Breaking In: Abraham Lincoln, Verbosity Hunter

Abraham Lincoln was a great writer and public speaker– and a master of brevity.  His entire Gettysburg Address was just 272 words.  A tall man, he knew just how long or short anything should be.  Once, while riding in a stagecoach, Abraham Lincoln was asked by one of his fellow passengers how long a man’s legs should be in proportion to his body.  Lincoln replied: “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

I’m often asked how long a screenplay for a feature film should be.  Although the simple answer is, “Long enough to do the job,” a more precise reply would be: “If you’re not an already-produced, successful screenwriter, your spec script should always be under 120 pages–  ideally perhaps no more than about 110 to 115 pages for a drama, and about 95-105 for a comedy.”

Writers often balk at these rules about the proper length for a feature film script.  They assume that the rules are arbitrary– something cooked up by that mysterious committee of black-shrouded vampires who cackle with glee at the thought of crushing writers’ dreams and sucking the life out of them by rejecting their scripts.  But the unwritten rule that a screenplay shouldn’t be more than 120 pages (which works out to be approximately one minute of screen time per page) actually makes terrific sense.

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Yes, traditionally there are some obvious practical reasons for the rule: the number of possible showings per day at a movie theater– which is determined in part by the running time of the movie and connects to how many tickets they can sell; the extra cost of making a movie that runs longer than two hours; the average attention span of movie audiences and the length of time the average person over 40 or under 6 can comfortably sit in a chair without needing a trip to the bathroom; and other factors.  Perhaps now that most movies are seen in the comfort of one’s home or on portable electronic devices, some of those reasons don’t apply as much as they used to.  But one reason remains: it hardly ever takes longer than two hours (or 120 screenplay pages) to tell a story that is structured properly for film.

I’ve been reading and evaluating screenplays for screenwriters, film producers, and major screenwriting contests, for over 30 years.  I’ve evaluated literally thousands of scripts.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a script that was over 120 pages, and written by an unproduced screenwriter, which wouldn’t have been better if it had been shorter.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule.  We have all seen great movies with a running time of more than two hours– including epics like “Gone with the Wind”, “Dr. Zhivago”, or “The Lord of the Rings”.  And if you’re an established screenwriter with a track record of successful movies, you can break the rule–  because you’ll know how to do it properly, when, and why, and producers know you know what you’re doing.  But if you’re trying to break in as a screenwriter, don’t ever send an agent or potential script buyer a screenplay that is over 120 pages– especially if it’s a comedy.  It will mark you as an amateur.  But, more important, If your script is over that length, I can almost guarantee you it’s got problems–  and the longer the script, the more likely it is to have serious ones.

If your spec script is over 120 pages and you want to be taken seriously by film producers, you will definitely have to trim pages from your screenplay.  And no cheating!  If you try to “squeeze” line or word spacing, shrink your font size, or cheat on the width of the margins, experienced readers will spot this immediately.

Often, when writers send me their scripts for evaluation, they ask me why their script is too long and what to do about it.  There’s always a reason–  and usually several at once.  Trimming a script to the proper length is rarely a simple matter of just trimming out extra words– though that’s always a good thing to do even if the script is the proper length.  If your script is over 120 pages, here are the 10 most common reasons why that might have happened:

1) Your script isn’t structured properly.  Maybe it takes too long to get to the inciting incident.  Or maybe you don’t wrap things up quickly enough after your hero’s central conflict is resolved and he achieves (or doesn’t) his goal; in other words, your movie is already over and you don’t know it.  Maybe your story starts to drag in the middle.  It’s even possible your plot or story concept may not have been conceived properly to begin with. That’s why it’s so important to understand what a movie concept is and to make sure that your basic story idea is conceived properly before you go any further in writing your script.  Learning how to conceive, structure, and write a one or two-sentence story concept– and recognizing that “theme” (which is not very useful as a “map” for screenwriters, though it’s much more helpful for playwrights) is not the same as story concept– to check out your story, is the single most important thing you can do before beginning to write your screenplay.

2) Your action lines contain too much “fussy” unnecessary detail: backstory for characters, descriptions of inanimate objects, “thoughts” of characters, lots of adjectives, editorial comments, etc.  Cut out anything that doesn’t advance the plot and illuminate your characters–  or that won’t actually be heard or seen (or noticed) on the movie screen.

3) Too much dialogue.

4) Your plot takes too many pages to “get rolling,” or you started your script too early in the life of the main character.  This isn’t a crime– and it’s actually quite common for a script to be a little slow getting into gear as the writer finds his rhythm– but it’s a sign that you should plan your next script more carefully before beginning to write, and you should also do another draft of this one before submitting your script to the marketplace.  Narrowing the time frame of your entire story, eliminating flashbacks, and (unless you’re writing “Jane Eyre”) skipping over the main character’s awful childhood and growing-up years, might be a good place to start when looking for where to start your story, and what to cut.  Try to pick up any backstory along the way instead of showing us flashbacks to the hero’s miserable childhood or bad first marriage.

Beginning writers often make the mistake of thinking we need to know what made their characters the way they are.  We don’t necessarily have to know or see what made your main character– or the villain- the way he is (unless it’s a specific incident crucial to the present-day story, as in some “revenge” tales or certain kinds of love stories).  We just need to know who he is now and his motives, goal, and conflict in the present.

To decide when to begin your story, look for a moment when things are just “about” to change for your protagonist in a way that will upset the applecart of his life, he has an external high-stakes goal, and he will almost immediately have to confront the biggest challenge and conflict he’s ever faced.  Finding the proper moment in the life of one’s main character at which to begin your tale is one of the most crucial decisions a screenwriter makes.  Start your story “as late as possible” in the life of your protagonist in order to tell the story you need to tell.  Make the time frame for the entire movie as brief as possible (having a “time lock” of some kind for the hero to accomplish his goal is always a good thing–  and of course “High Noon” was a classic that used that approach).  You are not writing a biography, you’re writing a story– even if you’re writing a fictionalized “bio film” about a famous person.

Watch “Casablanca”, and note at what point in their lives we first meet the film’s characters: it’s at exactly the right moment: not too early, and not too late.  We meet them all in Casablanca, during World War II.  Notice how we gradually learn the necessary backstory about Rick– and Rick and Ilsa– only as the story progresses.  Yet we are never confused about what’s going on.

Try this experiment: see if you can cut out the first scene or two of your script without losing anything important. You’ll be amazed at how often that’s the case.  Sometimes, you may still need to pick up a line or two of exposition later, but cutting the opening scenes of a screenplay can sometimes hugely improve it with just a simple click of the “delete” button or the stroke of a pen.

5) Your style is too flowery, novelistic, or literary.  It’s important, as I noted in last month’s blog posting, that screenwriters read a lot of successful, produced screenplays in order to understand the brevity of screenwriting.

6) There’s no plot– just a series of vignettes or episodes without dramatic tension and suspense, a focused conflict, and a hero who has a clear external goal.

7) Your script isn’t formatted correctly, or it’s got too many unneeded “MORE”s and “CONT’D”s, “CUT TO:” (or, God forbid, “SMASH CUT TO:”), etc.

8) Your story is too complicated.  If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the best screenplays I’ve read, it’s that the story–  the hero’s external goal and conflict or main obstacle–  is very, very simple.  Characters are complex.  Stories are simple.

9) You’ve got too many different genres going on in one movie.

10) You disapprove of the notion that the “rules” apply to you and assume that there’s no reasonable rationale behind them.  But ignoring the rule about how long your spec feature script should be is what my mother used to call, “Cutting off your nose to spite your face.”  And if you don’t listen to my advice, my mother’s, and Abraham Lincoln’s, and insist on trying to sell your 145-page spec script, the committee of black-shrouded vampires is licking their chops right now–and can hardly wait till you and your screenplay arrive at their office.

Keep pitching.  See you next month.

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