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Home » Archives » September 2006 » How to Do Things Without Words
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09/14/2006: How to Do Things Without Words

Did you see Project Runway last night? It was an odd task in which the designers were required to use every bit of fabric that they purchased. Every scrap of postcard-size or larger had to be on that model. (Me, the moment they announce the rules, I'm cutting every scrap into smaller-than-postcard subscraps.)

Some of the designers were really stuck, ending up with big superfluous shawls of material, or with a purse stuffed with scraps. It was exactly the opposite of the writer's task, which is so often to pare away, pare away words and throw them into the trash heap. If we had to use every word of our first draft in our final draft, we'd have an awfully bulgy purse.

You want to cut words not just to address problems of overall script length, but also to make individual lines shorter. A page full of long clumps of monologue is uninviting and tiring to read. You want your spec to have more white on each page than black.

Look at the following lines (all pulled from different non-existent scenes) and consider what can be done to simplify them:

I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

I promise to keep you safe forever.

I suggest we take a little walk, you and I.

I apologize. I shouldn't have insulted you.

You're probably already seeing what I'm seeing. These lines can be made simpler, more direct, more effective if they are cut back to:

You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

I will keep you safe forever.

Let's take a little walk, you and I.

I shouldn't have insulted you.

The lines as originally written had a sort of redundancy about them. Why say you think something? If you're saying it, it's implied that you think it. And why say you're promising, when you can just promise? Why, ever, say you're suggesting something?

Now, sometimes, you want to keep the longer version because you're writing a character with a certain style of speech. And a very strong proclamation of some kind can often do with a bit of the drumroll that these words provide. Scarlett O'Hara probably shouldn't just say "I'll never be hungry again!" The "As God is my witness" adds an important little somethin' there.

But often, the shorter version is clearer, neater and, get this, more emotional, because there is less distance between the speaker and the acts they're performing with their speeches -- less words getting in the way of the doing.

Lunch: the "Mediterranean chicken sandwich" from Togos. Very good! I recommend it. It's the Thursday special, so you’ll have to wait a week. Then, go for it. (Quiz: What sentence could be cut from this lunch description? Answer: "I recommend it." I already performed the act of recommending through my simple praise.)


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