A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Follow Barri on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
I love “bitly.”
With a quick click, a long link to an Internet page becomes a short one, fitting neatly into all my social network posts. Every bit as effective as a string of characters, numbers and symbols for sharing articles, videos, podcasts and more with others.
Bitly + 6 = short and sweet.
A writer friend told me a well-worn anecdote about storytelling that made me think of bitly:
“A man and a woman are talking on the phone. The man says something that offends the woman. She slams down the phone, leaves the house, gets in her car, and drives to his house. She gets out of the car and knocks on his door. He opens the door. She slaps him.”
The story illustrates the writing principle: “Cut straight to the slap.”
Overwriting killed the entertainment value of the tale. Here’s the CSTTS version:
“A man and woman are talking on the phone. He says something that offends her. She slams down the phone. Cut to: His face. Eyes open wide in surprise. Slap!”
Bing, bang, boom! This underwritten version is more dramatic, more cinematic and shorter. With the huge added bonus of surprising us which audiences adore.
All too often, I read scripts that beg for their writers to “cut straight to the slap.” They use an encyclopedia’s worth of words, rather than just what is needed. A bitly version, containing only the most evocative words and essential scenes, would result in more impressive writing, as well as more compelling storytelling.
Lean and Mean – Overwriting and The Extraneous
I once read a script that began with a character waking up, getting out of bed, walking into the bathroom and turning on the light. By the time the writer got to the hero unscrewing the top on the toothpaste tube, my head was about to explode. While this may be writing, it is not storytelling.
Inexperience and uncertainty drives many writers to drown us in detail; hoping to make everything in their script believable, when in fact it only needs to be plausible. Or the writer has not yet mastered visual storytelling and so shows us everything rather than editing the movie in their head for maximum effect on the page.
To make matters worse, this type of overwriting often telegraphs what will happen next, causing the story to fall flat. CSTTS gives the reader and the audience the opportunity to enjoy a new development and experience the thrill of a surprise.
Spelling out every step, when our minds can readily make the leap, is spoon-feeding us when we know perfectly well how to use a knife and fork. We grasp basic logic and the laws of physics well enough to extrapolate that the woman in the first anecdote used some mode of transportation to reach the man. What’s more – unless her method of transportation is pertinent to the story – say she just invented the hoverboard, and this is its maiden voyage –we don’t care how she got there.
Why build a table with five legs? Four works. Can you do it in three? What about in two? Just one would be powerful. All you need is enough to get the job done. The less there is, the smarter and sexier it is.
Nothing in your script should be extraneous. Everything should serve a purpose – establishing setting, advancing story, conveying character, revealing emotion or illuminating theme. Better still? When a story element serves two purposes!
Less truly is more, when the words are rich and expressive, and there are just enough beats to hold up the story. This activates the reader’s imagination; the most powerful special effect you can put on the page.
And A Partridge In A Pear Tree – Overwriting to Distract
New writers often lack confidence in the strength of their concept. Worrying that it will fail to hold our interest, they heap on scores of quirky characters, plot tangents straight from left field, or random, gimmicky devices in a futile attempt to add excitement. In truth, the real pleasure of the piece should stem from the premise. A strong idea is the most potent tool in your storytelling arsenal.
My colleague, Dr. Paige Turner, that moxie minx who often answers writers’ sticky questions on my behalf, refers to this phenomenon as: “Too much tinsel on your tree.” See if you are experiencing a case of anxiety-induced overwriting here.
Your premise is the “decider” for every choice you make in creating your story. From what the characters are eating; to what they are saying; as well as what they are not saying; let your story be your guide. Writing choices made this way create scripts where nothing seems extraneous – because it is all there for a reason. Since everything serves a purpose, the story feels tight, cohesive and well crafted.
My favorite example of this is the screenplay for Back to the Futureby Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. In the Act 1, set in the present day, Michael J. Fox is handed a flyer for a fundraiser to not fix the broken clock tower. His girlfriend scribbles the phone number of where she’ll be babysitting that night on the back, and he stuffs it in his pocket. In the middle of Act Two, the character and the audience discover that this “incidental” piece of paper contains crucial information about the lightning strike on the clock tower – essential to Marty McFly getting from 1955 back to the future!
Now that is deliciously lean and mean writing!
Bang for Your Buck – Overwriting and Structure
Last night, I read the latest draft of a script for a consulting client. They have been making great progress, but this time around I felt that an important beat from the previous draft was missing.
Turns out, it wasn’t missing; I had missed it.
What changed? At major plot point – the hero's triumph over the villain – the writer cut the button on the scene that drove home the victory, as well as the following moment of reveling in success. They also added five pages of new, emotionally laden material between that big beat and the bigger twist which followed it – the reveal that not only had the hero failed, but that the villain was unstoppable. The original juxtaposition of the two beats – with just a moment in between for the hero (and the readers) to catch their breath – was a hugely effective "one-two punch."
In the earlier draft, these two beats worked brilliantly together. Moving them too far apart diminished the impact of both. We see a massive bolt of lightning hit nearby, but don't hear the ground shaking thunder clap for another five minutes.
One of the coolest conceits in the script – the shocking reveal of a twist that raised the conflict to new heights – was so minimized, that it didn’t resonate at all. What once was a thunderous boom barely registered.
As a writer, you need to completely envision the story and how the components will work together. You are constructing a complex edifice from the ground up. Placement is crucial. It's key to wringing all the juice from each moment.
Yes, I'm saying that you need to build a script based upon a fully developed outline. It is essential for creating a solidly structured screenplay that tells the best possible version of your story. Adding one element too many or a misplacing a beat, can topple your house of cards.
Focus on seeing the forest and the trees – meaning the individual beats both stand alone as effective plot points, and work in concert to create the big picture. Overwriting diminishes the impact of what does work by obscuring our view.
Heavy Lifting – The Difference Between Overwriting and Underwriting
Surely you’ve heard the saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
Although there’s much controversy over who said this, (I found thirteen attributions and variations in Quote Investigator) there is little dispute as to its veracity. Overwriting is quick and easy in comparison to the time and effort expended in underwriting.
It takes practice to write less.
It takes confidence to write less.
It requires vision to write less.
But writing less is a skill well worth mastering.
Underwriting may be the hardest, most painful work you will do, but the payoff is huge.
Take a close look at your material, along with a ruthless red pen, and see where you can cut straight to the slap.
- More articles by Barri Evins
- Writing Action Lines - Less is More
- Meet the Reader: 10 Tips to Get On With It
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