Screenwriters often spend time hunting for widows and orphans that inflate page count. But that’s rarely where you’ll find the real savings.
The more words on the page, the more work it takes to dig through to the essential.
When you write concisely, you get out of your story’s way.
Here’s a few tips to keep your pages clear and concise:
Shorten and split sentences
Track down the commas (and parentheses) in action and description lines.
When the clauses pile up and a sentence tries to do too much at once, slice it up.
It’s not that it’s bad to write a long sentence every so often, such as when you want to slow the reader down to focus on an important detail or drawn-out moment, but regularly relying on dense chunks of text can tire a reader out and bury important details.
Make long sentences the exception, not the rule.
Short sentences have nothing to hide. They provide one new piece of information, then end.
Even if you have a lot to say, you don’t need to sat it all at once.
Write Links, Not Islands
No single paragraph needs to stand alone, carrying all the weight for a scene’s description. It’s surrounded by other paragraphs that can share the task.
A sentence or paragraph doesn’t need to tell the whole story. It’s a link in a chain. A step in a staircase. It builds toward something.
If you have a lot of details in mind for a location, incorporate them into the action of the scene. Don’t drop all the description up front.
Or think like a cinematographer:
- Link details together based on how your view of the location changes as you sweep the room.
- Start with a close moment on a detail, then pull back to reveal more.
- Break a larger event or space into distinct vignettes of action, like a party where you eavesdrop on snippets of multiple conversations.
Favor Active Voice
Active voice keeps cause and effect clear. You’re telling us who does what.
- Kandace smashes down the door.
- Tom flips back a few pages.
- Bayleigh leans against her locker, a nervous smile.
Passive voice, treats things just sort of happen. You’re describing a situation, not an action:
- The door is kicked down by Kandace.
- The answer is a few pages back.
- There are a few students gathered by the lockers, including Bayleigh.
A story builds on cause and effect: Because this character did this, that happened. Active language helps make those connections clear.
Passive sentences (which generally include a helping verb and the past participle of the verb) often include clunky structures or sluggish wording.
Even inanimate objects can be written with active voice. Compare:
(Passive) There is a cauldron hanging over a fire, bubbling.
(Active) A cauldron bubbles over the fire.
Not only is the second sentence more dynamic, it’s shorter.
Passive voice isn’t always a bad choice. But it’s a choice, and should never be the default.
Narrow Down The Details
You don’t need to give every nuance about a location or a character to paint an image in the reader’s mind.
Unlike stereotyping, where one relatively common detail tries to associate one person with an entire group (usually negatively), reducing something to a single descriptor is about finding the unexpected or defining` element that sets some place or person apart from the rest.
Ask yourself: Which single detail or moment best represents the entire picture?
- The Ironic: Does the detail make this person or place distinct in an unexpected way?
- The Iconic: Is this a person or place the peak example of its type?
- The Routine: Perhaps this isn’t the first time this has happened, and the character’s reaction shows it. Like Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do,” so knowing what feels like “just another day” tells the audience a lot.
Never write less for the sake of writing less
With all of these suggestions, your mileage may vary.
Don’t stress over removing every passive sentence structure or splitting every sentence with a conjunction.
Just look for the places where the language gets in the way of the story.
The goal isn’t to write the fewest pages possible, or the shortest sentences. It’s about telling your story. Your writing needs to serve that purpose first and foremost.