Timing is Everything
A common mistake among writers is the location of information. When they put information into the narrative is just as important as what they include.
If you want to create a mystery or a question for the audience to ponder, then you want to place visual information — a location, an object or a person (seen but not heard) — in the narration before the audience finds out what or who that is.
If you are simply trying to provide the reader with the details of a scene, the information needs to be delivered in real time. This information isn’t necessary until it is absolutely needed. Unless you want to create the expectation in the reader that a specific location or item will be used later, there’s no need to make the reader aware of it until your characters are aware of it.
Usually, film is subjective. To varying degrees, we experience the story of a film through the eyes of our main character. If someone is going to stab someone with a letter opener they find on a desk, the reader doesn’t need to know that opener is there in advance unless the character already knows it’s there and is planning to use it. Otherwise, we should discover it with the character. It’s not until that character spots it and grabs it that it is relevant to the action.
The same applies to a location. Unless it is going to represent an idea or a character; unless it is designed to create a visual tone; or unless we’re going to return there over and over, there’s no need for the audience to be aware of it ahead of the characters who go there.
Narrative is not prose. Nevertheless, grammar matters. And spelling matters. Why? Because bad grammar and misspelled words distract the reader away from the ideas being conveyed. Instead of a reader focusing on your characters and the world of your screenplay, bad grammar and misspelled words yank them out of their imagination and onto the page in front of their face.
Avoid “White Noise”
These errors become the “white noise” that make the essential information hard to grasp. And when the reader has to work to understand what’s happening in your movie, they grow tired and, eventually, will give up trying to stay rooted in your story.
Complex sentences with subordinate clauses have the same effect. They compound information on top of information that can leave a reader confused when what you want is for your reader to grasp the information that you’ve present as quickly and easily as possible.
Flowery language does the same. So do repetitious words and phrases. They have a way of distracting our eye and causing us to focus on the literal words rather than on the events they are describing.
Hyperbolic description, an over-abundance of capitals, bold type, underlining, italics and exclamation points also run the risk of causing distraction in a reader. Tactical use of the aforementioned can help focus a reader’s attention on certain details. But if over-used, it has the opposite effect of numbing the reader to any and all specifics being presented.
You want your readers to experience your script with the ease of sitting in a theater and watching a film. You want them to feel like they are flying through the pages. The unveiling of your story should appear to flows effortlessly. Your reader should turn the page wanting to know what’s going to happen next.
Using “White Space”
A simple way to create the experience of an easy read is to allow sufficient “white space” in your description. The shorter your paragraphs, the more empty space exists on the page. This makes it easier on the eye to take in what is there, and it makes it faster and easier to get through a page and continue; thus creating the impression of “flying through the pages.”
Conversely, too much “white space” can be a problem. The way the narrative is presented on the page unconsciously informs the reader of how to interpret the information being presented.
In effect, each sentence that you write is like an edit. That period at the end of the sentence is the literary equivalent of the blink of an eye. It implies the end of an idea and the introduction of another — just like an edit in a film.
A scene in a movie can be made up of a single master or, literally, hundreds of quick cuts. How you write you narrative will have that same effect. Lots of short sentence, or even just images, punctuated with periods will create the impression of lots of quick cuts. Long, compound-complex sentences will create the impression of long, fluid shots.
Putting together sentences long and short into paragraphs will group the ideas into clusters. The “white space” between the paragraphs will be momentary rests for the reader that allow him or her to process what you’ve just told them.
If your paragraphs are too long and lacking “white space,” the information will be too dense; and the reader will not be able to absorb it all. When there are too many paragraph breaks and the paragraphs are too sparse, the reader will become impatient with the unveiling of information and become bored with your script.
Making it Work
Developing a sense of rhythm and flow that makes narrative information compelling comes with practice. One way to check your work is to read it aloud. Listen to how it flows off your tongue. Is it interesting? Is it easy to grasp? Does it convey an accurate description of what you are seeing in your head?
Another way to learn to improve your sense of timing is to look at scripts where the action is compelling. What do the pages look like? How long are the paragraphs? How much “white space” do they use? If there’s a scene in a script that is similar to something you are trying to convey, take a moment to literally type out that scene verbatim. Sometimes the act of typing another’s work will help you find the rhythm and flow you need for your own.