Watch Your Words
As screenwriters, the power of words becomes second nature. Because every word counts, picking just the right ones is our job; we know their over-use or under-use can make or break our scripts and pitches.
Whenever I send in a new script, I always do a “white space alert” — just taking a long view of every page of my script to see if there’s too much black and not enough white. Big blocks of dialogue. Chunks of description. Excess wordiness. All of it has to go. And even a quick scan of every page can reveal lots.
The “reading draft” or the “sales draft” of a script is just that — accented on selling a reader unfamiliar with your story. It is more focused on the hero’s tale, steering the reader to the essentials of the story (for now), and getting them onboard to see its potential with a target audience. Once you’ve sold that script, the breakdown of each shot becomes prep for the director, cinematographer, and line producer, so the “shooting draft” is a brand new animal. Even here, every word counts when 1/8 of a page can be a day’s shoot.
When pitching, my best advice to many writers is: learn when to shut up! Once you’ve told your story, come to the end, done your Fade Out, the temptation to meet silence in the room with further elucidation can be overwhelming… but fatal. If you really have said it all, why say more? Let the buyer jump into the breach.
Crickets be damned!
We must also watch our words in what we speak about our script, our representatives, and our fellow writers. The self-fulfilling prophesy of talking up one’s agent or one’s script speaks volumes about where we are in our careers. Down-and-out moods lead to grumbling — and vice versa. So why shouldn’t positive talk lead to success, fulfillment, and willing into reality the gossamer of ideas in our minds? How many writers have I heard say “My script is perfect for _______,” only to have that actor or director actually appear?
Lots. There is something powerful not only in our written words, but in our spoken words as well.
Use them wisely.
Old Testament Genesis begins not with the waving of a wand to create the Earth in seven days, but saying: “Let their be light.” Words have power. We know better than anyone. Let’s make sure our words are well chosen.
- elizabeth fais
Wise, motivational words to take into the weekend, when lots of words will be written (Hopefully. No, definitely!) and spoken. Have a great one, Blake! :)
- James Harbinson
Here’s something that’s killing me:
My story hinges on a hook that isn’t revealed until the break into 2.
In short I have a guy in posession of a “Maguffin” for the first 50 minutes, and then the “Lemon seed” is when people find out what’s actually in the bag.
Should I pitch them the back story that explains much of what is going on up front, or do you reveal it as the story unfolds?
I find that when I try to pitch it now, people keep interrupting me with “questions”.
Why is he doing this? Why would he be living there? How come he knows about that?
It breaks the rhythm of my pitch every freaking time.
I’m going to the Summer Institute of Film and Television for a week-long workshop up here, but I’m interested in hearing anyone else’s opinion.
Jamie (Ottawa, Canada)
- Sarah Beach
Jamie, although it sounds like you get them interested enough to want to ask questions so they can “straighten it out” in their minds, it also sounds like you are telling them the plot (and not delivering the “reveal” until it happens in the story). But that’s not really what you ought to be doing in a pitch.
Tell them why they are going to want to see this story! It’s not going to be because the Maguffin reveal, it’s going to be because of the character. If someone were pitching Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, they are not going to tell it plot twist by plot twist (or they ought not, in any case). They are going to say “It’s about this rich business man, who gets mistaken from someone else, and gets plunged into spy plots. Accused of murder, he has to go on the run without any resources but his wits in order to unravel the whole mistaken identity thing.” Did I have to reveal that Mr. Kaplan doesn’t exist? Nope. That he gets into a romantic entanglement with the villain’s girl? Nope. That the villain’s girl is actually a spy too? Nope. The story is about a man with no other resources but his wits. All the rest of that is the plot.
If you don’t focus on the plot (since their questions are “why is he doing that?” you know that’s what is happening), but on the character instead, can you tell us what the story is about?
(And trust me… it is easy to get caught up in focusing on plot. I do it myself, and have a hard time stepping outside the box, so I can get a vision of what “the story is about”. It’s not a “newbie” disease. :D )
Hey Jamie, my first thought is exactly the same as Sarah’s, and since she has put it better than I would, I won’t repeat the subject but focus on something else.
If I understand correctly your second act starts on page 50. If that’s the case, your pitch problem might be actually caused by ineffective story construction. 50 pages of set up and pure exposition is far too much and signals a couple of potential problems:
1. The story starts at the wrong moment (too early).
2. Plot is overcomplicated and needs excessive explanations.
3. There’s too much of unnecessary backstory in the story.
Because every tale is about conflict, we have to initiate it as soon as possible and just keep adding fuel to the fire until the final BOOM! Crafty twists are great, we all love to be surprised by them, but they are not the base of a story. Conflict is, and twists serve it by complicating hero’s situation, not necessarily the plot itself. Every story constructed that way is easy to pitch because by defining the conflict we define what it’s all about.
- James Harbinson
Awesome advice Sarah… thanks
- James Harbinson
Alex… I’m a disciple of the Blake (and a convert from the church of Syd).
I assure you, the second act starts on page 27.
The only thing that I’ve done with my screenplay that breaks from tradition was to open the story with a scene that was originally situated on page 80.
I moved the scene after a screenwriter I know (who had sold a spec script to Universal) suggested that the scene was so strong that it was something that would grab the reader and prevent them from tossing it in the garbage (with the 100 other scripts he/she read that day).
A good example of this trick is in the movie “Goodfellas”. The scene with the body in the trunk actually occurs much later in the story but they moved it to the beginning to hook the audience right away.
Now, I admit that my back story is going to require a “Pope in the Pool” scene to get the exposition out of the way, but the whole story hinges on it.
Having said all of that, once I get the next draft polished I think I’ll hire someone to give me some “notes” on it.
Thanks to everyone for their ideas.
- Trevor Mayes
Great post Blake! Reminded me of this Mark Twain quote:
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Jamie, I’m glad to hear you’ve got it all under control and your “lemon seed” on page 50 is in fact… a “lemon seed” — a mid-point, not a break into 2 as one might have wrongly concluded.
Very best of luck with your script!
- Patrick Reynolds
Sarah! – so well put. Thanks for sharing your clarity on what the Story is, and what it is not. Appreciated! Reminds me of marketing folk who say not to sell the product but it benefits – Sell the Sizzle! – which, for us, is as you say: Why someone will want to read the story, see the film.
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Crickets be Damned! Genius.
The whole reason I became a writer is because I was born with the uncanny ability to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the right moment.
It’s like a curse.