Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shave it. Cut it. Chop it. Blunt it.

Shave it. Cut it. Chop it. Blunt it.

By Christopher Keane

Mark Twain once explained to a friend that he would have written a shorter letter but he didn't have the time.

Take the time. Brevity is one of screenwriting’s ten commandments. Who wants shaggy dog stories? Or Matthew Arnold-like run-on pages? Or thick paragraphs you can choke on? Or mind numbing anal-retentive detail that makes you want rip up the script and throw it in the trash, which you eventually do.

I once had an algebra teacher who would construct such elaborate sentences that by the end of them you couldn’t remember what he began them with.

The amateur writes:

Roger turned the corner onto Vibrata Road and saw the house. It was about a hundred and thirty years old and big and it needed paint. The front porch sagged. The misshapen windows missed panes. The stairs leading to the porch missed most of the stairs themselves. The lawn needed mowing. A tire hung by a piece of rope from a tree branch. The half dozen kids’ toys lay broken on the sidewalk. The gate leading to the house was off its hinges. On the porch two stray cats tried to overturn a broken dish.

The professional writes.

Roger turned the corner onto Vibrata Road and saw the dilapidated Victorian mansion.

We are talking about essences here. More screenplays have never made it through the process because the writer had fallen in love with unnecessary detail or the brilliant cadence and iridescent majesty of his own words that he read aloud to himself late at night when he was too tired to drag his effervescent butt to bed.

When a reader sees a thick chunky paragraph a buzzer goes off in his head that registers intense dislike of the writer, aggravation at the writer’s refusal to read enough scripts so that he wouldn’t make this error, and anger at the amount of time he (the reader) will have to spend reading this junk.

Not the frame of mind you want a reader to have when he picks up your script.

Simple declarative sentences will do. Strong verbs with some imagination. Active (rather than passive) sentence construction. No repetition.

You've already got the slug line up there: EXT. NEIGHBORHOOD – DAY. Don’t write in the first paragraph: “In the neighborhood” but rather “Roger turned the corner onto Vibrata Road…”

Don’t go over three lines in any paragraph. Don’t go over 105 pages, unless you’re writing an epic. No, that is not an epic you’re writing. It may end up having epic proportions at 135 pages.

One studio that will go unnamed – Warner Brothers – will not look at a script over 130 pages, and that was last year.

Brevity is the soul of discretion. I heard that somewhere. Give a working title to all of your new work: The Soul of Discretion. And play What Is! What is! The Soul of Discretion?

Answer: Don’t look. Starts with a B.

Christopher Keane

1137 Mass Ave. Cambridge, MA 02138
10525 Selkirk Lane, Los Angeles, CA 90077

617.283.6161 cell

Lectured on the businesses of film and publishing and promotional aspects of each (with self-help, How To Communicate, How to Build and to Avoid Storytelling Techniques in the Workplace - at The Smithsonian Institution, Harvard, Emerson College Graduate School. National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), National Press Club, Ministre de Culture, Paris; Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University; NYU Tisch School., Lions Clubs, Maui Writers Conference/ 10 years) and at The Los Angeles Expo (Star-Speaker), and various libraries, writers conferences, universities and colleges throughout the US, Europe, and SA

Memberships: Writers Guild of America, PEN, Authors Guild

Publications & Film Credits:

Film and TV: The Hunter (Paramount feature)
Dangerous Company (WB/CBS)
The Huntress (USA hour long series)

Books on Screenwriting:
How to Write A Selling Screenplay (Random House)
Hot Property (Penguin)
Romancing the A-List (Michael Weise Productions) (Apr. 2008)

Books: Lynda (Harcourt Brace)
The Maximus Zone (Harcourt Brace)
The Tour (Free Press)
The Heir (William Morrow)
The Hunter (Bantam)
The Huntress (William Morrow)
Christmas Babies (Pocket)