Every screenplay that you write can’t leave the house until it’s wearing a pair of Spanx.*
Spanx, in case you’re not familiar, are a modern-day girdle that slims and shapes the body–a secret weapon of starlets hoping to create a “yowza” moment on the red carpet, Oscar night.
You might think Spanx are rather girlie, but trust me: even if you’re writing an action-packed, manly thriller–Jason Bourne on Stallone-sized steroids–it needs to slip on some Spanx (or another variation of control-top underwear) before you show it to a single agent in Hollywood.
In the movie industry, the most famous example of the power of slimming undergarments is probably from Bridget Jones’s Diary. Yep, those infamous granny pants that Bridget wore on her first date with Daniel Cleaver and whose revelation happens to be one of the top comedic movie moments of all time as voted by the British peeps.
Poor Bridget. She wanted to hide her wobbly bits to increase the likelihood of a hook-up with Daniel Cleaver…but realizes that the “scary-stomach-holding-in-panties,” once revealed, might be off-putting at that crucial moment.
Fortunately, your control-top undergarments–screenplay slimmers–are not scary looking at all. They will increase the odds that an agent will read (and love) your script, just as Bridget’s control-top undergarments increased the odds she’d hook up with the Cleave.
But screenplay slimmers operate a little differently than Bridget’s. First off, they’re metaphorical. Secondly, they don’t mask the “wobbly bits” in your screenplay–they eliminate them entirely.
So what kind of cellulite do screenplay slimmers get rid of?
- boring scenes
- obvious exposition
- it really happened moments…
Screenplay Slimmers and Boring Scenes
Before you slip your screenplay into a control-top undergarment, it will be chock full of boring scenes. A lot of times you won’t even realize these scenes are boring.
Amateur and veteran screenwriters would benefit by asking themselves if their current screenplay draft has any of the following:
Too many social niceties: Real life is full of small talk, and while eliminating social graces in real life will make you a social pariah, it will improve your screenplay.
Before you slim down your screenplay, your dialogues might begin like this:
Hi, how’s it going?
Good, good. Nice spot of weather, we’re having, isn’t?
Yeah, it’s nice to see the sun again!
Are you and Marcy ready for your summer at the Cape?
Just finished packing this morning. Say, Neighbor B, do you know anything about the guy who moved into Mrs Claridge’s old house?
The important part of this conversation is the question about the new guy who moved into the neighborhood. Everything prior to that–while necessary in every day life– is boring as hell and slows down your screenplay considerably.
I think most screenwriters have difficulty cutting out this kind of small talk because we’re polite people.
And it feels awkward to write scenes without all the “Hi, how are you?” parts because that feels rude.
But you’re not trying to be the next Emily Post.
You’re trying to be the next Shane Black or Richard Curtis or Aaron Sorkin. So, you gotta get over it if you want to sell your screenplay.
Now, I bet some of you are saying, “But MY screenplay’s different. The small talk serves a purpose.”
Well, let’s examine that, shall we?
Take my made-up example above. Neighbor A is asking Neighbor B about the new guy, and the small talk between them highlights how the long-time neighborhood residents are a close-knit group and not very welcoming of strangers.
Well, if you wanted to show that, then SHOW IT.
Show the two neighbors doing something chummy with each other. Something with far more visual interest than two people standing across their property borderline discussing the weather.
There is one important exception: if you’re using the small talk to create a contrast.
Let’s say for example, that our two neighbors engage in their social small talk, and Neighbor B invites Neighbor A into his house for a beer. As he turns around, Neighbor B stabs him in the back.
Whoa, totally unexpected.
And the peaceful small talk serves as a contrast to the sudden attack. BUT A-list screenwriters who sell screenplays on a regular basis would find a better topic than the weather for a man’s last conversation…
Too much setup: Type-A personality that you are, you might want to establish EVERYTHING from the beginning of your screenplay.
You want to introduce us to all the major players and show audiences a glimpse of events and objects that will payoff later–all within the first act.
Save some, baby.
We can meet a sidekick at the beginning of the second act…and setups can occur there too.
If you try to stuff everything into Act One, your act break will happen way too late which is like attaching a blinking neon “Amateur Screenwriter” sign to your screenplay.
Not only that, the information overload can bore audiences as they’re waiting for the introductions to stop and the action to begin.
Too many details: First, let me say that specific details usually elevate a screenplay. But if your characters are talking about a hobby or passion of theirs for extended periods of time and with no connection to the plot, you’re going to annoy your readers.
This usually happens when these details come from a hobby/passion/obsession of yours, and you think that if it’s fascinating to you, then the reproductive habits of slugs, worms, and other invertebrates or the supermarket purchases of [insert the name of any famous person here] will be interesting to others…
…but no, my friend, they’re not.
The other time this frequently happens is when you’ve done a lot of research into the time/place of your screenplay, and you’ve discovered several interesting details that you feel compelled to use.
Refrain from using all of them. Instead, slide a pair of screenplay slimmers over your script’s ever-expanding waistline and streamline it.
It might hurt at first, but that’s what’s required to sell your screenplay.
Screenplay Slimmers and Obvious Exposition
Also known as weak sauce exposition, these scenes occur when you’re trying to convey information to the audience, but you do it in a really clumsy, obvious way.
Maybe it’s information about a high-tech gadget your hero will use to vanquish the bad guys, or it’s a history lesson about the village where your screenplay takes place. It could also be setup that pays off later. Whatever your expository information is, convey it in an interesting manner.
How to incorporate exposition into a screenplay is worthy of its own blog post. Till it gets written, the following example from RED should hold you over.
In the original screenplay draft of RED, there were two minor characters, Jackson and Thomas, who were basically exposition givers/receivers:
INT. CIA – OPERATIONS CENTER – DAY
Cooper drops a six- inch- thick stack of paper stamped “TOP SECRET” onto the table.
Frank Moses’s real file.
Thomas flips it open. Page after page has been blacked out, line by line.
Is this a joke?
They finally get to bits of text here and there:
This guy’s got to be one of the best black ops agent we ever had. He’s offed drug-lords, terrorists, heads of state. He’s toppled governments.
Thomas is even less consequential than Jackson, so he didn’t get any lines. Mercifully, both were eliminated from the movie. Instead, background information was delivered through the Record Keeper, played to perfection by Ernest Borgnine.
At first, you might think that the Record Keeper’s speech in the film is no different from Cooper speaking to Jackson and Thomas. But in the screenplay, the scoop on Frank Moses’s history was recited to Jackson and Thomas for our benefit.
The Record Keeper, on the other hand, is using the same information to taunt Cooper, while making a comment on age and retirement.
Now, it’s not exposition. It’s character development and theme!
And that’s exactly the kind of screenwriting skill you need to develop in order to sell your screenplay.
Update: That blog post on exposition has been written. You can find it here.
Screenplay Slimmers and Redundancy
Like boring scenes, redundant scenes can be elusive beasts for amateur screenwriters to identify in their scripts. Actually, they’re probably even harder to detect.
Knowing how they manifest will help, so here are two common sources of redundancy in screenplays:
- establishing a character’s personality
- one-note scripts
The first is pretty easy to correct; the second may mean you have to rethink your entire concept.
A lot of screenwriters devote too much screenplay real estate to establishing the qualities of their characters. They’ll show that a major character is heroic, or funny, or a bastard in 5 different scenes…and pat themselves on the back for following the “show don’t tell” commandment.
But you don’t need to do that. Professional screenwriters certainly don’t.
You need to conserve your screenplay real estate.
You can’t waste it by establishing the same point over and over again. You gotta slip some control-top undergarments onto your screenplay and pick one scene.
Yes, just one.
Make it a really great scene–the one that’s most in keeping with the overall tone of your screenplay, the one that also advances the plot, includes a bit of setup that pays off later…and which hopefully hasn’t already been done in a thousand other movies. It seems like a tall order, but that’s how the screenwriting pros make six-, even seven-figure, sales.
The second major redundancy problem spot occurs when you’ve written a one-note script, which feels like reading the same scene, done in a variety of ways. The goals and the stakes are the same, and the obstacles only vary a little bit.
I can’t think of any examples offhand, so I must defer to the helpful screenwriting community over at Scriptshadow.
If you comb through the comments of I Want to _ Your Sister, you’ll see that people felt they were reading a rehash of the same scene over and over again: a brother, Drew, preventing his colleagues from scoring with his sister.
If you think your script has this particular problem, using screenplay slimmers alone won’t help. You need to add scenes, not just eliminate the the redundant ones.
Tossing in a subplot could improve your script. But more often than not, you’ll have to revamp your entire screenplay concept.
Screenplay Slimmers and It Really Happened Syndrome
In your screenplay, there might be scenes you include because they really happened, and you want to stay true to your source material.
This doesn’t only happen in screenplays “based on or inspired by” a true story, although biographical films are notorious culprits.
It Really Happened Syndrome occurs in fictional screenplays too–either when you’re incorporating personal anecdotes into your plot or when you’re adapting a book and want to keep ALL the scenes and ALL the characters from the novel in your script.
Resist. Resist. Resist.
Whether you’re writing a Napoleon biography or adapting the next Great American Novel, shove your screenplay into a pair of slimmers pronto.
Instead of keeping every detail that happened in real life or in the novel, keep only those scenes that advance plot. (Bonus if they reveal character too.)
If you’re writing a comedy, embellish details from your source material to increase the humor. If you’re writing a drama, take a tempestuous relationship that really happened and exaggerate it.
Get rid of anything that doesn’t advance the plot, reveal character, or jive with your screenplay’s overall tone. For clarity’s sake, you might also have to combine three characters into one or multiple small scenes into one big sequence.
The easiest way to master this screenwriting skill is to analyze screenplays that kicked It Really Happened Syndrome to the curb. For a “based on a true story” type of screenplay, Erin Brockovich is a shining example.
In the adaptation category, examine a movie that did justice to the novel it came from. Sense & Sensibility and the Harry Potter franchise are good starting points. (As are The Devil Wears Prada…and Bridget Jones’s Diary!)
Keep tabs on what these screenwriters kept in the movie and what they eliminated–even though it really happened in the book.
Unlike cellulite in your thighs, screenplay cellulite is easy to get rid of. Make sure you eliminate that unsightly fat with a pair of screenplay slimmers before your script ventures out into the real world…
…then your screenplay will really turn an agent’s head!
*I’m a writer, not a hosiery-maker, so no, I don’t own the trademark for Spanx!
Slim Fit by Md saad andalib