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S/D: Whiter Than White

“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*

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13 thoughts on “S/D: Whiter Than White”

  1. darren (formerly eat my shorts)

    “don’t feed up your fat kid, but don’t starve the kid either”

    Ah, so that’s where I’ve been going wrong. Cheers Luce.

  2. darren (formerly eat my shorts)

    Don’t have any scripts longer than 3 pages either, so if I had too much white they wouldn’t actually exist…

  3. I would love to know what a reader would have made of Rififi and 2001 if all but the dialogue had been slashed away: Rififi would have had 30 blank pages where the most exciting sequence/s should be!

    Supposedly, when it came to the waltzing spaceships bit, Kubrick just wrote on the first of 10 left blank pages ‘trust me it will be briliant’!

  4. What an outrage Jon. I don’t think I can actually speak with you again. Brilliant with one “l”, what is the world coming to… Go and spank yourself and say a dozen hail Marys, this blog must be cleansed of your ill-spelling aura!!!

  5. “Incredibly they have too much white on the page”

    Not that incredible when you consider all the screen writing gurus, tutors etc telling you that too much description is a criminal offence. The problem with script writing is there’s no perfect formula and it depresses me when you talk about readers who bin a script after a few pages because it doesn’t comply with ‘the rules’.

    Script reading as a profession has probably changed considerably since I was doing it but back in the day I was so bloody pleased to chance up a decent script that engaged me, kept me wanting to know more, I’d be happy. I’m sure some of them were badly formatted or had too much black on the page but that was beside the point.

    Do you think that writers with real talent are simply not getting though because of this fascist reader element?


  6. Hello PA, welcome.

    You’re bang on when you say there’s no perfect formula for writing. I’ve read scripts that follow the “rules” that are as flat as a pancake, whilst others have broken “rules” over the shop yet have been brilliant. There’s no substitute for talent and/or that “diamond” idea. That’s why I always put “” around “rules”.

    I don’t believe for one second however that those writers with “real” talent get sidelined, even if there are Nazi readers out there; those lucky so-and-sos that are on fire and/or have that “brilliant” idea will get through no matter what.

    But bar a few of us with 100% self belief, we just don’t know who those brilliant people are. And fact of the matter is, there are kids out there on work experience reading our stuff – and the newer the reader, the less tolerant they *can* be. There are pitfalls one can fall into, for whatever reason. Being aware of them is what counts I think – that way you can make an educated decision on whether you *want* to do a certain thing or not, so if your script comes back rejected, you won’t beat yourself up over it. Perhaps you even might realise that some kid has just put you in the wrong pile ‘cos they don’t appreciate what you’ve done because they’re subscribing to “rules” too much. That way, you needn’t worry about rewrites too much. Some scripts do well in some places, others in others.

    Someone asked me the other day, “Don’t you KNOW you shouldn’t start a script with voice-over?” SHOULDN’T?? Who the hell says, some guy who’s written a book but not a film I’d wager… And if my script can’t get past a reader on that basis alone…Well. Probably wasn’t worth sending in the first place.

  7. “The problem with script writing is there’s no perfect formula and it depresses me when you talk about readers who bin a script after a few pages because it doesn’t comply with ‘the rules'”

    I can believe that there are readers out there who are as harsh as Lucy says…And not because they’re “bad” either, but because there’s just so much competition. Since the internet kicked off, everyone thinks they can write. And how many really can? Probably not many, but even considering all those that can, there’s still only one place up for grabs, whether it’s a comp, option, meeting or whatever. As Danny Stack says over on his site, suddenly he can really appreciate just how difficult it is to draw up a shortlist for Red Planet, let alone decide on a single winner. So I’m not surprised seemingly arbitrary stuff has come in to help readers decide on who goes through and who does not.

  8. Would you say that, certainly at early stages of a potential career, it comes down to trying to display absolute genius brilliance while minimizing risk idiocy? Tempering idiosyncrasy/ deranged outlandish foibles with reality?

  9. RIO BRAVO begins with ten minutes of dialogue-free action and character. That’s a great way to start a film, I think. The problem is that people aren’t used to reading say, five pages without dialogue. Too much black. Yet what this translates to on screen, if the situation is good, is a potentially gripping, visual and highly cinematic sequence. Movies as we know them evolved from silent cinema, not from radio. I see far more dialogue-heavy scripts than text-heavy ones, and I see this as a far greater problem, especially in British cinema. Terse, tight description is a partial solution to the problem of visual scripts getting knocked back by readers, but we also need to get behind the idea of film as a visual medium, still a relatively unappreciated concept in the Brit film industry, judging by what we produce.

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