Writing a screenplay is a craft that occasionally rise up to the level of an art, the late screenwriter legend Syd Field once said. I love writing screenplays. I have been doing this since 2003 when I first stumbled upon RoboCop script written by Edward Neuimeier and Michael Miner. Since then, I have been collecting scripts around the internet and start reading them. From horror scripts to TV Shows. And what came next in my mind, why don’t try to write my own screenplay. But back in the day, (I’m speaking about several years ago), I was not quite experienced. I would tag myself as hobbyist, willing to dive into his own world, create his own set of colorful characters and have them tormented in a conflict which would ended up with a resolution (sort of they got married and have children, you know, the happy ending in fairly tales). To me a script was just like a book or a novel made to be adapted for TV. So started writing some early drafts as if I was writing a book. An opening page would take three pages or four. So I ended up having a long crammed paragraphs with lot of actions. No white space.
Here I realized I was making a mistake.
I will not dive too much into how to write a great screenplay but I’d like to focus on one particular aspect. How to make a screenplay vertical…
Remembering a quote from Charles Demmer on making the screenplay vertical :
“I once agreed to read a screenplay written by a novelist friend. The script’s first paragraph took over one page! When I tried to explain the rhetorical realities of screenwriting to him, he called me names I’d rather not repeat, accusing me of selling out to the literary imbeciles of Hollywood. His mistake was thinking that a screenplay is a literary document. It isn’t. It’s the blueprint for a movie. Put that word in caps: BLUEPRINT.”
You know this yourself. Remember your college days when you were cramming for an exam? What was easier to read, the long dense paragraph that took most of a book’s page — or the airy open text written in short paragraphs? The latter. This is because the eye could race down the page, in a kind of vertical reading style, rather than plodding across the page horizontally. For quick reading, for skimming, the page that invites vertical eye movement is far more friendly to the harried reader.
Now who is going to read your screenplay the first time around? A harried reader, believe me. Readers are over-worked and under-paid. Trust me, I’ve been one. They also get paid by the script. Does this invite a slow, careful reading? Of course not. Their job is to fill out a form about the story — called coverage — and the more quickly they can read a script, the happier they are. Screenplays that invite vertical reading are loved by readers. In contrast, text-dense scripts requiring horizontal reading start out with one or two strikes against them.
We in effect have directed the scene while at the same time opening it up vertically, adding white space, writing short paragraphs that are easily and quickly read.
Skilled screenwriters know that “white space” on the page is as important as correct format. In fact, a producer once showed me what he called “the white space test.” He picked up a random unread script from his desk. He held it out at arm’s length and flipped the pages. A dark cloud of heavy text density rushed by. “Too much writing,” he said. “Not enough white space.” He tossed the script, unread, into a box labeled “Return.”
Make sure your screenplay can be scanned and skimmed as easily as a blueprint. Open up your writing by using short paragraphs (I suggest five lines or less) and simple sentences, avoiding complex sentences and other wordy rhetorical devices. Keep it simple, stupid. Readers will love you for it — and when they love you, they pay more attention to your story.
Make your screenplays vertical. There’s no down side.