Monday, May 9, 2011

Wech on Less Script, More Story

Katie Wech, screenwriter for Prison Break, Stephen King's Dead Zone and Prom, talks how less script often equals more story in the April 30, 2011 edition of The Wall Street Journal. Excerpts:
In screenwriting, you have to cover a lot of ground with very few words (a mentor of mine once described it as "the thong bikini of writing.") Instead of spending a half page describing a character, I have to do it in a sentence. And it better be a good sentence, specific and vivid enough to help everyone from a casting director to a costume designer bring that person to life. ...

When the script runs long, decisions about what goes and what stays hinge largely on the story's spine. The spine is its essence, the thing you can't change without fundamentally altering the whole piece. I've thrown away exquisite pieces of dialogue, set pieces that made me giggle, characters I've lived with for months, because at the end of the day, they weren't necessary to the story.
Read the whole thing. Though Wech claims screenwriting in particular is known for its economy of language, I'd argue that all good writing involves putting the perfect word in its particular place. Even the efforts of authors who churn out epic sentences and paragraphs feel more impressive than expansive when they're paying attention to craft. The challenge for me (and a few others, I bet) lies in wanting that not-a-word-wasted draft right out of the gate, in trying to shortcut the tedium of composition and revision. Unchecked, that yearning for immediately beautiful writing becomes instead a recipe for no writing at all.

(Picture: CC 2007 by mchlmbrk)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Interesting. I've recently taken the foolhardy leap of writing a short screenplay--or, more precisely, adapting it, from a G.K. Chesterton short story. (What else would I adapt, after all?) So far I managed to condense the first seven pages of small text in a hardback volume into four double-spaced pages, which means that I ended with 1/4 the text I started with.

It helps that people in Austin, TX (the new setting) are a bit less verbose than British gents of the 1920's, but it certainly was an exercise in Kill My Darlings. (Well, Kill Chesterton's Darlings.) It's good to know that my scenes are about the right length, though.

Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chestertonian Rambler said...

More reputably, Neil Gaiman had this problem (apparently) when working on his script for the coming weekend's episode of the wonderful English Fairy-Tale-flavored SF show Doctor Who. Not surprisingly, given that this is the author of American Gods, his original draft had a few more amusing diversions than could fit into a tightly-scripted 43 minutes of television. Equally unsurprisingly, some of these showed off how well he could get the voice of these characters.

Fortunately, he posted at least one short scene online. (Background: yes the titular Doctor has a "Sonic Screwdriver," which opens locks, reprograms cell phones, and generally does a whole lot of things that traditional screwdrivers don't.)

Loren Eaton said...

Wait, are you suggesting that good old Gilbert Keith might have rambled a bit?

Yeah, I've been reading Gaiman's updates about the Doctor Who episode. I think they've changed it on him about a dozen times. I remember him saying in an interview that film (including television) is an incredibly frustration medium in which to work because a writer has so little creative control.