There’s nothing worse than reading an overwritten script. Pages upon pages of descriptions. Speeches that take up an entire page or worse go one for multiple pages. These are the sure signs of a beginning writer or a writer who simply doesn’t get it. Underwritten scripts aren’t as common, at least I personally come across more overwritten scripts than underwritten ones. But they’re still bad. Dashing about in a sea of confusion. It’s hard to tell what’s happening, who these characters are or why I should give a damn. The strange thing is both kinds of writing, overwriting and underwriting, stem from the same mistakes. The underwriter and the overwriter both have the same storytelling weaknesses. A) They don’t understand telling details. And B) They don’t understand dramatic spine.
Start with point A, Telling Details. There’s an old saying that goes brevity is the soul of wit and that’s very true of screenwriting. With scripts or any type of storytelling for that matter, it’s the quality of the words that count not the quantity. An overwriter can spend a whole page describing a character whereas an experienced writer can create a clearer and more vivid picture with just a few lines. Meanwhile an underwriter will zip along and not bother to tell you anything about the character at all. He isn’t boring you to tears like the overwriter but he’s not engaging you as a reader either. Both writers are giving us information but not the right information, there’s no atmosphere, no character. Even worse there’s no sense of why this scene is taking place. What’s so important? Why do we HAVE to have this scene?
That leads us to point B, dramatic spine. I’ve talked about this in several other posts but writers need to understand spine; it’s what directors and actors are looking for. Every scene needs a chain of cause and effect that takes it from the beginning to the end. Well written scenes have a constant give and take, a back and forth. They fly by and are riveting. People who understand dramatic spine don’t waste time trying to direct through the screenplay, filling the page with all kinds of camera directions. Not do they try to act for the characters, describing every bit of blocking. The director and the actors will figure that part out themselves. As a writer it’s your job to give them the spine from which the director creates his shot list and the actors their blocking. You lose track of the dramatic core of your story then you’re spinning your wheels. You’re either filling in meaningless details or zipping by and leaving everyone confused, the director and actors included.
Overwriting and underwriting are very real traps for beginning screenwriters. Both point to a lack of understanding of the craft writing and what a screenwriter’s primary job entails. A screenplay is not a movie. It’s a screenplay. And unless it is a perfectly executed screenplay it has very little chance of becoming a movie.