“Too much black” is something that script readers get used to. You get your scripts, on paper or electronically, and the first thing you do is open it, look at the first page and either a) groan or b) emit some sort of “surprised sound”. In other words, the density of black is something readers check for. The groaning is because a script with a lot of black means, right from the first page, this is a script that’s going to take longer. Given that readers are not paid on the basis of page count and/or black by anyone other than private clients, the longer it takes, the more a reader might want to jump out of a window.
But I’ve posted about this before, not only this week but here too. “Too much black” is the standard problem and most likely something we all did when we first started. I know I did. I remember thinking that as long as I didn’t break that hallowed four line rule, then everything “must” be okay and anyone who accused me of still having too much black (there are blank elements! What’s the problem?!) was clearly some kind of script fascist. Ah. how sweet.
But anyway. This past year however, I’ve discovered an entirely new problem that scene description has sometimes; perhaps I just hadn’t seen it before, but I’m willing to bet that the explosion of blogs and the screenwriting industry in terms of books, seminars, graduate courses etc has added to it, if not created it. The problem for the scene description, then?
It isn’t there.
That’s right. There are some scripts circulating these days that have hardly any scene description at all. Incredibly they have too much white on the page, in that they are almost exclusively dialogue. Now, it might be thought that you “can’t have” too much white, but I would venture you absolutely, 100%, categorically, can have too much white. It’s easy to go from end of the scale to the other. You have too much black? Fine, let’s cut it all out! But cutting it all out can mean you lose too much, a bit like the fat person who decides to go on a diet but goes too far and ends up bony. The scripts with “too much white” are like this. And it’s just as much of a problem in my view as having too much black. Why? Well you:
1) Miss out on arena
2) Miss out on certain elements that reveal character
3) Miss out on action (since you end up “telling it” in particular)
And perhaps most importantly:
4) Miss out on plot.
We’ve all heard the stories of the readers who only read dialogue and skim or ignore description. I don’t believe this is true; dialogue should not be able to tell the entire story from start to finish for starters: if it does, I am of the opinion that’s a significant problem, for how can you use subtext or not have characters launch into huge speeches about what they will do or have done?
Well-placed, well-written, LEAN scene description should play its part in conjunction with the dialogue. Getting the most out of your prose in your script is absolutely paramount, yet a lot of writers don’t afford it as much attention as it deserves in my view. It is a story-telling device in its own right.
It’s like childcare: don’t feed up your fat kid, but don’t starve the kid either. Balance is key. Like in all things really. Except chocolate. Obviously, eat as much of that as you like, it helps your endorphins and thus your writing. *Ahem*