Peggy Bechko on Paring Down Your Prose

by Peggy Bechko

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Attention spans appear to be peaking…or is that guttering? Whatever, fact of the matter is we writers have to pay very close attention to what we’re writing and to creating white space.

Wait, you say, that may well apply to screenwriters, but surely not to novelists?!

Um, both.

Admittedly still even more to screenwriters, the newbies among them who need to strive for a script of less than 120 pages and hopefully closer to 100 pages for a real running start at selling that script.

BUT, it does apply to novelists these days as well. I’ll focus a bit more on screenwriters in this article, but apply the ideas to manuscripts as well and you’ll get a lot further.

White space is every writer’s friend these days. The goal is to create a breezy read whether a script or a novel. Yes, a novel is different in that a person sitting down to read is usually taking time to relax.

Even so, that reader usually wants to move it along and isn’t particularly pleased to be confronted by a dense page of text with few breaks and long, rambling descriptions.

Because of that, editors who might buy a novel aren’t thrilled either. Yes, the writer must meet number of word requirements for certain genres, but the pages need to be broken up for easy reading.

Okay, on to the script writers. Be aware that the first thing a producer might do with a script is flip to the last page to check how many pages there are.

Don’t make your script 140 pages or more and have that producer red flag your script from the beginning. 120 you might get by with. 100 pages is even better. Since a page of script is about one minute one can easily see where a movie closer to 90 minutes is better than one over two hours.

Oh, and keep in mind we’re assuming here that you know how to format a script correctly. If not, find out.

Nobody has time to mess with those who don’t learn the basics. Learn how to format a spec script whether you’re writing for TV or screen.

Now here’s a biggie, maybe the biggest biggie. Lots of white space. Yes, I know I already mentioned this above. That’s how important it is.

The fact of the matter is white space equals fast read. Readers and producers are busy. A quick read is much more likely to migrate to the top of the stack. More likely to get read first.

Lots of people will tell you if you want to write long narrative, write a novel. Well, even that is not as true as it used to be. Word count yes, but also more white space.

Look, many writers may find it hard to believe between rejections, but the people you hand your work to really want to love it.

Seriously, it’s true.

The goal then is to get a script reader to be able to visualize the film from the script you’ve handed them. If you can get a script reader’s eyes to keep moving down the page with smooth speed you’ve won half the battle.

Speed, I’ve been told, is part of the key. The faster they read the more they’re visualizing and that’s the goal.

So, white space. Fewer words equals faster reading equals visceral involvement with the script.

Of course that means you, as writer, need to provide words that are powerful, vivid and minimal. In other words the skill the screenwriter most needs to master is how to say more with less.

The written screenplay is a blueprint, a guide to what will be up on the screen. At the same time it has to catch the interest, rope in the reader and the producer.

Practice is your teacher. Get your hands on scripts. Can you tighten it, make it more engrossing and tight than it already is? Grab a couple of paragraphs from a favorite book. Whack it into script talk.

Things like, “the music started playing” becomes ‘music plays’. “A hall full of avid Senior Citizen listeners burst into applause” becomes ‘the old folks went wild’.

What’s happening is the writer cuts out all but the most absolutely necessary verbiage. Keep the essentials which keep the writing more dynamic. Focus only on what is important.

Read every line and consider – can what is being said be said with fewer, more powerful words?

Tighten things up by considering if every single word is visually interesting and adds color? Can the new version of what’s been written absorb some of the other lines around it?

Tighten, consider, tighten again and those scenes you write are going to pop. And that’s what it’s all about, right?


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.