Writing for Harried Readers
Avoid verbosity and craft the skimable screenplay
by Charles Deemer
All writing that’s meant to communicate implies the existence of a reader. And readers are different. The reader of The New Yorker has different expectations from the reader of USA Today. Learning about the particular readers for whom your work is intended is part of understanding the marketplace.
This is where the beginning screenwriter often fails. She writes a spec script without the necessary understanding of the needs of the spec script reader and the unique and terrible reading environment in which spec scripts usually get read. As a result, the beginning screenwriter writes in a style that’s against the best interests of his story, and of his own budding career. In this way, far too many writers are failing in a tough marketplace without really getting a fair shot at success. And the tragedy is, this beginner’s error can be easily fixed.
I once was a reader for a direct-to-video production company. In recent years, I’ve been a judge in screenwriting competitions. In each case I was shocked to see how many beginning screenwriters were shooting themselves in the foot by misunderstanding what I wanted them to be doing. Indeed, sometimes I could reject half the submissions in the first few pages because I was too harried, with a large stack of scripts to consider, to take the time to find a story in all the over-written prose on the page.
It was story I was looking for. Not great writing, but great storytelling. Readers for a production company are even more harried than I was because they have a particular task, called “coverage,” to complete—and they generally get paid by the script, not by the hour. Coverage is a quantified evaluation of the screenplay, answering such questions as “does the story have a clear hook?”, “does the protagonist have clearly defined goals?”, and “do the characters have unique voices?” Different companies use different particulars, but it all boils down to the need of the reader to find these specific items in your screenplay, and find them quickly. This means an “easy read” is much preferred to a “difficult read.”
What makes for an easy read? Lack of text density, for starters. Lack of verbosity. This means a script with little verbal clutter. Unnecessary words—whether unnecessary descriptions, unnecessary actions, unnecessary verbal flourishes, unnecessary grammatical complexity—get in the way of a clean, quick reading and understanding of the story. Readers don’t take screenplays to the beach to enjoy your great writing. Screenplay readers read with a movie in mind, with the particular needs of their company in mind.
A spec screenplay is part business proposal and part blueprint for a movie. It’s read first by an over-worked, under-paid wannabe screenwriter like yourself, who wants to fill out that coverage form as quickly as possible. Verbosity does not befriend him. Clean, clear, crisp prose driving a fast-moving and clear story befriends him.
Consider this: how easily can your screenplay be skimmed? The easier, the better! You have to get past this first reader before your script will be taken more seriously. This first reader is a clearing house. Fail here, and you’re done with this company. And you fail if your writing gets in the way of your story.
Think about that: you fail if your writing gets in the way of your story. To say this about all forms of writing except screenwriting is ridiculous. Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Faulkner, we’re sorry, but your writing gets in the way of your story. But this caveat accurately applies to spec screenwriting! And it applies because of the terrible environment in which these scripts are first considered: read by a reader with a high stack of scripts just like yours, needing to fill out “coverage” as quickly as possible, who can become very irritable if your script is so wordy this becomes a difficult task.
Needless to say, this is a horrible environment in which to participate. But it’s the reality. If you want to be verbose, you can always go off and write your novel. Otherwise, don’t over-write. Your story deserves a fair shake.
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