ASK DR. FORMAT: How to Get More White on the Page

Dave Trottier (AKA Dr. Format) has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business. He is an award-winning teacher and acclaimed script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com. Twitter: @DRTrottier

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QUESTION

Could you tell me if my establishing shot and character introduction are effective and include enough description? These are the first two paragraphs of my screenplay.

EXT. TRAIN – DAY

We see the skyline of New York from a train. Painted on the side of it are words that say, Brooklyn Railroad. It’s going very fast and has a gray look to it.

INT. TRAIN – DAY

Inside the train are all kinds of commuters. They are from every age and ethnic group and they fill the train car clean up. They are all headed to work in New York City as can be plainly seen from their working clothes. A bunch of them cannot find seats and must stand. One of them is SALLY STANWICK, who has piercing blue eyes and long, flowing locks of blonde hair. She is in her mid twenties and is wearing a silk blouse with a pink sweater over it and a plain black cotton skirt. She senses someone behind her and turns to see a young man giving her the eye and smiling at her in a very peculiar way.

ANSWER

My friend, these big blocks of black ink are guaranteed to discourage any reader. Let’s see if we can’t whittle them down without losing anything important. At the same time, we’ll be specific in describing images and actions.

FADE IN:

EXT. TRAIN – DAY

A speeding silver train races towards Manhattan. A sign on the train reads: “BROOKLYN RAILROAD.”

INT. TRAIN – DAY

Working professionals crowd the train car. Some stand.

Among them is SALLY STANWICK, 25, pretty in a simple cotton dress. She turns abruptly, sensing someone’s stares.

A young man in a suit greets her with a smug smile.

Now this is not brilliant writing, but it is more inviting to read.

The first image is the train, establishing departure location and destination. Notice that we use fewer words without any loss of content.

The second image is of the people in the train car. Incidental details are not important enough to include in a non-dramatic moment.

The third paragraph describes a character and her action—she turns and senses someone. Please note that I omit Sally’s eye and hair color to keep casting options open. I omit the specifics of her clothes because they are irrelevant in this particular instance. I give her a simple cotton dress as a way to comment on her character—this is an uncomplicated young woman.

And the fourth describes the actions of the second character. This creates the possibility of danger or conflict.

Notice the specific, active verbs throughout and the use of specific language to characterize characters and/or the moment; for example, rather than “smiling in a very peculiar way,” which is vague, the young man greets Sally with a “smug smile.” Now he’s better characterized.

As a general guidelines, make sure your dialogue and narrative description are lean and move the story forward. Doing so will help your career move forward as well. Good luck and keep writing!

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