Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pacing Your Script

Back in film school, one of my editing teachers said that watching student films was often like watching normal films that were in slow motion. Reading scripts by newer writers is a very similar experience—the mental movie the script is describing “looks” like a normal film, but often plays much more slowly.

One of the elements that makes a professional-level script stand out is it moves in a speed and rhythm that feels like what we’re used to getting in a theater. Like editing, script pacing is something most people only notice when it falls short.

While every writer and screenplay is different, there are several common missteps that often contribute to making the pacing slow or uneven in a script. Finding and addressing these problems will help to turn your scripts into fast, fun, professional reads.

Density. As a form, screenwriting puts a high value on brevity. When you read a novel or article, it’s a solid wall of words. But scripts should be broken up into beats and moments. Paragraphs should be no more than four lines long, and even those ought to be rare. A script should have a ton of white space on the page. If the description is relayed in vast bricks, it’s slamming the read to a stop.

Keep in mind that a movie is, at its core, an emotional experience. A script should reflect the emotions that the movie it will become is trying to relay. For example, a fast and exciting action sequence should be a fast and exciting read. If the scene is relayed to us in a big, undigested wad, it’s undercutting its own efforts.

Many readers won’t even take the time to plow into a dense page. They will simply skip over it and figure out what happened from dialogue.

Length. The standard length of screenplays used to be 120 pages. In the current market, that is more often seen as a maximum. A lot of professional scripts getting shopped around town are in the 90s or low-100s. This especially goes for comedy, action and horror, which tend toward the shorter end of the spectrum. That fact doesn’t mean longer scripts don’t exist, only that a shorter script is an easier read and, to be honest, often a better read. An action-thriller that is cumbersome at 130 pages has a chance to sing if it’s 90 pages. Shorter scripts are often read sooner, as well. Anyone can bang out a 90-page read over lunch, while an epic phone book will usually have to wait for the weekend read.

Along with density, be aware: The fewer words there are in a script, the more likely they will be read.

Focus. One of the reasons scripts get so long is they lose focus on their A-stories; that is, the main spine of “what the movie is about,” the realization of the logline. Every page and every scene should have a direct relation to the A-story. A script that wanders down narrative sideroads and gets distracted by subplots loses its focus. The direction of the story isn’t clear. It’s meandering instead of sprinting.

Have you ever watched deleted scenes on a DVD? They were removed from the theatrical cut for a reason. Even if a scene is well-shot, acted and written, if it doesn’t add to the A-story, it has to go.

If you have a longer script, try this exercise: Pretend that you have a shot at getting traction under the script, but only if you cut 10 pages. What would you lose, and why? Now ask yourself: Why are those 10 pages still there? As much as you may be in love with the story as is, it’s almost guaranteed that there is a great, shorter, and more concentrated version of the same story.

Get in, get out. A script should treat a scene like it’s a house on fire: Run inside at the last possible moment, grab only the most valuable things, and get the hell out.

A script that violates this idea often pads itself with a lot of unnecessary “entry” and “exit.” It forces us to watch a character do things like pull into a driveway and walk up to the door before we get to the reason why he’s here: to talk to the woman in the house. Then, after we get the dialogue, we are treated to the nail-biting tension of the character leaving and driving home, and so on.

This flaw brings us back to focus. You’re probably well-aware that every script has a logline. But every scene has a logline, as well—a single, clear purpose. Even if the scene does add to the A-story, we should only get the absolute necessary part, the sweet center of the beat. Anything else is just clutter.

Unnecessary detail. Screenwriting isn’t novel writing, and a script should never be asked to lug around the same level of detail as a novel. A script is a description of a movie, and cinema is, by nature, a visual medium. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a script should reflect that by giving the reader only as much information as is needed to understand and enjoy the story.

Here’s an example that touches on both “get in, get out” and unnecessary detail:


Bob wanders into the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator, hunts around for a moment, and pulls out a beer. He gets a glass from the cabinet. Bob pours the beer into the glass and takes a sip.

The phone RINGS. Bob looks at the caller ID and smiles, recognizing the name. He hits a button and answers.


(into phone)

Hello, Janet. How are you?


Bob, your dog is dead.

Bob puts the beer down and sits, collecting himself.

Snooze. That’s because it’s loaded with a ton of stuff that has nothing to do with telling a story. The logline of the scene is “Bob finds out his dog is dead.” So, let’s get into that beat as quickly as possible:


Bob slugs a beer. The phone RINGS. He checks the caller ID and grabs it.


(into phone)

How’s my dog?


Sorry, Bob. He’s dead.

Why do we even need the beer? Unless it adds something, let’s drop it. Also, keep the first rule of writing in mind: “Show, don’t tell.” This especially applies in screenwriting. An image is almost always better and more powerful than words. With that in mind:



(into phone)

How’s my dog?

He cracks a beer and drinks as he listens. After a moment, he hangs up and THROWS the beer against the wall.



Bob watches a dog-sized coffin lower into the ground.

See what I mean? The function of the beer is to give Bob something to throw to show the audience that the answer to his question is upsetting. Instead of telling Bob/the audience his dog is dead, we cut to the funeral. Action. Images. No padding. We move to the next beat and maintain momentum.

Stutter beats. A “stutter beat” is a scene that has a logline too similar to something that came before it. Instead of just giving the reader one scene that fulfills one plot function, it splits the plot beat across two or more scenes.

Stutter beats are different from build. Let’s say after Bob buries his dog, we get a scene of Bob shooting hoops in his backyard. The logline—and message to the audience—is “Bob shoots hoops when he’s upset.” We cut away to something else, and come back later to see Bob again shooting hoops.

If the scene doesn’t add new information, it’s a stutter beat, as the idea has already been established. But if Bob is getting better at shooting hoops, that’s new information, and a new logline: “Bob gets better.” It’s build, instead of stutter.

Structure. In standard three-act screenplay structure, plot point one typically lands on or around page 30, which is when the main action of the logline kicks in. In order to make sure it lands in the “right” place, sometimes writers force the reader to wade through 29 pages of watching the characters hang around, engage in long conversations, waste time, and do nothing, padding out the page length until the movie can “start.” Not only is this approach incorrect, it front-loads the story with a lot of boring and meaningless scenes, counting on the reader’s patience to make it to page 30 when all the cool stuff happens. Many readers won’t make it that far. After 10 pages of boredom, they will simply dream up a reason to pass, put the script down, and move on to the next one.

It’s better not to force plot point one. If the script doesn’t have enough story to fill 29 pages at the top, consider shifting the beat that is currently your plot point one to the inciting incident, around page 17, or even the opening scene. It’s better to throw the story into the deep and force it to learn how to swim, rather than letting it tread water, if you get my drift. If that method doesn’t work, perhaps a different way into the story will generate more character and conflict. Otherwise, there is the possibility that the concept doesn’t offer enough story to fuel a full feature script.

Dialogue. Dialogue is often the biggest culprit in slowing down a script’s read. Characters love to talk … and talk … and talk … and talk. They require discipline. While good dialogue should feel organic, the characters need to stay on point. It is a fine balance to strike, which is often why some of the best-known screenwriters in the business define themselves through excellent dialogue. There are several ways dialogue can bog down the script. They include:

Repetition. Every piece of dialogue isn’t just something an imaginary person says; as with the logline of a scene, it is also a message to the audience. Thus, if we establish an idea, we should only come back to the idea if it adds something to the script. Otherwise, it’s just repetition, slowing down the read and wasting everyone’s time.


The plane lands at midnight.


I can’t wait.


Only two more hours until midnight, when the plane is going to land.


You can shut up now, Bob.

A related version of this scene is when characters say things “one-and-a-half” times. That is, they’re adding information, but in an inefficient way—spreading the ideas across multiple lines instead of just hitting the message and moving on. Here’s the one-and-a-half version:


The plane lands at midnight.


I can’t wait.


It’s bringing my new dog.



The plane with my new dog lands at midnight.

Instead of burning an eighth of a page, we say that same thing in a single line.

Chitty chat. Characters should sound true, but in the interest of storytelling, movies have their own internal reality. In real life, for instance, people spend a lot of time engaging in small talk and trading empty pleasantries. “Hi.” “Hello.” “How ya doin’?” “Fine.” “Pleased to meet you.” “You, too.”

There are always exceptions. For example, if a character is being purposely distant in order to avoid answering a question, he might hide behind banal small talk until he can get out of the situation. Otherwise, though, chitty chat isn’t just slowing down the read, it’s taking up page space that could be filled with more pertinent and interesting dialogue.

In screenwriting, you don’t earn extra credit for including more than a story needs. It is better to have a shorter script that maintains focus on the A-story, tells it with imagery and sharp, polished dialogue, and breezes through with a ton of white space. Paraphrasing Mark Twain: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Apply this idea to your scripts, and they will be lightning.


Go forward and win!

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