THE WHITE DEVIL
I’m a novelist that’s written a few screenplays. Some of my friends think my scripts are too dense with words and that I should break up my passages with “white space.” That kind of criticism feels superficial and useless to me. Is this just Hollywood afraid of having to read and what's all this “white space” business anyway?
Screenwriters can be over-zealous in their writing style, going overboard in descriptions and using verbose passages that result in hindering a read rather than helping it. Conversely, some writers can utilize a sparse style that leaves the script without any texture or soul. A screenwriter wants to find the middle ground.
Overall, I think word economy and "white space" are tools of the screenwriting craft.
Writing a script is different than writing a novel, which is why many novelists fail in making the switch.
In Samuel Marx's book, "A Gaudy Spree," he talks about his experiences of running the MGM Story Department in its heyday and how novelists (like Fitzgerald) came out to Hollywood to write screenplays but struggled with the inappropriate set of tools they had brought along - and then withered under the collborative system. (The book tells the story of Faulkner's attempts to write a wrestling script for Wallace Beery, a tale which was later reinvented for the Coen Brothers' movie BARTON FINK.)
If you’re writing a spec script, keep in mind you’re writing it for a reader (that’s anyone who reads the script). And you want the “read” to be as friendly as possible. Long, flowery sentences rivaling Faulker are not the tools of a screenwriter.
More than likely, they won’t be read. After about ten pages, the reader gets a sense of the writer’s style and knows if he uses too many superfluous words and sentences.
I’ve noticed that the important part of the paragraph is usually in the first and last sentence. So, I’ll skip over the creamy center to simply get to the gist of the matter - if a writer is too verbose. (When I have forty other scripts to read over the weekend, I simply don’t have time for an indulgent, masturbatory writing style in a script that most likely won’t be that good anyway.)
Any writer can describe a sunset in a hundred words. As a screenwriter, the talent is to describe the same sunset and communicate the same vision and mood in only five words.
Here is an example from Scott Silver’s PLAYBOY, which I think is descriptive to a fault.
PENTHOUSE APARTMENT – LIVING ROOM – HOLLYWOOD – 8/7/68 (VIDEO)
STILL VIDEO. Saturated color, smooth moves. Summer, 1968. An angelic 18-year-old girl-next-door, BARBARA KLEIN, long dark hair, bangs, big bright eyes, button nose, white macro-mini, swaying her head, hips to the song, lyrics, “IF IT’S PEACE YOU FIND IN DYIN’/AND IF DYIN’ TIME IS NEAR/BUNDLE UP MY COFFIN/’CAUSE IT’S COLD WAY DOWN THERE/I HEAR THAT IT’S COLD WAY DOWN THERE/YEAH COLD WAY DOWN THERE”
…Barbara turns and dances face-to-face with two other pretty girls, a skinny black hippie joins in…Party in a crowded smoke-filled bachelor’s apartment, beautiful people, long hair, hot pants, minishirts, go-go boots, turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, modern furniture, burnt-orange carpet, electronic entertainment wall, leather couches. Follow the four of them lauging & moving with choreographed joy to the music…”AND WHEN I DIE/WHEN I’M GONE/THERE’LL BE ONE MORE CHILD BORN/IN THE WORLD TO CARRY ON/TO CARRY ON/HELP ME NOW”… A couple dances in front of Barbara Klein, blocking the view…
CLOSE ON HEF & ROBERTA “BOBBIE” ARNSTEIN
He’s 42, shorter hair, velour shirt, black mohair slacks, smoking a pipe. She’s 28, his secretary, Jewish, slightly overweight, large expressive eyes, dark circles, cigarette, Levis, halter-top. Both watching Barbara Klein. Hef smiles wistfully, leans in & whispers in Bobbie’s ear…”GIVE ME MY FREEDOM FOR AS LONG AS I BE/ALL I ASK OF LIVIN’ IS TO HAVE NO CHAINS ON ME/ALL I ASK OF LIVIN’ IS TO HAVE NO CHAINS ON ME” … Bobbie looks into Hef’s eyes, returns his smile…
A LIGHT FLASHES!
…Bobbie turns to the guy next to her, DAVID SONTAG, 30’s, white turtleneck, pulls him aside…Hef keeps watching Barbara Klein, still dancing in the background… “AND ALL I ASK OF DYIN’ IS TO GO NATURALLY/ONLY WANT TO GO NATURALLY/WELL, HERE I GO!” … Trumpet, sax, drums, keyboards, guitar, bass, jamming…Everybody moving as one, faster, harder, sexier…
Suddenly a man wearing a head-set – the FLOOR DIRECTOR – steps in front of the dancers.
This, in my opinion, is an example of an indulgent writing style. The scribe floods his description with too many details (mostly reserved for the art director and costumer).
This may seem innocuous - but when every page is filled with this sort of writing – it eventually becomes disorienting. Hard to track. Hard to comprehend. The story line becomes a blur – getting lost between the drama and the description.
You never want your story to do battle with your writing style. They must work together.
PLAYBOY is an example where they do not work hand in hand.
Here, each page takes 10 minutes to read, because one cannot cut through the superfluous details to get the gist of the characters and narrative; it forces one to re-read and re-read, disrupting the flow and enjoyment of the experience. In the end, it's hard to say what the script is even about. The story is the most important thing, but if you cannot communicate that story – you’ve failed. Ironically, all this descriptive writing in the screenplay does not enable the reader to see the movie.
Producers and agents are looking for a MOVIE, not a literary experience.
Screenwriters are craftsmen first - writers second. Those who understand this truism are more likely to succeed in this business.
Knowing how to write descriptively for a screenplay is part of the learning curve.
A script must NOT read like a novel.
The reading experience of a screenplay should feel like the MOVIE you’re hoping to create.
Movies MOVE. And so should your script. Your job as a screenwriter is not to find poetry to describe your scenes – but find the most efficient words and sentences imaginable to create the imagery without eating up your pages.
An antithetical example to PLAYBOY might be the use of "vertical writing" (as it has come to be known).
VERTICAL WRITING is most appropriate for action screenplays. It may be less appropriate for something like ORDINARY PEOPLE - though a writer can use it wherever he chooses.
Vertical writing can create a certain sort of movement and flow that’s just right for action sequences. Vertical writing can allow one to read the sequence – exactly the way he would see it on the screen – almost in real time. There's nothing new about it nor is it a fad. Only the term itself may be new. Walter Hill has been writing "vertically" since the 70s.
Here is an example from his screenplay THE WARRIORS:
INT. CLUBHOUSE – GRAMERCY RIFFS
Huge, warehouse-sized …
One hundred Riffs in attendance.
Dirge-like rock number coming through the stereo speakers.
Suddenly, the main door is thrown open.
All eyes are on the three Riffs who enter.
A small youth walking slightly before the others.
He is … The New Cyrus.
Music stopping with a thunk.
Here, Hill paints it on the page the way he wants us to see it on the screen. He avoids flowery details – and simply provides us with the cold, hard facts.
Obviously, this allows one’s eyes to move down the page – which is how the term "vertical" was coined.
Silver and Hill are on separate ends of the spectrum.
Here is an example from Thompson & Camp's STEINBECK'S POINT OF VIEW, which falls somewhere in the middle.
These writers have sold several seven-figure specs (including this).
In this scene, cancer-patient TOM smokes a joint.
INT. FARMHOUSE - LATER
Decided, he rips open the pack --immediately met with a ghastly aroma. Tears free a bud, grinds it in his fingers. Lays the herb inside rolling paper.
The joint of all joints. Tom lights her up. Self-conscious, acutely aware of the absurdity. But what the hell, takes a deep drag.
Hacks like a kid's first Marlboro.
...Tom's boom box. CD spins, speakers fill with Bob Marley's "Jamming"...
...His eyes but red slits, his head a ten thousand pound bowling ball on his shoulders...
...Rolls another doobie, air drumming to the steel drum beat...
...On the roof with Flash Gordon, tokin' to the moonlight, ear to ear grin...
...Loads another old pro...
...Munchies -- bags of Doritos and Hostess treats ravaged before him...
...Onward and upward to a water bong....
This may indulge also, but the writers aren't beating us over the head with too many words and images. It's much easier to digest.
Note the use of "white space" here.
White space can help to break up action.
Make action seem less cluttered and confusing to the reader.
It can break up beats within sequences.
White space can help to organize and choreograph the sequence, and orient the reader.
White space creates a topography to the page lay-out that can make it easier to navigate.
It’s an important writing tool. Do not discount the lay-out of a screenplay. There are psychologists who devote their careers to the way presentation affects people. Advertising and periodicals run their empires by it. Using white space enables a writer to communicate his story more effectively to the reader.
No one is suggesting NOT to write visually. However, the use of “white space” helps one to avoid verbosity, compelling the scribe to tell his story in the most concise and effective way.
Here is an example from Frank Darabont's FAHRENHEIT 451:
She turns, facing them. A long look passes between them as her thumbnail tightens on the match head…
…and her thumbnail scrapes the sulfur tip, FLARING it to life. Montag’s eyes widen in horror –
and the match flare leaps into the air, a heartbeat of white-hot ignition, the air rippling as it catches fire. For a moment the old woman is surrounded by an aura of flame swirling about her, lifting her hair and catching it afire, making her eyes glow like coals –
--and BOOOOM! The entryway EXPLODES, shattering window, a HUGE FIST OF FLAME punching through the front door and blowing Beatty and Montag right off their feet, hurling them over the railings and onto the lawn in a storm of debris. Some other firemen are caught on the run, also blown off their feet….
This is very effective. Darabont describes in greater detail than Hill or Thompson & Camp – but still only tells us what we need to know in order to understand the scene.
His word choice is thorough and exact. Note his use of white space to help organize the action. Darabont actually interrupts sentences with white space.
Here is an example from Tarantino's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN - which illustrates a fairly common style:
INT. THE TITTY TWISTER – NIGHT
If the Titty Twister looked like the asshole of the world from the outside, in the immortal words of Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” This is the kind of place where they sweep up the teeth and hose down the cum, the blood and the beer at closing.
In the back, TOPLESS DANCERS do lap dances with the customers, while a SLEAZY SEXY STRIPPER STRIPS to RAUNCHY MUSIC, played at eardrum-bursting level. TWO MEN are in a savage BARE KNUCKLE FIGHT, surrounded by screaming customers of bikers and truckers.
One of the dancers is a man with a saddle on his back, his name is DANNY THE WONDER PONY. The woman on his back, in the saddle, feet in the stirrups, hands on the reins, is ATHENA, his rider. They dance around to the cheers of the crowd.
Bikers and truckers play pool in the back. Fights break out here about every ten minutes. The customers may start ‘em, but the bouncer, BIG EMILIO, ends ‘em.
Seth, Richard, Jacob, Scott and Kate walk through the door. They each individually take in the sights and the smells. Seth is the first to say something.
You’ll note that none of the paragraphs go beyond a few lines before breaking off and creating a new paragraph – leaving “white space” on the page. (The format of this blog makes the paragraphs appear thicker than they do in the actual screenplay.)
Here’s an example that goes AGAINST the grain of "white space:" Shane Black’s introduction of MARTIN RIGGS in LETHAL WEAPON.
INT. MARTIN RIGGS’ APARTMENT – MORNING
Morning is not a good time for Inspector Martin Riggs. We are in the bathroom, and it is a pit. Dark. Depressing. Newspapers. Crushed cigarettes. Whiskey bottles. Dust. Riggs is asleep in the bathtub. Cigarette butts float in the water. He looks dead. Your basic burnout. The CLOCK RADIO suddenly BLARES to life: “Silver Belllls… It’s Christmas-tiiiime in the city…” Riggs snaps awake instantly. Alert. Tense. Face bathed in sweat. Sits up, sloshing water. Rubs his eyes. Stands, kicking aside a bottle of whiskey. Leans over the toilet – And beings to vomit his guts out. The Christmas MUSIC PLAYS ON.
Although this is a block of text, you’ll note the writer's use of incomplete sentences and single words to paint a reader-friendly picture without getting overly complicated. This is anything but novelistic and reads almost as easily as the example from THE WARRIORS.
Perhaps Shane Black chose to use only one block of text in order to focus the reader on Riggs – this is Riggs’ claustrophobic world, and Black paints that picture with both the words and sentence structure and the topography - the actual way he lays it out on the page.
Knowing when to use white space and not to use it helps to guide the reader, manipulate the reader and even set a mood for the reader.
And concise word choice matters too. Black could have used a whole sentence to describe the “whiskey bottles” but he opts out. Why bother? This isn’t about the whiskey bottles – it’s about Riggs. He doesn’t even tell us the brand of whiskey. (This draft of LETHAL WEAPON weighs in at 106 pages. If Black had used more white space, it would have come in around 120.)
The problem is that verbosity (the density you refer to you in your question) serves no purpose. It doesn’t enhance the drama of your story – and could very well hinder it by cluttering the script and creating a confusing read. And "white space" can help you create a friendlier, more organized reading experience. It may seem like Hollywood nit-picking or counterproductive to your goal as a writer, but it's not the white devil; it's just a tool. Anyway, as a screenwriter, your primary tool (as odd or maddening as this may sound) shouldn't be words.
Your primary tool as a dramatist is conflict.
Lots of writers dive into "Final Draft" knowing how to write beautiful prose, but they lack an understanding of the tools needed (and how to use them) to write a screenplay that connects with and moves the reader.
This partially explains why most scripts don't sell and most screenwriters aren't earning a living.
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