Too much description and too much detail will kill the chances of your script! Simple as.

People who read a lot of scripts can tell by looking at the first few pages if it’s professional or not — without reading a word. It’s about the right ratio of description and dialog, and consistency of slugs.

In these two examples you can see without reading a word, which one is text-heavy and dense, and which one snappy and quick. I know which one I already don't want to read! Yes, I'm very impatient...
A rambling and self-important covering letter will give you away, but if it doesn’t, and if the premise to your script does sound amazing, you’ve got that chance to have it read. Don’t spoil it with an overwritten first draft. I have, and I’m still mad,  years later. I got a first draft script in front of a really big Hollywood director that I admired more than anyone (and still do), on the back of a great premise, pitch, and synopsis, but the actual script sucked big time. It needed a few re-writes but I thought it was basically a masterpiece. This is what I know now:

1 Characters — pimp your introductions!
Throw your characters into the bottomless deep end on page 1. We want to get to know them by seeing how they deal with really bad shit. It doesn’t get much better than the opening of Trainspotting. We understand the characters and their story world straight away. It’s funny, painful and very dramatic. Or think of most Bond films, they tend to kick off screaming, with The Quantum of Solace a particularly good example; Reservoir Dogs with its hilarious discussion about Like A Virgin; the Aaron Sorkin-penned The Social Network with its minimalist 2-shot opening, or the utterly heart-wrenching opening of Up!, where not a single word is spoken but I defy you not to be really moved. All these characters kick off on page 1.
2  Vocabulary — triple your meanings!

Even if you think you’ve been economical with your prose — have you, really? Are your paras longer than four lines? Too long. Do you use inactive and generic verbs? Don’t. Every word needs to work as hard as possible. Every sentence has the potential to communicate more than just content. You can triple up on meaning, implied meaning and underlying theme. Broaden your vocab. Make the thesaurus your best friend. Instead of verbs like walk or sit, use more specific words like charge, amble, sneak or slouch. Make them character-specific. Each character has a personality and with it comes the way they move and talk.

3  Imagery — go for bold!

Before you start writing pages and pages of dialog, get punchy on your visual descriptions. With a few words, get to the essence. A dark, oppressive room with a single bulb dangling. A sweeping hotel suite with views over Hong Kong. No need to go into detail. Use the collective memory and imagination of your audience. Chances are, if you can imagine a room in three words, so can they.

4  Locations — make it uncomfortable!

What space is important for your story? A sweeping hotel suite for a heated argument between two lovers? A dark, oppressive room with a low-hanging naked bulb for a scary interrogation scene? We’ve seen it, it’s a cliché. How about a dead-quiet library for the heated argument? Or a church service? A busy shopping mall elevator for the scary interrogation? Or an elegant ballroom dance scene? Or this utterly heart-breaking scene in The Sixth Sense, confined in a car stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident — off-screen but crucial to the scene.
5  Story world — make us suspend disbelief!

Whatever you’re writing — scifi epic, kitchen sink drama or a new take on the slackers comedy — you need to define and set out that world for the reader. It needs to be 100% bullet-proof and define the narrative logic within it. If it’s ‘our’ present day world this still applies: does it play out in Delhi’s underworld, and if so, what’s going on there, what are the rules? Is it set in the closed-off world of the Vatican? Or completely set in NYC’s metro? Each of these worlds has their laws, their structures and their look and feel. Be consistent, know them inside out.

6  Tone — let us hear it, not see it!

Depending on what you’re writing, you can skew your tone accordingly. Go into the story, feel it in your heart, and put that feeling into your prose. A comedy can be snappy and fun (obvs!), a thriller fast and tense, an epic love story melancholic and pared back. You get the point. Don’t go overboard though, the reader does not ever want to feel they can see the writer at work — very bad idea! It’s a way of expressing the story’s soul through prose, and with it the protag’s emotional world.

Whatever you’re writing, try to be original. You can’t reinvent the wheel, but you can put a new tyre on it. In your character description, don’t tread out stale terminology like ‘sexy’, ‘curvy’ or ‘attractive’, it just perpetuates character and gender stereotypes and shows you up as a lazy writer. Don’t go into detail on room furniture, or even worse, clothes style — unless it’s strictly important for the story.

Happy writing! Actually, scratch that -- Happy re-writing!
 


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