COLUMN D: Writing Description, Part 2

Drew Yanno is a screenwriter, author, script consultant and teacher. Follow Drew on Twitter @drewyanno.

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COLUMN D: Writing Description, Part 2 by Drew Yanno | Script Magazine

“White Space.”

Sounds like the title of some old science fiction film, doesn’t it? Or maybe an 1980s big hair band.

But no, with respect to writing the description in your screenplay, I’m referring to the amount of “white” that shows on the pages of your screenplay.

This is one of those areas where screenwriting has changed quite a bit in the last thirty years or so. Certainly in the past fifty or sixty.

If you go back and read older screenplays, you’re more than likely to see description written in dense blocks consisting of six, seven or even more lines of description. Apart from the dialogue, you won’t see a lot of white space in those scripts. In that way, the description in those screenplays will resemble more traditional narrative fiction.

Over the past three decades, the trend among writers has been to show more white space in their description. Ten years ago, I used to advise writers not to have blocks of description longer than five lines. Just a few years ago I revised that to four. Now I tell writers that three should be the limit. As with all things screenwriting, economy is key.

Now you may wonder what the big deal is. Well, I think it’s partially a matter of looks. However, more than that, I think it has to do with the simple fact that the screenplay is a written version of the movie, and readers and writers alike have discovered that there’s a psychological effect that occurs when reading description set out in smaller paragraphs.

You may have heard readers and professionals talk about a script being a “quick read.” In large part, what they’re referring to is the effective use of white space by the writer.

I believe that for some reason, the human eye moves quicker over short paragraphs than long paragraphs. Makes sense, right?

Over the course of a number pages written in that style, there’s the cumulative feeling of movement as one reads. That is particularly important when it comes to a screenplay, since the hope is for that script to become a “movie,” which is short for “moving pictures,”

Now I’ve had a number of writers argue with me about this. They question whether it makes any difference, as long as the description is vital to the story.

My simple feeling is that it does make a difference for those psychological reasons I just set forth. Furthermore, a writer can still write all the same words they intended to write simply by breaking them down into two or more paragraphs.

There’s nothing to lose in doing that, unless you’re worried about page count, in which case, if it’s that close that breaking up a dozen or more paragraphs is going to put your script over 120 pages, you’re probably overwriting to begin with.

There are two other things that increased white space accomplishes besides making for a fast read.

The first is that you can – without saying so – almost force the director to shoot what you want in your scenes. As you may already know, you can’t write “shots” into your screenplay. Shots are the exclusive purview of the director. If you write them into your script, you give yourself away as an amateur.

However, by separating your description into smaller paragraphs, particularly single line paragraphs, the shot is implied, hopefully leading the director to shoot what you envision.

The other thing white space can accomplish is something we refer to as “writing down the page.” This is particularly useful in writing action scenes. Here you write even shorter paragraphs, preferably only one line. And you use even shorter sentences.

This technique accentuates the quickness of the read, forcing the reader’s eyes to move even more rapidly “down the page.” Once more, even though one is reading, it almost feels like watching the action.

As with any of the so-called screenwriting “rules,” there are always exceptions. You may come across some successful screenplays (i.e. ones that have sold) that haven’t utilized this approach of using “white space.” But these days, they are just that – exceptions.

If you want your writing to feel current and professional, my simple advice is to break up your longer paragraphs into shorter ones, no longer than three lines.

Then, when you give that finished draft to a trusted adviser to read before sending it off to a decision-maker, ask them how it “read.”

I have no doubt they’ll respond favorably, which should be all the convincing you’ll need to adopt this method of writing description.

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