a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Not Overdescribing, and Trusting Your Reader/Audience

From the "real-life examples from scripts I just read" department --

This script was submitted to a production company, by a producer.

On page 3, the writer describes the main character, in this paragraph (all names changed):

We PULL to reveal MORRIS himself. A tall, slim man in his 60's. His face handsome in a windswept way. Rugged. Like the outdoors he loves. By the age of 18, Morris was working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as an "Adjuster", a free-lance cowboy hired to mediate land disputes between Anglos and fragmented groups from the Indian nations. The job required some charm and skill, and when that failed, a Colt "Peacemaker". He tried always to be fair. Or at least, consistent.

This is a perfect example of overwriting. Though it's tempting to drop huge chunks of character description into an introduction, the bottom line is still the fact that there really isn't any reason to put anything into the script that the audience wouldn't see or here. If the information is that important, figure out a way to bring it across in the dialogue or the story.

So that's what I would have told the writer. Work it into the tale.

But it turns out that that would have been unnecessary. Because on page 5, we get this exchange, between Morris' daughter and his young grandson.

He didn't shoot people.

He says he did. He's an "Adjuster".

He was an "adjuster", a long time ago. I don't think he shot a single person.

And then, on page 6, we get this:

My partner and me once headed off renegade Comanches that were making trouble with some ranchers up north of the Grass River...

Extensive description of an "adjusting" incident follows.

So on pages 5 and 6, we get plenty of backstory into Morris' character and the job he had, rendering the whole page 3 description superfluous.

But the writer doesn't stop there. On page 7, one minor character tells another about how Morris was an adjuster, and what that means. On page 15, Morris talks about adjusting again. On page 22, he talks with his old partner about what they used to do in the old days. On page 26, Morris' son tells a cop:

The Bureau of Indian Affairs used to call in cowboys to negotiate border disputes. They were called "adjusters". That was a long time ago.

On page 32, Morris' partner tells another character that they are adjusters, and they negotiate land disputes. On page 53, he tells another woman "In the old days, when there was a land dispute, the Government brought us in to mediate it". On page 63, he tells a sheriff "We used to work for the BIA, just after the war. Mostly resolving land disputes". On page 69, a TV reporter describes the characters as "cowboys once hired to settle land disputes between Native Americans and Anglo landowners".


If your characters have a job that is important to the plot and a little obscure, just establish it early. And though in reality they might have to fill in people along the way about what they do, there's no reason the reader (or the audience) needs to hear about it over, and over, and over again, in the same words. Especially since it isn't a running gag -- it's repetitive dramatic exposition.

(I'm sure the people reading this know all this already. Just wanted to let you know that there are scripts like this being repped by producers. Doesn't it make you nuts?)


At 1:36 PM, Blogger Ismo Santala said...

Scott, can you pinpoint a source for the overwriting?

Did this script start out as a novel? At least I hope it did: the storytelling comes across as heart-rendingly uncinematic.

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Too many writers don't understand the difference between the writing in a screenplay and a novel.

I don't think this script was based on a book, but I think the writer had probably written detailed character biographies, and felt like dropping big chunks into the actual script.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Ismo Santala said...

Another good reason to *not* write detailed character biographies... ;)

I guess I thought about novel writing (or, more properly, prose fiction) because of the way how the writer seems to have restated the same information over and over again.

In movies, information is explosive.

When you introduce a new idea to the audience, the audience will immediately add it to the earlier ones.

"He's an Adjuster". Said or shown, the viewer will get it the first time around. Now the writer's job is to do something interesting with that bit of information.

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Belzecue said...

"So what you're saying is, Pepsi's the choice of a new generation..."

"Yes, that's what I'm saying: Pepsi IS the choice of a new generation!"

"Okay, I get it now. I didn't realise you were saying that Pepsi's the choice of a new generation."

"You know what? All this talk about Pepsi being the choice of a new generation has got me thirsty."

"Bubba, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

-- um, kinda like that, huh? :-) This scriptwriting comment brought to you by...

At 7:40 PM, Blogger Scoopy said...

I'm a little fuzzy on the "adjuster" thing. Could someone tell me what the job encompasses??

At 8:27 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Wait, so an adjuster does what...?

That is fucking horrible, man. Who the hell would write that, look it over, proof it later on, and say "Yup, it looks perfect!"

Completely unnecessary obviously, but also totally bogs down the script with instant boredom.

I'm sure you're read worse Scott, but that just plain sucks.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger writergurl said...

Whew... when I read "scripts I just read", I thought "Oh God, don't let it be me!"

Of course, as soon as I got to "submitted by a prduction company", I KNEW it wasn't mine! :)

Thanks for the notes!

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I will add to the disgust and shock displayed by everyone here while furiously rewriting my character introductions.

"What kind of moron would do such a stupid thing?"

(while rewriting) "I dunno, but they should hang'em."

At 6:46 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

It's crap and we all know it. It also shows desperation or ignorance on the part of the producer for submitting something so lame.

If you can't see it or hear it - it doesn't belong in the script.


Think haiku, and write accordingly.

At 7:52 AM, Blogger Brett said...

I'm 99.2% in agreement with the "don't write it if they can't see it" rule, but here's the thing: if you read a lot of produced scripts, you will see the odd occasional little flourish where thye writer very clearly is reffing or describing some purely internal emotional non-visible thing.

And that's OK.... SO LONG AS the writer has done an absolutely breathtaking job everywhere else. IOW, if the writer has "won me over" with brilliant writing in every other scene and moment, I'll be too absorbed into their story-world to notice or care when sneak a few words of "unfilmable" stuff into the script.

The FLIP side is the situation we witness in Scott's demo passage-- where a writer is flailing so badly that we already have a bad feeling going in, and we hit a knee-high textual pile of steaming fresh poo and have no choice but to go "EEEEEEeeeeeewwww!" In that sense this is like a hundred other "rules" we get hammered with from the formatting dogmatists-- NEVER DO THIS! NEVER DO THAT!

IMO< the moment we say "NEVER DO THAT," someone will come along who does "THAT" so damned well that we're left either feeling stupid for not understanding that 'THAT" might have been done that well, or feeling angry that someone refused to honor our precious little rules and had teh audacity to do something unique and brilliant.

"Write more gooder," I say.

At 5:39 PM, Blogger Shane said...

I prefer to say "be quickly". It helps bring everything down to its base parts- dialogue, description, etc.

Now I have put a job description in a character descrip before, i.e.: CHARACTER X -- a lean and clean lawyer type in his late twenties.

But I think the more writing you do, the more precious the white space becomes for actual story. There never seems like quite enough to get it all out, even when the tale is very tidy and succinct at 104.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger Systemaddict said...

I notice more and more, that this is something I've gotten away from.

being concise with description no matter the urge to tell the reader everything I thought up about this world, or that character...

but it is a little frustrating when only other writers pick up on that...

At 8:21 PM, Blogger James Patrick Joyce said...


This brings up a further question, for me at least.

Preamble: I've read from nearly everyone that a good story will overcome any difficiencies.

This script was submitted by a producer, so it has passed at least one or more filters.

Question: Was it, at least, a good story? Poorly formatted, yes, but was the story good?

By that, I mean to ask you, as a furtherance to issues raised by your entry, did the story outshine the formatting problems?

Or was it crap, too?

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

It wasn't very good.

At 12:38 PM, Anonymous dobbs said...

Wow, that's some brutal screenwriting. Ouch.

At 5:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morris, a tall, slim man in his 60's. His face handsome in a windswept way.... that should have been it and good on its own

At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Joshua said...

I would also bet that much of the overwriting could be contributed to the producer - they want all that shit in to make certain no one missed that he was an adjuster - I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with someone on something obvious in a script and they've wanted to put more in (it's only mentioned once!) or they don't just say it outright, etc. (he hints at a past but don't we need to know exactly what terrible things happened in his past, ) on and on and on.

It's bad writing, sure - but sometimes the writing is written to please the producer so the producer will send it out.

Just my two cents.


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