great story-- that's the bottom line.

Bill Costantini

Some heavy stories are appropriately heavy, and some light stories are appropriately light. Subject matter should determine what's heavy and what's light. The Terminator was appropriately heavy, while The 40 Year-Old Virgin was appropriately light, and both are great scripts Like others have mentioned, it's about economy and what's essential to the story that's important. Less skilled writers might include excessive narrative or dialogue that isn't necessary to the story. Skilled writers know what does and doesn't need to be there. Hemingway's books and short stories were extremely light, yet are loaded with deep, moving stories. He was the master of economy and re-writing. And he had one of the greatest literary editors in Maxwell Perkins. Great writers create the greatest amount of depth in the least amount of space. Whether heavy or light, great scipts are evocative entertainments stripped to their essence, and have not a word too many nor a word too few. Every word is the appropriate word, and every word advances the story. Re-write after re-write after re-write helps a writer accomplish that. Having your story read by an experienced consultant/editor also helps accomplish that.

J Medina

You know, i've written a script that was 132 pages long and have been told it's a quick, easy read. it's all in how you write it, i guess. I am an amateur, but i've found i tend to engage the reader as if they are kind of reading a novel, breaking the third wall if you will, and I think it's what keeps people engaged. i don't know. lol.

William Martell

Poetry is sparse writing which evokes complete images and emotions. It's not about needing more words to paint a picture, it's about needing the right words.

Demiurgic Endeavors

@Dan. You just brought up 3 major HOT topics that have been exhausted on several screenwriting forums. Not using adverbs [-ly] , progressive tenses [-ing] , linking verbs [is] is awkward grammatically and unnecessarily restrictive. Every action sequence in a script as it pertains to a story can't be succinctly summarized with a staccato declarative statement. Economic writing has its place. Overuse of any writing technique loses its effectiveness to the point of being meaningless.

Michael Eddy

You want the script to be tight. As in: as concise as you can WRITE IT. Thin is an ambiguous term. Used to be - for a feature - come in at or around 120 pages - and figure on 45 seconds to a minute of screen time per page.(Of course, you can write a single line that reads: "They fight the battle of Iwo Jima" - and that could be your whole movie). Throw that out. 100-110 is preferred - not because it makes your script better - you need to allot as much time as it takes to TELL YOUR PARTICULAR STORY - whether action heavy or dialogue heavy. Don't be over descriptive. Don't give screen directions - directors get pissed. If you have a long descriptive paragraph describing action - just break it up into a couple of lines each. You can still tell it the way you want to. It needs to READ well. It's a blueprint for something you watch - but it starts with a reader - and they have to be enthralled and be turning pages. Be creative in the telling. Draw your reader into the world you're creating.

Wesley Reid

White space is overrated, I believe, in most cases. How does one write an action-packed, comedy/horror script with lots of slapstick that must be described? Using creative, appropriate syntax and an adequate amount of it, that's how. White space, thus, depends on the type of story being told. A drama full of dialog and little action may be a fast read but transformed to film may end up bum-achingly-borish to watch. I am convinced that the reason for the avalanche upon avalanche of schlock being produced these days is because the greenlighters see scripts possessing much white space and think, "Wow! What a fast read. Brilliant! And it's even got a cat that gets saved. This must be produced!"


Just my opinion: If the script is good, it doesn't matter.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

White space is definitely not overrated. It's smart and easier for a producer/reader to read, and tells us if the writer knows how to write. Of course there are exceptions. Just break up your actions. No one wants to read 5-8 lines of action in a script on every page. It would drag. So write a good story with white space. If you take pride in your screenwriting, that shouldn't be too difficult.

D Marcus

People who offer advice are different than people who option screenplays. Especially article writers, advice writers and paid consultants. I'm not in any way suggesting there isn't some very wise advice out there - I'm saying the criteria is very different. This notion that "white space" is on the same level as excellent story telling is foolish - in my opinion. The ideal spec script is a script that is well written, shows the writers voice and style clearly and (most important) has characters that will attract top talent and a story that will attract a paying audience.

Michael Eddy

Jeni J. - in a perfect world - I would agree with you 100%. The problem is - Hollywood is far from a perfect world. "Good scripts" should grip the reader from page one and be read from cover to cover. But there are so many reasons that they are not. Most - nonsensical. I've actually seen a studio exec pick up a screenplay that he knew nothing about - look at the last page first (to see the page count - NOT an uncommon practice) and say, "It's too long". Without reading a single word, a single scene, a single line of dialogue - they have made a judgment call. Idiotic - but true.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

If you guys want to give readers an excuse to toss your script in the bin, sure, ignore the white space "rule" and fill it up with as much poetry as you like. You'll just be opening up more time for my script to be read.

Ross Lorin Dannenberg

If you can find well written "thin" scripts it opens your eyes to just how brilliant one has to be to write and write well economically.

Bob Brill

So here I am sitting reading all this stuff. Let me give you an example. The following is from one of my scripts which I'm refining again right now and cutting down the Black Space, via using short scenes with "no" dialogue." Comments? INT. TRAIN TO YORK DAY Annie sits sadly on the train watching the countryside go by. The porter offers soft drinks and she waves him off. INT. TRAIN TO YORK DAY She starts to read a book. Close up of the book title “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” The countryside rolls by. EXT. TRAIN TO YORK DAY The train moves across the countryside with an aerial shot. EXT. APARTMENT OF KATHERINE AMES IN YORK DAY Katherine is walking down the front steps of her apartment. She walks to her car, parked at the curb. She gets in. INT. KATHERINE’S CAR DAY Katherine pulls the train schedule out of her purse. A big red circle is drawn around her mother’s arrival time. EXT. YORK DAY Katherine’s car drives through the city. INT. KATHERINE’S CAR DAY Katherine sees flower shop. pulls over and stops in front of the shop. She gets out while leaving the motor running. EXT. KATHERINE’S CAR DAY Katherine runs into the flower shop. EXT. KATHERINE’S CAR DAY Katherine exits the flower shop holding a nice plant in a pot. She gets back into the car. INT. KATHERINE’S CAR DAY Katherine sets the plant on seat next to her and drives off.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

This is a montage. It's hard to really help when we don't know anything about the story. Just by looking at it, everything can be cut and you just have. INT. KATHERINE'S CAR - DAY Parked outside of a train station, Katherine reads a book titled "Chicken Soup For The Soul" A dozen flowers rest in the passenger's seat. Done. Then you have her mother come up. You never showed Katherine go in her house, so so there's no reason to show her taking the train there. Read the scene in your script that proceeds the scene that you've posted here. Then put my scene in. If it doesn't take anything away from the story, use it.

F Wheeler

I like a lean script. Reduce V Distil Rewriting lets you clarify content into its most potent and concise. Diamond in the rough Story is like a diamond. When you first pluck it out it’s a boring, muddy pebble. Only those with craft can see its potential. But cut and polish it expertly, give it structure , then hold it up to the light in just the right way… the results can be spectacular. Re classic screenplays Sure they’re chunky and clunky and they still got made. Back then writers had manual typewriters, we have Final Draft. Plus, they only got a few hundred bucks per week and had to be finished in 2 weeks. Want to only ever get a maximum of $600 for writing a feature screenplay? I don’t. WGA registers 700,000 scripts every year Not to mention the other million plus which people don’t bother to register. Only a few thousand of those get optioned or sold. And of those only 350 get made each year. How does a studio reader decide which script to pluck from the slush pile and read? The Flip Test Flip though a hardcopy or a PFD of your screenplay asking two questions 1. Does it have lots of white space? 2. Is there variation? (If you have exactly the same type and amount of text on each page, you have a problem with pacing, mix it up or it’s a boring read) Your screenplay still won't get optioned if they don't like it, but it has a much, much better chance of being read. Role Model Sophia Cappola is rich, talented and super connected. If anyone could get away with writing sloppy screenplays… but check out 'Bling Ring'. I’m not interested in the themes she is, nor would I explore the issues the way she does, but she sure can craft a beautiful, useful document that reads well.

Cynthia Garbutt

Great discussion posted here. Give me loads to go on. Thank you.

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