Recently, during a table read of a screenplay, I found myself desperately struggling to stay focused on the story. The dialog grabbed me, but then it was followed by overly detailed description that in some cases filled entire pages before the next words of dialog were uttered. To escape the torture of this interminable glut of narrative, I allowed my mind to drift away into pleasant images of my upcoming weekend plans.
Sound harsh? Maybe so, but the truth remains that excessive description is a fairly common problem amongst new writers and writers who never bothered to educate themselves in the craft. Basically, you want to include only those details that will add something meaningful to your story. You want your writing to be tight.
The genre in which you write will help determine the amount of description you’ll include. The above screenplay, for example, read more like a novel, but unlike a novel, screenwriting structure allows just a hundred or so pages in which to fit all of your story elements. Therefore, detail must be absolutely terse and dialog to the point.
In addition to excessively detailed descriptions, I have seen characters engaged in activities that don’t relate to the story. Does the reader really need to see the protagonist awake from a good night’s sleep and then proceed through his/her daily morning routine, step by step? Probably not. Ask yourself, if what you’ve written is critical to the story and then define exactly how. If it’s not critical, cut it.
Robert McKee, writer, instructor, consultant and author of the award-winning book Story, is one of the true masters of story who says it best:
“From an instant to eternity, from the intracranial to the intergalactic,the life of each and every character offers encyclopedic possibilities. The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a life-time.”
A few years ago, during another table read, the moderator interrupted the readers midway through the first fifteen pages of the script. It was unclear to him, and to the rest of us, where the story was going. It began with the protagonist talking to coworkers in his office. Ok, so we’re getting a feel for who our protagonist is. But then the dialog went on and on about…nothing.
The conversation continued as the protagonist walked with his coworkers to the elevator. During the ride down to the main floor, we heard more talk about…nothing. After exiting the elevator, the protagonist and his coworkers headed to the street and walked to a nearby restaurant, where the same conversation about, yes, you guessed it…nothing, ensued. I was baffled and amazed that in seven or so pages, we learned nothing about the story except that our character worked in an office and was able to carry on a conversation about nothing. Jerry Seinfeld can get away with this, but as budding writers, you cannot.
Remember, we do not need to see the character doing everything. Even reality tv shows edit hundreds of hours of film down to less than an hour of your time, an hour of carefully crafted elements that create a structured story. You must do the same. Here are some suggestions.
First, outline your story. I know that there are many writers who don’t believe in outlining, but in doing so, you will have a blueprint, a recipe, a guideline of story elements that will keep you from deviating from your story. In the long run, it will save you time and get you to the final page of your masterpiece much faster.
Next, ensure that each scene of your screenplay or each chapter of your book have a purpose. Each one must tie into your outlined story elements. Ask yourself what needs to happen in order to propel the story forward, then put pen to paper.
Finally, when you edit and rewrite your story, ask yourself if you can illustrate the purpose of each scene or chapter with less detail and more precise dialog. Redundancy will not only bore your readers, but if you’re trying to sell your work to agents and/or publishing houses, it will surely earn you a rejection letter.
For more information regarding story structure, I strongly recommend Robert McKee’s book, Story. Though it’s intended for screenwriters, the lessons offer useful information for writers across all genres.