6 Tricks Screenwriters Can Use to Make the Most of Their Limited Page Space
Screenwriting. Is. Hard.
But I don’t need to tell you that. Just one look at the sheer amount of white space makes it obvious that, as a screenwriter, you have to make the most of your pages.
Worry not. If you’re running long, try a few of these tricks to gain a few extra lines.
Ugh. Those dreaded dangling words that take you to a whole new line on the page. Whether it’s dialogue or action, real estate is tight, and just a single additional letter can move you onto another line.
In these cases, take a good hard look at what you’ve written. Is the wording as tight as you can possibly make it? Do you really need that extra “that?” Is there a shorter word you can use in place of a longer one?
Try moving things around, swapping words out for synonyms, even taking a machete to your sentence and whacking it down the bare minimum. Anything to get that extra line, baby!
FIRST & LAST
Looking to trim down that dialogue? Aim your sights to the first and last lines in a scene. Many writers start scenes at the very beginning, with everything from “Hello” to “Goodbye.” But the reality of screenwriting is that those greetings, introductions, and farewells take up a lot of space on the page.
Take a good look at the first lines in your scene — Can your characters jump right into the conversation? Do they really need those pleasantries? Probably not.
Then turn to the last lines — Is “see you later” really the most impactful line to end on? Definitely not. Identify the line with the most impact for your characters, story, or plot and end the scene there instead.
I know, I know. It’s hard not to (begrudgingly) write (too many) parentheticals. The option is there, so why wouldn’t you indicate how the line is supposed to be read? It only makes sense!
Screenwriters must curb the urge to direct the actors before they’ve even been cast. Yes, of course that line is supposed to be (quietly) read in a certain way. But you never know what an actor will bring to the table when they step into your character’s shoes on set. Maybe it would be better if that character shouts. Or says it sarcastically. Or mumbles. You never know. So, unless it’s crucial to understanding a scene, leave the (dratted) parentheticals behind.
As human beings, we have a nasty tendency to repeat what we hear. We can’t help it. It’s our way of processing what someone has said before we respond or, in some cases, deflecting to avoid an uncomfortable situation. And while you want your characters to speak realistically, you don’t want them to talk in circles.
Search your script for instances in which you may have accidentally — okay it was on purpose at the time, but you really didn’t mean it — written the same thing twice. Yes, that means check your action paragraphs too. When you say that a character is preoccupied, then write, “Something’s on his mind,” wave the red flag. One can go!
BEAUTIFUL, MEANINGFUL, AMAZING DESCRIPTIONS
Your long, impeccably written, emotional, full-of-long-words sentences of prose belong in a novel, not a screenplay. Screenplays are punchy. Full of fragments. Short, too-the-point descriptions that show a lot without saying much. Always look for ways to cut down on your descriptions — everything will come to life on set, after all!
Not only that, but is it really important to say that Joe is eating a CHEESEBURGER while his girlfriend is breaking up with him over dinner? I’m guessing not. It’s great to get specific, but not specific for specificity’s sake (see my above note about repetition).
Unless, of course, the CHEESEBURGER is poison and his girlfriend is about to commit murder because he was cheating on her with her best friend. Then it’s okay to leave the cheeseburger alone.
ACT OUT AT THE END
For those of us who write television, it’s crucial to make those Act Outs count. And is there anything worse than typing the last sentence of a scene and realizing that “END OF ACT TWO” will take you onto a whole additional page?
Nuh uh, no way. Find something to cut to gain that page back. Reclaim the page!
TV scribes must use the location of their Act Outs to their advantage. The further down on the page, the better. Because there’s nothing more heartbreaking than finishing an act and seeing three-quarters of blank, empty, maddening wasted white space.
Originally published on WeScreenplay.com on August 6, 2019.