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If only we could all be Cormac McCarthy

One of the least talked about components of screenwriting is READABILITY – or “How easy is your screenplay to read?” That’s because when compared to character, dialogue, structure, and theme, readability doesn’t seem that important. And that’s true to a certain extent. But think of it this way. While eggs and flour and sugar are all essential to make a great cake, you can’t serve the cake unless you have a plate to carry it on. “Readability” is a screenplay’s plate.

This is one that’s always vexed me. I’ll be sludging through a screenplay where every sentence feels like I’m on the 405 freeway during rush hour. Start-stop-start-stop-start-stop. Then, when I read a good screenplay, the sentences run together like melted butter. Everything seems so natural. So easy. I never think about the writing once.

But it’s not always clear why some scripts read uglier than others. I’ll go back through the bad-reads to figure out what went wrong and find that “technically” the writing was “correct.” What clouds the analysis is story quality. When you’re in the middle of a good story, the sentences always read quicker. When you’re reading a bad story, each sentence seems to go on forever.

Is readability just relative? Are sentences only as bad or good as the story they’re a part of?

I don’t think so. There’s clearly a way to combine sentences together in a pleasing easy-to-read manner. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any books or online tutorials about how to achieve this. You’re taught all the rules of writing in school and from then on it’s up to you to “write good.”

That’s why I’m writing today’s article. If nobody else is going to do it, I might as well give it a shot. To do so, I’ll be comparing four sentences/paragraphs from professional and amateur screenplays. My hope is, by utilizing this direct comparison technique, we’ll find some answers. Let’s give it a shot.

Example Number 1

From – “Joy” by Annie Mumolo
“They both glance over to a table where Joy’s father RUDY sits like a KING with his arm around a ROBUST woman in an ill- fitting MARILYN MONROE DRESS.”

From – Amateur Screenplay
“Danny patters to the front doors. Angelina awaits him there. The two join hands, partaking in a private moment.”

At first glance, the amateur submission isn’t that bad. But I don’t think it’s as good as the professional one. I found Joy to be EXTREMELY readable. While I wouldn’t nominate it for “most technically proficient screenplay of the year,” I don’t remember a single moment where I had to reread a sentence to understand what was going on.

That’s one of my biggest takeaways from this experiment. Professionals know they’re not trying to win over English professors with their scripts. They’re trying to tell a story. And the easier they can get that story across to the reader – whether it’s technically correct or not – the better.

A lot of times, amateurs overthink their prose and make it more complicated than it needs to be. If you look at the sentence from “Joy,” it’s not trying to be more than it is. There isn’t a single word in the sentence that you don’t understand. But reading the amateur sentence, we get the word “patters” immediately. That’s not a common word in this context and causes a pause, if however slight. Whenever a reader stops, if even for a split-second, that means you’ve failed as a writer. Reading is supposed to be seamless. When it isn’t, the reader is taken out of the story.

There are two other issues with the amateur example. The word “partaking” is another odd unpleasant word in this context, which causes another pause. Also, notice how the paragraph is broken up into very abrupt sentences, making for a robotic presentation. I wouldn’t say that this is unpleasant. We’ll see in a moment that it’s possible to do this well. But in conjunction with the other mistakes, it hurts the read.

That’s another thing I’ve learned through this experiment. Bad writing is a lot like bad piloting. If you make one mistake as a pilot, it usually goes unnoticed. But when the mistakes pile up, that’s when the plane crashes. Let’s move on to the next example.

Example Number 2

From – “February” by Osgood Perkins
“Kat comes out from behind the closet door, wearing her oversized hooded Bramford sweatshirt and a pair of printed pajama pants.”

From – Amateur Screenplay
“Cinnamon unbuttons shirt cuffs, rolls up sleeves, pulls on thin black leather gloves from a rear hip pocket. He draws the backside .22 and holds it aloft by the silencer.”

Here we have a lot of detail. But in one case, the sentence is easy to read through, and in the other, it made my head hurt. Notice how in “February,” we have three words in a row that end with the letter “d” and then nearly four words in a row that start with “p.” This alliteration helps the sentence move along quicker in the mind.

With the amateur entry, it feels like information overload. I remember reading this script and there were a lot of sentences, like this one, where I had to read them 2-3 times to take in everything that was going on. While technically fine, it seems like the paragraph could’ve been simplified. Also note that while in “February,” we have a full sentence, in the amateur submission, words are missing in favor of the staccato style. I’ve added where those words would be:

“Cinnamon unbuttons [her] shirt cuffs, rolls up [her] sleeves, [then] pulls on [some] thin black leather gloves from…”

I’m not going to say to never use staccato style. This is something a lot of writers have used successfully. But when you use in it conjunction with too much information or overwritten sentences, it can easily start to feel like work to read through. Case in point, here’s a paragraph from who many feel to be the king of this kind of writing, Shane Black, in his first screenplay, “Lethal Weapon.”

“Sergeant Martin Riggs is driving. He looks like he hasn’t slept. He certainly hasn’t shaved. The DISPATCH RADIO SQUAWKS. He turns down the MUSIC from the car radio and hears:”

We have short quick sentences here, like the amateur example. But they’re all grammatically correct, making them easier to read. Let’s move on to the next example, staying with our friend, Shane.


Example Number 3

From – “Lethal Weapon” by Shane Black
“A section of the parking lot is cordoned off by yellow streamers which read: POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS, and as we watch, a black and white patrol car pulls up, admitting two beat COPS and a young hooker. Her name is DIXIE, and she is not happy.”

From – Amateur Screenplay
“Hadley settles in. The Maitre d’ snaps at a server, pointing to the table and holding up one finger addressing Hadley who has just joined the group.”

At first glance, Shane Black’s sentence seems odd. While he probably should’ve ended his first sentence after “DO NOT CROSS,” he chooses to make it one continuous sentence. Some may say this is “wrong,” yet it all feels so relaxed and natural, I’m tempted to say it’s fine. I don’t have to put in any effort to figure out what he means or reread anything, which tells me the sentence is a success.

Now let’s look at the amateur example. Everything seems to be going well until we reach the Maitre d’ holding up one finger. When we get to “and” in this example, “holding up one finger” seems to be more of an afterthought, as opposed to a natural extension of the sentence. This is fine in everyday conversation when we remember things at the last second all the time, but when you’re describing something in a screenplay, it has to feel planned, or else it reads like you’re making your story up as you go along.

This assumption is solidified when the last part of the sentence arrives: “…addressing Hadley who has just joined the group.” This tacked on piece of information is lazy. Notice how everything in Shane’s example is in the ACTIVE VOICE. What’s happening is happening RIGHT NOW. In contrast, “…who has just joined the group” is PASSIVE. It already happened, making it feel tacked on. The lesson here is clear. Keep everything in the active voice if possible. And don’t tack things onto the ends of sentences. It shouldn’t be, “Carson writes an article after he opens a coke.” It’s, “Carson pops open a coke and writes his article.”

Example Number 4

“500 Days of Summer” by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
“And that question hangs in the air. Tom, panicked, decides to cut the silence. All the pent up uncertainty and confusion, coupled with the challenge to his manhood in front of the woman he loves, all manifests in one single, solid, almost automatic RIGHT CROSS TO THE GOOD LOOKING DOUCHEBAG’S FACE.”

From – Amateur Screenplay
“Joseph drives too fast through woody shrubs on a steep, gravelly hillside. He slams on the brakes before heading off a bluff. Gets out and looks across the vast desert sands.”

Our 500 Days friends go big here with a really long sentence. They even make a mistake. “All” is used twice when it should’ve been used once. And yet it works. The long sentence is fine because it’s a pivotal moment in the film. It’s okay to write bigger when the moment is bigger. The sentence also takes place completely in the active voice, making it easy to read. And everything flows. Every word/fragment/idea is a logical progression from the word/fragment/idea before it.

Now let’s look at the second example. Everything here is fine until we get to “before.” “Before heading” takes us out of the active voice into a semi-passive voice. But it’s the next sentence that derails the paragraph. Driving the car and getting out to look at the desert are two different actions and should’ve been split up into different paragraphs. Together, they feel jarring, causing the reader to hesitate as he realizes we’ve moved out of the car into a different area. There’s also an inconsistency to focusing on such specific moments within the paragraph (“woody shrubs, a steep gravelly hillside, slams on the breaks”) to then end on one so general (looking across a desert).


This exercise has taught me a few things about the elusive quality of readability. First off, “technically correct” doesn’t always mean “readable.” Just as “technically incorrect” doesn’t always mean “unreadable.” You can go against what they taught you in school and still write a very easy-to-read sentence. Look at our first example from Annie Mumolo. Some people might call that a run-on-sentence. But it’s fast and smooth and easy-to-read so it works.

Another big breakthrough for me – the closest I got to an “ah-ha” moment – was Osgood Perkins’ use of alliteration, which added a pleasing repetition to the words on the page. It’s this “pleasing” quality that I’m after. But I don’t think it’s possible to ALWAYS use alliteration. It’d just be too hard (and might even get annoying after awhile). I almost wonder if there’s a less structured/defined way to achieve the same effect using a middle-ground technique (not quite normal sentence and not all-the-way alliteration). Has anyone heard of such a technique?

One of the most frustrating things about all this is the reality that there’s nobody out there who actually teaches you how to WRITE. Sure, there are teachers who teach you nouns and verbs – all the technical stuff. But once you have that down, where is the instructor who teaches you how to place words together in a pleasing way? I haven’t found him yet. And I want to. How bout you guys? Do you know of any books or tips that help one achieve this? I’ve been looking for material on this forever.

In the meantime, here are some tips to avoid the mistakes today’s amateurs made.

1) Keep your writing simple.

2) Keep your writing in the active voice if possible.

3) Never write to impress. This is what most beginners do and they end up writing a bunch of unnecessary prose in the process.

4) Don’t use vocabulary to show off. If you’re using a thesaurus to include a word you’ve never personally used before, you probably shouldn’t use that word.

5) Staccato-style writing (“Jump down.” instead of “They jump down.”) can be draining to read over a long period of time. There are some writers who do this well. But usually, it requires the brain to think differently in order to process the words, which is taxing. Proceed with caution.

6) In screenwriting, “fewer words” is usually better than “more words.” While this would seem to contradict what I just wrote, what I mean is, even with traditional sentences, there’s always a way to say something with fewer words. “John grabs his grimy baseball hat as well as his gun while wiping the ever-thickening sweat off his brow,” can easily be turned into, “John grabs his cap and gun and flicks the sweat off his brow.”

7) Complex sentences are dangerous. Indeed, it’s after a conjunction where a few of our amateurs fell apart. A single conjunction (and, but, or) is standard. But when you start using more than one in your sentence, it may be time to start a new sentence.

8) Write to your level – If you’re only capable of doing a double-axel, you’re going to be exposed every time you try a triple-axel. Sure, we’d all like to be Cormac McCarthy, but one of the biggest mistakes I see writers make is writing above their level. And it’s VERRRRRY painful to read. Screenwriting is one of the more forgiving forms of writing when it comes to prose. You don’t have to knock our socks off. Take advantage of that.

And with that, I’m going to leave you with two final UNLABELED examples, one pro and one amateur. Tell me which you think is pro, which is amateur, and why in the comments. I’ll reveal which is which (in the comments) after sundown.


“Casper, wearing only tighty-whiteys, sits on the floor of his bedroom amid t-ball trophies, race car bed sheets and a pin-up of Farrah Fawcett; the conflicting decorations of a boy who went through a quick growth spurt.

He thumbs through last year’s yearbook looking for the mystery girl. He gives up, lays down and lights a joint.”


“Surrounded, Black begins a coughing fit. His hands come up to cover the cough – the paperclip he stole from Moreau slips into his hand.

Stumbles into the Elevator panel – hitting the EMERGENCY button. The Elevator STOPS – sending everyone flailing.

Black uses the paperclip to release the cuffs. Nickels sees what’s going down – but isn’t quick enough to stop –

– Black unloads a barrage of strikes, taking down each Agent. Quickly undoes his shackles.”

  • IgorWasTaken

    Carson wrote:

    6) In screenwriting, “less words” is usually better than “more words.”


    Igor writes:

    In writing, “fewer words” is better than “more words.”

    [Or even, without poetic license, “In writing, ‘fewer words’ are better than “more words.”]

    Thank you for your support.

    • carsonreeves1

      Is “less” wrong in my sentence (honest question)?

      • IgorWasTaken

        “fewer” is correct.

        “less” is considered not-incorrect if one considers “grammar” simply as a measure of how people talk and write.

        The problem – and I do understand it – comes from the standalone expression “more or less”. And from that, the question becomes, “Well, if it’s correct to say ‘more words’, then why is it wrong to say ‘less words’?”

        Shirley Surely, “less” is on its way to becoming accepted as correct, just as many other bits of incorrectness have. (See the “Usage note” here ) But my hunch is it’ll take another 10 years or so.

        If it’s any consolation to you, my hunch is that >80% of people who might read your original would think it’s fine as is.

        • walker

          I have noticed that less is always on its way to becoming accepted.

          • Eric

            Since 888 AD apparently…

            http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Fewer_vs._less#Historical_usage

            One more millenium and we’ll have it all sealed up.

          • IgorWasTaken

            I take your post as lighthearted, but still… Merely as an aside…

            While I use Wikipedia a lot, its stuff about language (all in combination) is a pet peeve of mine. Especially the entries for supposed neologisms. And the myriad entries for “acronyms”, with examples whose proponents assert are not actually acronyms, but rather are “_________”.

            Anyway, here is the 888 AD example they offer:

            Alfred the Great was a prolific writer and translator of the time, and used less with counting nouns, e.g. around 888 AD:

            Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon.

            And so, I’d say “yes, fine”, if your script is written in Middle English.

          • Eric

            But the overall gist is that it’s always been less. The idea to use the word fewer in such situations didn’t come about until 1770…

            “As far as we have been able to discover, the received rule originated in 1770 as a comment on ‘less': This Word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. “No Fewer than a Hundred” appears to me, not only more elegant than “No less than a Hundred,” but more strictly proper. (Baker 1770). Baker’s remarks about ‘fewer’ express clearly and modestly – ‘I should think,’ ‘appears to me’ – his own taste and preference….Notice how Baker’s preference has been generalized and elevated to an absolute status and his notice of contrary usage has been omitted.”

            This indicates to me that the insistence on fewer is unwarranted. It has never been in the popular use, even seemingly among academics.

            “The Cambridge Guide to English Usage notes that the pressure to substitute fewer for less seems to have developed out of all proportion to the ambiguity it may provide in noun phrases like “less promising results”. It describes conformance with this pressure as a shibboleth and the choice ‘between the more formal fewer and the more spontaneous less’ as a stylistic choice.”

          • IgorWasTaken

            OK let’s recall the facts.

            The Cambridge Guide says on thing – a UK-centric guide.

            The first part of what you quoted apparently comes from the Merriam–Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which I believe is US-centric.

            And so, in America, at least for moi, I’ll go with the rule apparently in place for the past 200+ years.

            Also, this is from the American Heritage Dictionary:

            Usage Note: The traditional rule holds that fewer should be used for things that can be counted (fewer than four players), while less should be used with mass nouns for things of measurable extent (less paper; less than a gallon of paint). The Usage Panel largely supports the traditional rule. In our 2006 survey, only five percent accepted the sentence There are less crowds at the mall these days, while 28 percent accepted the following sentence, in which less is contrasted with more: The region needs more jobs, not less jobs. The Panel was a little more accepting (but still not in favor) of the familiar supermarket usage The express lane is reserved for shoppers with 10 or less items. The traditional rule is often hard to follow in practice, however, in part because plural nouns and mass nouns are similar in being divisible and in lacking distinct boundaries. For this reason, plurals and mass nouns are used in many of the same ways. Both can be used without determiners (I like apples, I like applesauce), and they both can take certain quantifiers like some and more (more apples, more applesauce). Less falls in the same class as some and more and is used in some well-established constructions where fewer would occur if the traditional rule were applied. Less than can be used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles. Less is sometimes used with plural nouns in the expressions no less than (as in No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter) and or less (as in Give your reasons in 25 words or less). And the approximator more or less is normally used after plural nouns as well as mass nouns: I have two dozen apples, more or less. To use fewer in such constructions sounds fastidious, so writers who follow the traditional rule should do so with caution.


          • Eric

            I don’t know. I don’t really have a stake in this game, so I don’t want to seem too combative, but from my view what you’ve posted speaks of a “traditional rule”. So my thinking is to figure out where that rule came from. As far as I can see, it still came from 1770 from a guy who was basically saying “wouldn’t it be nice” or “doesn’t this sound good”.

            I agree that fewer works better in a lot of those instances, but there also seem to be a lot of exceptions to the rule. “less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles.” How are those supposed to be acceptable instances? How are weeks, dollars, and miles not countable things? Even your post says, “The traditional rule is often hard to follow in practice”. Maybe there’s a reason for that.

            Sometimes fewer sounds right and sometimes less sounds right, and this looks to me like a failed attempt to create a rule that explains why. But the rule is too recent and the exceptions too many for me to take it too seriously. I think I’ll continue to play it by ear.

            But I’m sure I’ll be paying closer attention now :)

          • IgorWasTaken

            I’ve got a good friend who gives me grief when I say (about going somewhere): “But it’s less than 10 minutes from here.” My friend insists it’s always with “fewer” with countable items, while I say in that example “10 minutes” is effectively a single unit of measure.

            Grammar’s primary goal is to help people understand each other. In that context, “less words” is fine. We get it.

            So, why use “fewer” – ever?

            Because it might make a better impression.

            If the reader knows the difference and you’ve used “fewer” correctly, it will do that IMO. Yet, if the reader knows the difference but you’ve used “less”… Who knows? I assume lots of pro readers just let that stuff go. But I also assume some do not.

            We all make mistakes in scripts. And in a sense, there’s some limit with each reader. So, stuff such as “fewer” versus “less” – do that stuff correctly (that is, correctly according a survey of grammar geeks), and it’s one less potential demerit to worry about.

            a reader hs even when we write something that is grammatically correct, I’d bet there’s a fair chance that some readers will think it’s wrong

          • Eric

            ” do that stuff correctly (that is, correctly according a survey of grammar geeks), and it’s one less potential demerit to worry about.”

            I try to be pragmatic, so I actually can’t argue with that. If it’s not hurting it’s helping. I can get behind that.

      • S.C.

        Stephen Fry, as ardent a defender of the Queen’s English as anyone alive, says less is an acceptable substitute for fewer. Language evolves.

        Literally when you mean figuratively is still wrong.

        • IgorWasTaken

          You pull that out of your fanny pack?

          • S.C.

            Fanny pack? Is that a bum bag?

        • S.C.

          He does like to have fun with people too!

      • pmlove

        Countable v non-countable. You can count the number of words, therefore ‘fewer’ is correct.

        If you can’t count it (say ‘water’), then it is ‘less water’ not ‘fewer water’.

    • carsonreeves1

      never mind. I fixed it anyway. :)

  • Frankie Hollywood

    ” I don’t remember a single moment where I had to reread a sentence to understand what was going on.”

    First thing that popped in my head was, The House That Death Built.

    1st sentence read, my reaction: WTF?
    reread same sentence, my reaction: Wait, what?
    3rd read of same sentence, my reaction: I think I understand, but….fuck it, moving on.

    What an epic battle that was.

    Make it clean, clear and precise — please and thank you.

    • carsonreeves1

      lol. Everything about that script was WTF.

    • Eddie Panta

      Hello there…
      Do you have the JOY script? if so, please sent to theodorefremd at g mail when you get a chance.

      • Frankie Hollywood


        • Eddie Panta

          You rock

  • IgorWasTaken

    Carson wrote:

    4) Don’t use vocabulary to show off. If you’re using a thesaurus to include a word you’ve never personally used before, you probably shouldn’t use that word.

    Yes. Sometimes, people simply “walk”.

    Carson wrote:

    8) Write to your level – If you’re only capable of doing a double-axel, you’re going to be exposed every time you try a triple-axel.

    Again, yes.

    After my years here, I am pleasantly surprised to see that bit of advice from you, Carson. Not that I’ve ever seen you say something to contradict that, but it is nice to see that sentiment as a declaration.

    I have ideas for scripts, even with their stories sketched out, that I have not written because am not ready to write them. And on the upside, some of my all-time favorite movies are ones that aren’t “great” movies; rather, they are simple movies executed superbly.

    For me, it’s kinda like cooking.

  • brenkilco

    I’m not sure you can ever make anything more readable by being technically incorrect. Show me a bad sentence and I’ll show you poor grammar, poor word choice, or poor construction. Maybe all three. And let’s not let the pros off the hook simply because they’re pros.

    “A section of the parking lot is cordoned off by yellow streamers which read: POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS, and as we watch, a black and white patrol car pulls up, admitting two beat COPS and a young hooker.”

    If you read that portion of the script you realize this is a terrible sentence. Just flat out wrong. Why? The word admitted. The car isn’t admitting anybody. The cops and hooker aren’t getting into the car. They’re getting out of the car. Black must have confused admitted with disgorged or some other similar word. He might just as easily have said two cops and a hooker get out of the car. Anyway a bad example of good writing.

    • carsonreeves1

      I didn’t catch that “admitted” is technically wrong, although that’s almost a testament to the readability of the sentence. It’s so natural, and I knew exactly what he meant, that I didn’t notice it.

      As far as “technically incorrect” being “okay,” an example might be a run-on sentence. Technically, the writer should probably turn it into two sentences. But a good writer can write it in a way where it still works as one.

      • brenkilco

        But a run on sentence, if constructed properly, can be technically correct. I bet Henry James never wrote sentence that wasn’t absolutely grammatical. And some of those suckers run on forever.

        • filmklassik

          – Which is why James defeats me at every turn. I’ve always had the devil’s own time trying to make it though his novels, and to date I have only ever finished “The Turn of the Screw.” I have seen several film adaptations — and even liked a few — but James’ digressive, windy style can be a slog.

          By the same token, I have never been able to get through any of William Faulkner’s novels either (though I’ve read a few of his short stories) or anything by Joseph Conrad, so this probably says more about my own Philistinism than anything else.

          • brenkilco

            I have never been able to read a Faulkner novel either. Have read some Conrad and James. You sort of have to be in the right mood.

          • filmklassik

            Yeah, Faulkner’s tough — at least for me. Brilliant, but tough. I’ve heard his most accessible book is “Sanctuary” so when I decide to try him again one day — and I probably will — I’ll start with that one.

            And someone once said of Henry and William James (and I’m probably paraphrasing a little): Henry was a novelist who wrote like a scientist, and William was a scientist who wrote like a novelist. Haven’t read enough of William’s work to know if that’s true or not (a few excerpts here and there, mainly in articles written by other people) but I do love the quote.

            And I should try Conrad again. I tried reading “Lord Jim” once since I’m a big fan of the movie… but it was rough going, brother. Like a voyage around the Horn.

          • brenkilco

            There’s another quote about James I may get wrong. His writing is like an elephant picking up a pea. The crazy thing about Conrad is he is one of the most revered writers in the English language but he didn’t learn English till he was like twenty five. So what’s my excuse? And whle he uses language impeccably it seems to me he doesn’t always express himself as a native speaker would. So in addition to the complexity there’s this odd disconnect like watching a dubbed movie and getting thrown off by the lip movements.

        • GoIrish

          I think a run-on sentence is, by definition, grammatically incorrect. Per one source, a run-on sentence is two (or more) independent clauses joined together without proper punctuation. But as you suggest, there can be extremely long-winded sentences that are grammatically correct.

          • brenkilco

            Yes, I think the term run on properly used does designate a grammatically incorrect sentence, not simply a complex one.

      • IgorWasTaken

        “Admitted” is not wrong. It’s used as an intransitive verb – i.e., allowing one’s entrance.

        • carsonreeves1

          I love it. There is going to be some mega nerdy writing discussion today!

        • brenkilco

          Sorry but admit cannot be used in this way. You are suggesting that any time a car pulls to a curb, it admits it’s passengers. It disgorges them or it deposits them. It does not grant them entry to a larger space. The police might admit the cab into a cordoned off space but the cab isn’t admitting anything, esp. since it’s already through the tape. It’s just a bad word.

          • walker

            “Emit” would be ok.

          • klmn

            The Buick vomits its passengers onto the curb and farts an oily black smoke.

          • brenkilco

            That is some emetic emitting.

          • IgorWasTaken

            Reads like a quote from a “Family Guy” script.

          • IgorWasTaken

            Your ticket to a concert (your “admission ticket”) “admits” (intransitive) you to the show.

            When you hand your ticket to the ticket-taker, s/he then “admits” (transitive) you to the show.

            Shane Black’s words tell us the “black and white patrol car” admitted those three characters to the crime scene. As if a man in a suit walks up, a uniformed cop stops him, but then “his badge admits him.”

          • brenkilco

            A cab stops in the middle of Times Square and admits passengers. They have to be climbing in, not getting out. An usher can admit you inside a theater and a cop can admit you inside a crime scene. The only inside we’re talking about in this sentence is the cab.

          • IgorWasTaken

            It seems this comes down to you not accepting (nay, admitting) that “admit” can be used as an intransitive verb.

          • brenkilco

            I know it can be intransitive. Though it doesn’t appear to be in the case of our script. The cab admits the passengers. Though, honestly I’m having trouble coming up with a sentence where it wouldn’t be transitive. Help me out.

          • IgorWasTaken

            There are many things that might “admit” a person to a place that is otherwise off-limits. Among them:

            A gun.
            A smile.
            An armored tank.
            A ticket.
            A press pass.
            A marked police car.

            When I first read those lines from Lethal Weapon, I actually did think he was using “admit” to mean “discharge”. That would be wrong grammatically (though OK poetically, IMO). But since his construction also works to mean, “That’s how those three got up close to the crime scene,” I realized it was not wrong.

            Either way, I found the sentence awkward. But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s only awkward to the extent that many action lines in that script are awkward.

            IOW, it’s not awkward if your baseline is the script’s overall style.

            But again, irrespective of any arguable awkwardness, I find it grammatically correct.

          • Citizen M

            Page 12 Scene 16 of the Lethal Weapon script:

            A section of the parking lot is cordoned off by yellow streamers which read: POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS, and as we watch, a black and white patrol car pulls up, admitting two beat COPS and a young hooker. Her name is DIXIE, and she is not happy.

            Can I stay in the car?

          • IgorWasTaken

            Just for once, couldn’t the hooker say, “May I stay in the car?”

          • Eric

            You won me here. Even if ‘admitting’ can be used both ways, the way the sentence is laid out leaves it up to the reader to determine whether two cops and a hooker got into the car or got out of it. There’s no further elaboration, and hence, confusion.

            That’s bad writing, or at least careless.

    • IgorWasTaken

      IMO, “admitting” is correct. A bit awkward the way it’s used, yet only awkward in the way that Shane Black’s style often reads “awkward”.

      As for “admitting”: The “black and white patrol car” admits them past the yellow police-tape. Just as a concert ticket admits one into a concert hall.

    • S.C.

      We had a screenplay recently where someone was “toting a Hawaiian shirt”.

      The writer evidently thought wearing a shirt wasn’t exciting enough, but what he wrote made people think he was carrying the shirt.

      Only use words if you know what they mean.

      • brenkilco

        I confer with that sediment.

    • davejc

      Yup, it just goes to show that good writing, like everything else in this biz, is subjective.

      I didn’t even get to “admitting” because “as we watch” threw me out. I started thinking, well, what else would we be doing.

    • Citizen M

      There’s nothing wrong with the sentence. “Admitting” is okay. in this context.

      And the sentence is long because all the action is supposed to be seen in one long take.

      That’s something Carson didn’t address — your sentences should follow the rhythm of the shots. Long sentences, long takes; short sentences, short choppy shots.

      • brenkilco

        No it’s not OK and your high school English teacher would have red penciled it in a heartbeat. It conveys the opposite of what is intended.

        • Citizen M

          It’s correct. The cops and the hooker are being admitted to the crime scene. Later on they will climb out of the car.

          And my high school English teacher was a sweet old Afrikaans lady, mother of a prominent author who wrote raunchy Afrikaans novels, and would never have red-pencilled anything I wrote. So there.

          • brenkilco

            So what you’re saying it’s saying is that a cab pulls up and is admitted to the crime scene. Two cops and a hooker climb out. And all I’ll admit is that’s what it ought to be saying but the actual construction is bad.

          • filmklassik

            Exactly! What’s unclear is whether the passengers are getting OUT of the patrol car or merely being conveyed into a restricted area BY the patrol car. If it’s the second possibility, then this construction is okay.

            On the other hand, the fact that it’s so ambiguous means it’s probably NOT okay.

            But I’m carping here. Shane Black’s script is, overall, a helluva fun read (he cites William Goldman and Walter Hill as his biggest influences) although, like Quentin Tarantino, his writing has spawned a lot of pale imitations.

  • ripleyy

    The most important thing is grabbing your reader by the throat the very first chance you get. I think you can be as aggressive as you have to be, specifically on the very first page, and from there it’s about continuing along with a jog rather than a sprint. I admit, I sometimes shift between passive and active like a schizophrenic but that’s all apart of the learning curve.

    Anyway, I think the most important advice is number 8. Write the best YOU can do. Don’t try and be like somebody else. Accept your limitations and go with it. You mimic someone else’s style or voice, you’re going to find yourself in a dangerous place. You can be inspired, but it’s all about accepting yourself, because through you and your style, it could be unique to somebody else – it might even inspire them.

    • S.C.

      One problem maybe – I’ve brought up this possibility before – that people are reading the same thing, mainly the same screenplays.

      To help develop your own voice, it helps – I’ve found – to read a wide range of screenplays and non-screenplays. I like writing complete sentences like in a book, but I know I can’t write flowery description like a book.

      I prefer the writing in old screenplays, but I know that old screenplays could be a little too detailed. So it’s about blending the best of everything.

      I don’t know who started the trend for dropping the punctuation in scripts.

      • LV426

        Perhaps that haiku style that Walter Hill used could be partially responsible for these staccato anti-punctuation writing techniques? Not that Hill didn’t use proper punctuation, but that he used a very minimalist yet rapid fire approach in his scripts. I could see this short sentence crazy staccato style evolving from something like Hill’s writing influencing many up and coming young writers back in the 80s and 90s.

        • S.C.

          Some old scripts have big, HUGE chunks of text and it’s too much to read. So Hill’s breaking it into paragraphs works really well.

          I think the staccato style started in a small way:

          A gunshot. Blake spins around. Nobody there.

          Now people are using it too much:

          Blake reaches the front door. Key out of pocket. In lock. Turns. CLICK. Door opens.

          • LV426

            That seems plausible.

            It certainly isn’t the best approach for every story. Although I do like that staccato writing style as it feels very “noir” to me.

            Now it seems like a writing style more appropriate for short film scripts as opposed to a feature spec meant to be sent out to contests, producers, etc.

          • Eric

            You have to use it in the right context, which is usually an action scene of some sort. If you read a passage that goes…

            “She holds the baby. Cries. Puts it the cab. It drives off.”

            …something is tonally off.

          • brenkilco

            something is tonally off

            Like a baby behind the wheel

          • Eric

            They grow up so fast

      • brenkilco

        The half sentences and anything for momentum feel of so many modern scripts can all be traced to one Urtext. Goldman’s Butch Cassidy.

    • Randy Williams

      Agree. Last weekend we had the amateur entry “Universal Love” on AOW.
      Most posts fell hard on the writer for all the grammatical mistakes. Most felt English
      was probably his second language but, after he commented several times, he never
      mentioned if it was or not . He never defended himself that way, just was awfully cheery about it all.

      The logline of that script placed in a logline contest and gives the writer an opportunity to meet and pitch to executives.
      I found the logline of the script to be contagious, as well as the tone of the

      Who knows, with all his limitations, this writer may sell something before any of us
      do or ever will.

  • S.C.

    A few weeks ago, I complained about an amateur writer using broken sentences.

    Writing. Broken sentences. Lack of punctuation. Too much. Drives me mad.

    Another commentator said I was wrong, so thank you, Carson, for clarifying your position.

  • pmlove

    I think Mystery One is pro, Two amateur.

    For me, a sentence is best when it describes just one idea.

    “His hands come up to cover the cough – the paperclip he stole from Moreau slips into his hand.” -> there are two different ideas here, hence why I think it is the amateur.

    The first example, while a long sentence, only expresses one idea per sentence. Boy sits down. Thumbs through year book. Gives up.

    And now you can tell me I’m wrong.

  • lonestarr357

    #2 is the amateur.

    Shouldn’t it be ‘The elevator STOPS. Everyone flails.’?

    Good article.

    • Caivu

      Rocks fall, everyone dies.

  • Felip Serra

    Cormac McCarthy, eh? I can dig it. Curious though Carson what you thought of “The Counsellor” as a screenplay (or the film).

    • carsonreeves1

      I say that more from all other writers’ perspective. Almost every writer I know believes McCarthy is the best writer living. But me? Yeah, don’t get me started on The Counselor!

      • walker

        Thomas Pynchon.

        • pmlove

          I have Mason & Dixon and The Crying of Lot 49 on my shelf awaiting a read and a holiday coming up – any thoughts on either?

          If Foster Wallace was still with us, he’d get my vote.

      • Felip Serra

        Ha ha. I think I catch your meaning. As a screenplay (term used very liberally) its as frustrating as it is fascinating. Reading it was fine but watching the movie was like witnessing every visceral detail of a 10 minute train wreck slowed and stretched over two hours. “Audacious” doesn’t even begin to cover it…

        And if I may throw a name out for anyone eavesdropping: George Simenon. A beast of a writer (400 books in his lifetime) who was fearless with cutting. Absolutely no bullshit, no baggage, and deceptively effortless. For screenwriting he’s a good ally.

        • Citizen M

          With all the women he screwed, I’m amazed Simenon found the time to write at all ;o)

          • Felip Serra

            Most portable typewriters can fit on the small of a woman’s back :p

  • walker

    Hey at least you’ve got an excuse.

  • GoIrish

    Mystery example #1 is better written but still flawed. The decorations are an indication of a fast/early puberty, not a quick growth spurt. Also, it should be “lies” instead of “lays” in the last sentence.

  • IgorWasTaken

    Another lesson, though it isn’t really something one can apply.

    When a script works, lots of individual bits that might otherwise be problems simply disappear.

    And so with yesterday’s script, “Joy”. As I posted yesterday, no one seemed not notice/care how long it was – well past 120 pages/20,000 words.

    Similarly, it seems no one objected to Annie Mumolo’s promiscuous use of ALL CAPS (despite the fact that other scripts, especially amateur scripts, get dinged here for that kinda thing). For example, on page 10:

    We see various shots of Joy grabbing from the different
    baskets and glueing LEAVES, BERRIES, FLOWERS, MINI-PINE
    CONES. She takes a RIBBON and ties it at the top, then holds
    it up to check her work. It is a VERY PRETTY DECORATIVE
    GRAPEVINE WREATH. She sets it aside and grabs more twigs.

    • carsonreeves1

      Very true. Every script is the sum of its parts. If it hits 10s in seven categories, we’re not going to care if it gets 4s in the last three. However, this should never be used as an excuse to be sloppy. You should get everything that’s under your control as good as you can get it, and then let the chips fall where they may..

    • S.C.

      Absolutely, if you have a good story, people will ignore the occasional clumsy sentence, or the necessary evils of montages, etc.

      Caps do drive me nuts though. It’s a shooting script thing and I’m not directing it.

    • Citizen M

      That use of caps isn’t wrong, but it’s old-fashioned. It used to be that all significant props were capped for the property master’s convenience.

      We don’t do it in spec scripts any more because it detracts from the read, but I note that this is a “1st Studio Draft”, so I suspect that this is a studio rewriting of Ms Mumolo’s original spec script, which wasn’t capped to the same extent.

    • Bob Bradley

      What about BASKETS and TWIGS?

  • mulesandmud

    The not-quite alliteration effect that Carson is talking about is called CONSONANCE.

    By putting the same or similar consonants in proximity to each other in your prose, you create patterns and rhythms, giving your prose structure. At best, if functions almost as an informal meter, like in poetry.

    Doing the same thing with vowels is called ASSONANCE.

    Think of it like good architecture: you want to build each sentence with as much of the same material as possible, or with materials that compliment each other. Your letters are your building blocks, so choose blocks that match.

    This gives you the freedom to build your sentences that feel smooth and unified without being structurally repetitive. Nothing bugs me more in a script than a script whose every action line begins with a character name or pronoun. (“Bob opens the door. Jane checks the lock. He gets bored. She throws the script in the trash.”)

    And not only does consonance help you guide readers’ eyes across a line, it lets you naturally control which words get stressed in a sentence. The more you do it, the more natural and intuitive it becomes.

    Otherwise, you end up FORCED to use CAPS or other artificial EMPHASIS so that readers KNOW the IMPORTANT words in your SENTENCE.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with caps. When you need a reader to unambiguously register a critical detail, better safe than sorry. Lay on the uppercase.

    Still, a writer with a command of sentence rhythm with make sure those stressed words land in places with natural emphasis; if not, the caps might seem random or confusing. Carson’s excerpt from JOY in example #1 is full of caps gone screwy: why are ‘king’ and ‘robust’ emphasized there?

    Here’s one of the best and simplest rules I use for prose: the first and last words of a sentence are the most important, like the beginning and ending of a story. It’s a natural opportunity for emphasis, so try to lead or finish any thought with its key words.

    Sometimes, I check to see if I can follow my story just by reading the first and last words of every sentence. If I can, it’s usually a good sign.

    Don’t obsess over this stuff when you’re first getting a story down on the page, but when it comes time for the rewrite, be ruthless about applying these principles to every line.

    One last thing: don’t go looking for one single magical book that will teach you all the secrets of good prose. The best way to learn great sentence structure is to READ EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME. Fiction and nonfiction, long and short form, classic and contemporary alike. Reading is nourishment for your own writing. Ingest, digest, incorporate, dominate.

    Screenplays are the low-water mark for prose in storytelling; if you spend too much time in that echo chamber, you may start to forget what a good sentence even sounds like.

    • carsonreeves1

      I knew Mules would know. I knew it!

    • carsonreeves1

      Again, Mules, this is great. Any sentences you might offer as examples of consonance and assonance? Either your own or from a book? I’m eager to learn.

      • DBC

        Most academics would tell you that if you were to own one technical book on the matter, this would be it:

        The Elements of Style — by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

        If screenwriters started their road with this and a basic digestion of literature regardless of speciality, instead of Blake Snyder (ie focused on writing before committing said skills to screenwriting), the baseline of script readability would skyrocket. It would be insane to think a neurosurgeon could start off his training in his residency and later on take care of those pesky old underlying principles like biology/physics/chemistry, yet this is how so many amateurs approach screenwriting. Sigh.

    • IgorWasTaken

      mulesandmud wrote:

      The not-quite alliteration effect that Carson is talking about is
      called CONSONANCE.

      By putting the same or similar consonants in proximity to each
      other in your prose, you create patterns and rhythms, giving your
      prose structure. At best, if functions almost as an informal meter,
      like in poetry.

      Doing the same thing with vowels is called ASSONANCE.

      Well said. Only problem with such $2 words is their CONNOTATION.

      I’ve often decided against using what seems (to me) the perfect word because, unless the reader knows it (and, sometimes, even if he/she does), the connotation is wrong.

    • FD

      HA! Mules you are fantastic, but I am proud to say I have found an error:
      in paragraph 4 it is “complement”, not “compliment”.
      Made conspicuous by its rarity.
      I also have to say: this is a aquestion of talent. Some guys can postulate on their navel for a page and you can’t stop reading it. Others will work and work at being a good writer and simply succeed.

      • fd

        oops: never succeed

  • Eddie Panta

    So, question, is it actually the writing in the sentence from JOY that makes it flow in a fun, easy to read way… OR is it the SCRIPT’S initial breakdown of the the scene that alleviates the sequence from descriptions that would otherwise clutter the sentence.

    “They both glance over to a table where Joy’s father RUDY sits like a
    KING with his arm around a ROBUST woman in an ill- fitting MARILYN

    The article is correct. The above sentence does flow, It’s a three line
    single sentence, not common in screenplays, but it has the feel of
    continuous action, the kind you find in a TRACKING SHOT.

    The decisions we make in the opening of the scene, the set-up, is what guides the descriptions in the moments that follow. So, your writing abilities are dependent on your intro to the scene.

    The above moment is relieved of information that would normally clog the sentence. The location, the area, and visual, spatial relationships of the subjects: “they” and the observed: “RUDY” is taken care of by camera moves, like ANGLING ON and THE CAMERA FOLLOWS HER, which sets up the scene.

    if you read the script, you’ll see that neither the scene, nor the sentence contains any spatial relationships that tell us where or how far apart the characters are from each other.

    What if the sentence read: They glance across the room, where Joy’s father sits like a KING, at a corner table, with his arm around a ROBUST woman in an ill-fitting MARILYN MONROE DRESS.

    The tracking shot scene intro’s at least eight characters over three pages. I’d argue that this what allows the sentence to flow. The sentences in a script are dependent on each other. They can’t truly be evaluated out of context.

    So, in the end of the day, is it about guiding reader’s eyes down the PAGE or visually guiding their eyes through the SCENE?

    • S.C.

      We’ve said it a lot, most amateur scripts are PADDED. And that goes for scene description too. If a scene is unnecessary to the plot, it will almost certainly be badly written.

      And the opposite: When a writer knows their story – like Annie knows JOY – the writing will almost automatically be better.

      • Eddie Panta

        It’s still the establishing shot that sets up the view into the scene.
        Since this is a drama, comedy, it’s not as important here… But that’s not always the case. Your initial view into the scene informs the sentences that follow, no matter what.

        9 times out of 10, an AOW script would stop the scene and pause to give us each character an intro with there age. That’s not done here.

        What is also been said a lot is NOT to intro eight characters in one scene.
        Without the feel of the CAMERA TRACKING through the scene, this would be very difficult to do and slow down the read, no matter how skilled of a writer you are.

        • S.C.

          Sorry, I wasn’t quite following… yeah, I mean that first line of a scene is like the master shot. Picked at random from a pro script:


          We CIRCLE HIGH ABOVE the capacity crowd — on their feet CHEERING as DEREK JETER rips a ball up the third base line, a palpable ROAR from the spectators as the all-star beats the throw to first: safe.

          IN THE STANDS:

          LEGIONS OF NEW YORK FANS continue to applaud Jeter. Then a VOICE of dissent in the crowd — louder than the others:

          So many writers start with the voice in the crowd, but this writer – David Guggenheim – establishes where we are first with a few lines about Derek Jeter “ripping a ball”, whatever that means.

          Then he goes to the individual shot. Many more examples, of course.

  • Ambrose*

    No thank you, Carson, I’d rather not be Cormac McCarthy.
    I still can’t erase the unpleasant experience of slogging through his script, ‘The Counselor’, from my brain.

  • S.C.

    There are things about screenplays that make even the best ones a chore to read. If that wasn’t the case, people would be reading screenplays on their iPads while sitting on the beach. But they don’t. They read books.

    Present tense. No inner thoughts. No unbroken action. No pictures!

    It’s such a horrible format. But it’s what we’ve got. So anything that makes it more readable is great.

  • Bob Bradley

    Hey, that’s my amateur sentence starting with Joseph. Which means you read past page 10. Currently that sentence is on page 30. How far did you get? Was that sentence the drop off point?
    I disagree with your critique. Although I did go over the script and break up my action lines, since they were all bunched up. But taking someone from the specific to the general shouldn’t be seen as jarring. It’s a smooth transition of being up close watching a car jet across the sands, skidding to a stop and then the driver exits the car and we get a view of the vastness of the desert. It’s a visual relief from what came before. It’s meant to be sudden. There was a tense scene of him escaping. And now he’s safe. No one around.
    Is there such a thing as semi-passive voice?
    Thanks for reading CR. I’ll give it another pass and send the latest version in.
    And although i said I disagree, I’ll rethink it. There’s a big difference between good prose and good movie prose. Once you make that distinction you can see your writing better, more specifically.
    I’m learning.

    • Citizen M

      FWIW I agree with Carson. It could be better said. My take, bearing in mind how one would shoot it:

      Joseph drives fast across the steep, gravelly hillside, the woody shrubs whipping past the car.

      He comes to a bluff and brakes to a stop in a cloud of dust. Slowly, he gets out of the car.

      Below him lie the vast desert sands.

      • carsonreeves1

        Hey Bob. I actually randomly went through submission scripts and would scroll down to some point in the screenplay and look for examples that might work for the article.

        Citizen M writes the alternative version perfectly. That’s how I would change it.

      • IgorWasTaken

        I agree with Eddie Panta re “before”. For me, “before” might only work if you present it this way: “Then just before the car reaches the cliff, the tires finally grab the ground.”

        And as for CM’s comment, I agree sorta.

        He jams his brakes, yet the car continues, throwing a cloud of dust. But then, the car somehow stops. Just short of a cliff.

        Why “cliff”? It may just be me (I?), but a “bluff” is something we see rising before us – i.e., looking up. OTOH, a “cliff” is something we don’t want to fall over. In a story – as the action is related in real time – a “cliff” is a sudden absence of ground.

        Of course, there are exceptions. “The white cliffs of Dover.” Yet, for me, “white” is what sells that usage of “cliff” as something rising before us.

        • Citizen M

          My impression is that the significance of this scene is that there is a desert in front of him, not that he nearly drove off a cliff.

          If the latter, then your version works better.

          • Bob Bradley

            Right. He’s driving through desert. So it’s more a bluff than a cliff. Cliff suggests mountain. Bluff is a hill with a broad, steep face.

    • Eddie Panta

      Before heading off the cliff.

      The word “before” implies the future. The car will head off the cliff. You’ve told us something “before” it happens.
      It needs to stay in that split second moment.

      Sam jumps in, right before the door closes.
      Sam jumps in, just as the door is about to close.

      The first one predicts the future: The door will close.
      The second one remains in the present tense.

      • Bob Bradley

        I thought about it.

        I wrote it that way because I want you in his head.

        Joseph drives too fast through woody shrubs on a steep, gravelly hillside.
        (We don’t see where he was or where he’s going. It’s a car speeding along.)
        He slams on the brakes (It’s a reflex and then a reveal:) before heading off a bluff.

        We don’t see the whole situation. We see him close up. We see him slam on the brakes and don’t know why until we pan away and see that he was heading off a bluff. I’m telling you things in the order I want you to see them.

        CR was skimming. If you read the previous scenes you might not have a problem with what i wrote.
        I tried it other ways. I’m not convinced my way doesn’t work.

        • Eddie Panta

          You’re absolutely write about plucking the sentence out of the script and examining it out of context.

          Many sentences and sometimes complete scenes become muddled when a writer attempts to hide something from the reader/viewer, essentially allude to something unseen.

          We see him slam the brakes. But we don’t know why?

          Yes, we do, he’s going downhill “too fast”. So he hits the brakes.
          In the next sentence, the BLUFF is revealed too soon.

          You told us that there is a BLUFF. If this is unseen, an we are on the character’s experience to something unseen. Then don’t REVEAL the BLUFF until the end of the sentence.

          In the moment you described, the character’s reaction to something still unseen to the audience. (the bluff) You are going with REACTION first, which flips the basic sentence structure.

          in order to do that, I’d go with a facial expression, as well as slamming on the breaks, and the relief when the car stops.

          You’re on the right track in terms of limiting the point of view to the character and not being in an overall viewpoint, something which readers YAWN at, because they want suspense in the story with complete clarity of what is happening in the moment. These two battle each other quite often.

          Clear, easy to read scripts like JOY are written with big, broad strokes that never define a characters viewpoint. It’s easier to do it this way, In an opening sequence like JOY’s wedding reception there it’s not character showing us the scene, it’s more like a narrator, a hidden camera, or a tracking camera, not limited to the character’s viewpoint.


          • Bob Bradley

            Yes. How do I get the most out of my scene. Add facial reactions or whatever works for the scene. That’s well worth delving into.

            I often pick up my script or piece of writing and start reading from the middle and think, ‘This is terrible.’ But it’s just because I’m not invested in the script as a whole anymore. Reading from a disconnected point of view will sink a script or any piece of writing.

  • Adam W. Parker

    I may be getting too deep, but the sounds words contain also plays into how meaning is conveyed. This has more to do with poetry (I learned it in poetry class :-)

    For example:

    P’s and B’s are more explosive.
    F’s and V’s are more disgusting.

    Long E’s are more cheerful. (they make you smile)

    Again this is more for poetry, but may help when doing character names. I’m sure there’s more accurate and in-depth articles you all can look up if you’re interested.

    • pmlove
    • carsonreeves1

      I agree. This is something I’ve discovered on my own (and I think most writers eventually do as well).

    • Citizen M

      Try writing poetry. It really teaches you to select the right word and write concisely while getting your meaning across.

      • Eric

        I’ve always suspected that poets and lyricists would be better trained for the restrictive nature of screenwriting than freewheelin’ novelists. If you can find a way to instill meaning into, “Only seven syllables and every seventh word has to rhyme”, than “no description over four lines” should be a breeze.

        As a lyricist myself, I’ve also practiced a lot of unusual sentence construction. I’d find myself with a word or words I just had to use for the rhyme, and would have construct the entire sentence/line so that those words fell naturally at the end. It’s not easy, but it teaches you something about how sentences work when you finally get it.

        A lot of writers (or artists in general) don’t like restrictions because they believe it hampers their creativity, but I’ve experienced just the opposite. Having restrictions enhances my creativity because it forces me to do something unexpected.

    • Frankie Hollywood

      Speaking of character names.

      I just had a friend read my pilot, she pointed out something interesting about the 4 leads (they work together): Brett, Tara, Mariko and Keon.

      She noticed:
      Brett has a R and a T
      Tara has an R and a T…and an A and a R
      Mariko has an A and an R…and a K and an O
      Keon has a K and an O.

      She asked if I meant to do that b/c “they’re like family, and they’re names compliment each other.”

      My answer: happy accident.

  • Poe_Serling

    “One of the least talked about components of screenwriting is READABILITY..”

    What a great topic for discussion. When I crack open a script, the three things that keep the pages turning for me are:

    1) A compelling story.
    2) Enjoyability – Am I personally enjoying how the story is playing out.
    3) Readability – Is it a breeze to read or a chore?

    If the writer can hit those first three notes, I’m usually in to the end.

    • S.C.

      I’d add one more thing – is it a movie? If I can imagine it as a movie, I’ll ignore the occasional clumsy bit of writing because I’m imagining the movie, picturing it in my head. But that’s not all the time.

      Readability: When Carson posted a David Koepp script – BRILLIANCE – everyone focused on how much they hated David Koepp, but read his scripts. That guy can write. You can read ten pages in just a few minutes.

      The other thing is to get the story right. It’s best, if possible, to get the story as good as you can before writing the first draft. A lengthy treatment is a good way of doing this.

      • Poe_Serling

        “I’d add one more thing – is it a movie?”

        Hey, this is my list – not yours. ;-)

        “Readability: … David Koepp.. That guy can write. You can read ten pages in just a few minutes.”

        I feel the same way about David Twohy and his scripts.

        • S.C.

          There’s a reason these guys get a million a script. Part of it is story, maybe not perfect story choices, but efficient, clean storytelling.

          Part of it is writing, not poetry, but efficient, clean description.

          A lot of people will point to dialogue writers, but they only get $250,000 a week for maybe two weeks work. That’s half-a-million but no credit. And maybe once a year they get those gigs.

          Koepp can get $2 million a script, plus at least half a screenplay credit, giving him possibly even more money in residuals.

          So it’s the storytellers who get rich, not the dialogue polishers. (There may be some exceptions!).

  • S.C.

    Question: A word beginning with a vowel should be preceded by “an” not “a”.

    What if the word starts with a vowel sound, like a FBI agent? Any thoughts?

    • IgorWasTaken

      In America, “an FBI agent”.

      Also, “a fucking FBI agent”, and yet “an effin’ FBI agent”.

      But do note: We Americans pronounce things in American. E.g., we pronounce the “h” in “a herb”. But in the UK, is it “an herb”?

      • GoIrish

        I’m in America (admittedly, with a wicked Boston accent), but I’d use “an” – “an herbal remedy” or “an herb garden. “

        • IgorWasTaken

          My examples with “herb” were (comically?) backwards.

          The Brits pronounce the “h” (IIRC); we Amer’cans don’t.

          IOW, I agree with you.

      • S.C.

        English say herb not ‘erb.

        I’m not a big fan of people saying “an historic moment”. It sounds clumsy. The same people don’t say “an hotel” so it’s inconsistent.

        On FBI… I think I’ll play it by ear.

        • IgorWasTaken

          I’ve become exasperated by the very use of the word “historic”.

          Because its use is now more promiscuous than… ALL CAPS in “Joy”.

          Last night on TV, I saw a promo for the upcoming season of “Survivor”. In it, the host says to camera (approximately): “And for our new season, we’re doing something historic – letting you, the audience, decide who the contestants will be.”

          • klmn

            Some people don’t know the difference between history and trivia.

        • HRV

          Sometimes it’s just a gut thing. If it doesn’t quite sound right…

  • Me learned real good

    What about using ADVERBS? Seems frowned upon in the screenwriting world.

    • klmn

      Only Brits can use ‘em.

      • IgorWasTaken


        • klmn


          • Gregory Mandarano


          • klmn

            I may be too restrictive. Surfers and valley girls can use ‘em too.

            Gnarly. If only.

            Damn Californians for messing with my rule.

      • Eddie Panta

        Do you still have the pilot script to Halt and Catch Fire?
        If so… please send to theodorefremd at g mail

        • klmn

          No, I must have deleted it.

      • Poe_Serling

        I thought you might appreciate this…

        I really like the old school look of the poster.

        • klmn

          Thanks for posting this. I’m looking forward to the movie.

        • Levres de Sang

          Circa 1974-76, I’d say… Certainly that “old school look” should be replicated in the tone of the film itself if the article’s accompanying pic is anything to go by.

          • Poe_Serling

            I’m hoping for some ‘old school’ thrills and chills with just a twist of modern filmmaking/story-telling touches to keep things lively. ;-)

    • S.C.

      Some commentator – can’t remember who – criticized an amateur writer for using adverbs because Stephen King hated adverbs. Seriously, that was why!

      Sod ‘em. Use adverbs, adjectives, passive voice, punctuation, anything you like as long as it reads good.

    • Eddie Panta

      It depends on the subtly of the action and on whether or not the action could be misconstrued. Obviously, “slowly” and “quietly” are indispensable, but shouldn’t be over used.

      • S.C.

        I like McKee, but McKee says “don’t say WALKS SLOWLY, say AMBLES.”

        But AMBLES can sound weird. If WALKS SLOWLY sounds better, use it.

        • brenkilco

          You might walk slowly past the sleeping Rottweiler. You’re not going to amble.

          • Gregory Mandarano


          • HRV


          • Ninjaneer

            That’s awfully harsh

          • Gregory Mandarano

            I know I was only trying to help. Jeez.

        • Me learned real good

          I agree. I don’t see why the wisely placed adverb can’t be used but most articles, books I’ve seen say always pick a more descriptive verb rather than the crutch of an adverb.

          I’ve never read though a script specifically looking for adverb usage but it also seems most scripts forgo adverb usage as well.

          Sometimes I find myself struggling with that and then say eff it, it just sounds more natural with the adverb there.

    • carsonreeves1

      They’re definitely dangerous. Use them sparingly.

      • Me learned real good

        I know this isn’t as important as concept, story, etc, but anything I can do to not work against myself is helpful.

        Would you frown upon an adverb being used once every three pages or so? I guess what I’m trying to ask is what kind of frequency would raise the amateur hour flag?

        I generally avoid them but sometimes it just feels right.

        • carsonreeves1

          Obviously it depends on how they’re used. Every three pages seems like it would be fine, but if every three pages the adverb is something annoying like the word “ridiculously” (which I’ve been known to use), then readers may notice it.

          As long as it flows nicely within the sentence and you’re aware that using them is a little dangerous, you should be fine. It’s the people who have no idea what they even are who are in trouble. :)

        • IgorWasTaken

          In a way, it’s the same rule you’d apply to any word in your script: Does it make a difference.

          He rips open the package.

          The opposite might be:

          Gingerly, he opens the package.

          (Which, of course, means he opens it while having red hair.)

          Now, maybe there is a single (adverbless) verb that expresses the opposite of ripping open a package, but I don’t know of one.

          • HRV

            Some would write that: He opens the package gingerly.

          • IgorWasTaken

            Yeh. And 80% of the time I’d write it as you just did. IOW, the way I wrote it is awkward. And so the question becomes: Is that awkwardness worth it?

            Here’s my thinking: In a script, I don’t want a reader to get an image and then realize s/he must alter that image. So if “gingerly” appears only at the end, it’s almost as if I’d written “… but does it gingerly” – since gingerly is not how one normally opens a package. Well, I s’pose, unless we’ve established the character thinks it’s a bomb. In that case, “gingerly” (if needed at all) reinforces the image.

            Small stuff.

          • HRV

            Of course if you’re reading fast enough (normally) I don’t think that would really be a factor. Especially if it’s a short sentence. Description can be written numerous ways. It’s getting that flow, so the reader understands without having to pause.

          • IgorWasTaken

            Interesting. I am a slow reader. And so maybe that concern of mine is “wrong” (for lack of a better term at the moment) as a result. Huh. Thanks.

    • Eric

      I think the overall point is supposed to be that, in many cases, there is a verb that will work just as well as the adverb. Why say someone ‘walks quickly’ when it’s more compact to say they ‘dash’?

      But if you have an adverb that’s irreplaceable, and you’re sure it’s the best modifier to use, you should feel free to use it.

  • Sebastian Cornet

    Hang tight, you fought the good fight.

  • romer6

    Portuguese is also my native language (except I´m from Brazil) and I know the feeling. But you may take the same approach I am about to: submit your english script to a professional, an english major or something, let him correct your mistakes and try to help improve the writing in your script. You should not give up since the most important aspect of writing a script is and always will be storytelling. You can also write the whole script in portuguese and then submit it to a professional translator and let him do most of the job (I say “most” because some translations can only be made with the help of the original writer or meaning ends being lost in the process). Well, I´ve come too far to give up now, so english won´t be a barrier I´m willing to let stop me. And neither should you!

  • IgorWasTaken


    Carson wrote:

    …even with traditional sentences, there’s always a way to say something
    with fewer words. [#1] “John grabs his grimy baseball hat as well as his gun
    while wiping the ever-thickening sweat off his brow,” can easily be turned
    into, [#2] “John grabs his cap and gun and flicks the sweat off his brow.”

    I agree; in general I’d go with #2.

    But from those two examples, I’d ultimately pick the one that helped set the pace I wanted.

    And so, if John just realized his own brother is the villain, and so now John must go out to kill him, I’d go with #1 because it’s slower, deliberate. (Though I’d still rewrite it to get rid of “while”.)

  • E.C. Henry

    GREAT article, Carson. I really got a lot out of this one, as I’m currently in the process of editting a HUGE novel, and am doing a lot of line editting right now. No, I’m not screenwriting that YET (three part movie), but that day is coming my friend…

    Really got a good laugh out of the amature screenplay #1. The choice of the word “patters” indicates to me that the writer of this screenplay was TRYING to use a more interesting word than what existed in an earlier draft. Hence, call up the ol’ trusty thesaurus and find a more interesting word. BUT in this case that choice of word really derails the reader (at least it did for me). BUT the real kicker/funny line in that section was “…the two join hands and partake in a private momement.” THAT is outright bad writing. Not very descriptive, can’t tell how that supposed to be preceived: romantic or consoling, YET still from my warped point of view, funny as all get up!

    Years ago when I was just starting out, I was very curious how my writing stacked up against the pros. Worse yet, I would pick appart the pros ANYTIME they made any mistake. Why, because they’re recognized authorities, and I’m still out here in the toolies trying to get my big break, hence their work should be beyond reproach.

    Who cares!?

    In an attempt to learn and grow I don’t think I’ll ever take a shot a screenwriter whose had their work made into a movie. In the end all the matters is getting your script made into a movie.

    My focus now is just establishing my own voice. Carving out my own nitch, and trying to entertain people. The longer you’re at this the more you should come to conclusion that not everybody is going to love and embrace your work, so you should adjust your attitude just to want to be an entertainer and let them do what they will with your work.

  • LV426

    At first I thought Mystery Example #2 might actually be the pro script. Maybe Carson is attempting to trick us. The second example, while bumpy at a few points still flowed well for me. Enough so that I could believe it was from pro script. A couple things stuck out to me that made me question the second example.

    “Stumbles into the Elevator panel.”

    Why is elevator written as Elevator? If special emphasis is meant to be placed on this elevator panel, then shouldn’t it be ELEVATOR PANEL?

    While it’s certainly the case that some professional writers use these abrupt minimalist styles, something about this example felt a tad bit clunky. I like the first line. When it moves from “the paperclip he stole from Moreau.” to the second paragraph of “Stumbles into the elevator panel” it threw me a bit.


    Surrounded, Black begins a coughing fit. His hands come up to cover the cough – the paperclip he stole from Moreau slips into his hand.

    Black stumbles into the elevator panel – hits the EMERGENCY stop button. The elevator STOPS and sends everyone flailing.

    Nickels sees what’s going down, but is too slow to stop Black – who uses the paperclip to unlock the cuffs then unloads a barrage of strikes on each Agent.

    The cuffs hit the floor. Nickels slides down the wall, unconscious. Black loots the slumped bodies for guns and a cell phone.


    I’m no pro, but that reads more clearly to me. Besides the bit I added at the end, it conveys the same basic actions and flow from the beginning of the scene segment to the end. If the shackles are super important then those could be put in there at the end instead of my “loots the slumped bodies” bit. Since this is an example that is out of context in relation to the larger story, I felt the shackles weren’t as important.

    Now watch the second example be revealed as some pro script that sold for 5 million bucks and I’ll end up looking like a complete moron.

  • carsonreeves1

    I don’t think you should give up that easily. One of the most successful screenwriters in the world is Luc Besson, and he’s a native French speaker. Also, one of the most successful screenwriters in HISTORY, Billy Wilder, was not a native English speaker.

    It will be harder for you, no doubt. But if you put together a plan to shore up your mistakes, it’s certainly possible.

  • S_P_1

    Screenwriting is the only form of literature in which readers come with their biases firmly entrenched.

    An excuse not to read is the number one objective.

    They hate thesaurus words but their methodology is obstinate and pedantic.

    Their understanding is extremely dense when it comes to an amateurs work, yet their opinion changes if the same passage was written by their screenwriting idols.

    Readability suffers from accessibility. Too many readers confuse being highly opinionated versus constructive criticism. They read scripts in the manner they would have written it and judge accordingly.

    The only true criteria for readability is syntax and grammar.

    • brenkilco

      Syntax and Grammar. How quaintly twentieth century.

    • Bob Bradley

      The only true criteria for readability is… probably just taste. It’s irrational. we’re trying to make something irrational seem rational.

      • S_P_1

        I agree. 95% of the scripts I download I’m actually interested in the subject matter. The other 5% are scripts that are highly regarded.

        • Bob Bradley

          Same here.

        • Poe_Serling

          Whether shelling out cash for a movie ticket, flipping to a TV show, or reading a book/script/website/etc., the subject matter is usual the driving force for me in making that decision.

    • carsonreeves1

      I strongly disagree. If I write, for instance, “That tree is over there and its leaves are flowing in the wind,” it may be technically correct, but I would shoot myself if I had to read an entire screenplay written like that. “The tree’s leaves flow in the wind,” is much easier on the eyes.

      How a writer chooses to present his words has a huge effect on the read.

      • brenkilco

        Makes me think of another pet peeve and often a sign of bad writing. Unnecessary scene setting and irrelevant detail. Does it matter in the context of the story that there’s a full moon? That the wind is blowing? That there are leaves on the tree or that there is a tree at all? If the detail doesn’t reveal character or clarify action isn’t it better just to get rid of it? If it feels obligatory it’s going to bore. Description should be more than ballast.

        • Randy Williams

          I’m writing a script that takes place 99% of the time at night with very little artificial lighting. I’m finding myself constantly referring to the full moon and moonlight to protect myself from someone reading and saying, “How do we see any of this?” LOL

          • Eric

            Ugh. Nothing annoys me more than the “how do we see any of this?” comment. As if 90% of horror movies didn’t use artificial lighting to make otherwise invisible scenes visible. As if human beings don’t have remarkably good night vision once their eyes adjust.

            There’s a difference between what the human eye can see in the dark and what a camera can. Screenwriters should be allowed the difference without feeling like they have to invent light sources for no reason.

          • brenkilco

            Because in the case of your script that particular detail is absolutely relevant.

          • HRV

            Sometimes one uses such description to set the mood of the scene.

          • IgorWasTaken

            Yeh, that’s one very real type of issue.

            Do you ever have any characters reference that? IMO, having a character comment on it can help – to remind the reader of that fact, as well as to let the reader know that you know it and have taken it into account.

          • davejc

            If I wrote a scene with kids performing an initiation ceremony to their secret club in a cemetery at midnight, I would have to have a full moon, and I would have to say so.

        • S_P_1

          Atmospheric description may substitute the mundane everyday motions of a character in a non-demanding scene.

        • davejc

          Just watched Rain with Joan Crawford from Somerset Maugham, about a prostitute and a preacher hold up on Island. But the main character is the rain.

          • davejc

            Also Tarkovski focuses on wind, water, fire more than he does characters. Can’t say for sure if it’s essential to the story(Stalker) but it’s pretty cool to watch.

      • S_P_1

        The one script that springs to mind that uses complete sentences is All Is Lost by J.C Chandor.

        If it wasn’t for the complete sentences the majority of the nautical descriptions would have went over my head. I also believe Chandor knew the majority of readers would fall in that category.

        Most readers have accepted fragmented and staccato sentences as acceptable script syntax. It’s acceptable only if what’s written is understandable.

        I would rather read a properly structured sentence if the description calls for it.

        • Poe_Serling

          “The one script that springs to mind that uses complete sentences is All Is Lost by J.C Chandor.”

          Yeah, if J.C. didn’t write in full sentences, his 31 page script might’ve clocked in at a robust 25 pages or less. ;-)

      • HRV

        Personally, I wouldn’t use the word “flow”. Rivers flow. Leaves flutter.

      • klmn

        “…but I would shoot myself if I had to read an entire screenplay written
        like that.”

        You better stock up on ammunition before you start reading the SS 250 scripts.

    • Frankie Hollywood

      “They hate thesaurus words.”

      Holy shit, anyone watch ARROW last night? After 10 minutes I thought, “Damn, someone got a thesaurus for their birthday.” It was absolutely ridiculous, and kind of embarrassing. Though, admitting I watch ARROW is kind of embarrassing, too.

  • Shawn Davis

    Read article. Found interesting. Wrote comment.

    • S.C.

      Reading that. Hate. Fingers on chalkboard.

    • carsonreeves1

      I’m seeing what you did there. :)

    • IgorWasTaken

      … Pronouns to follow.

    • Eric


    • Frankie Hollywood

      BOOM! The dynamite goes.

  • SandbaggerOne

    I’m still waiting for the first script to cross my desk that uses emoji’s in the descriptions. I know it is only a matter of time…

    • Ninjaneer

      What do you do? Reader? Producer? Agent? Pharmacist?

      • IgorWasTaken

        Reader-Producer-Agent-Pharmacist. That’d be cool.

    • davejc

      I’ve got some in a couple of my scripts:

      The Puritans practiced Christianity by day, the ancient ways when the sun went down.


      A chilly wind blows. As each porch light is extinguished the night grows darker.

      Witches were held in high regard. Sort of like doctors and surgeons are today. They only became scapegoats when the existence of the colony was threatened, things like war, famine, plague.


      • Levres de Sang

        Ah…!! That’s pretty cool… My apologies for flagging it up in my notes, but I honestly had no idea it was an emoji. :)

    • carsonreeves1

      Oh, I’ve seen them already.

  • Linkthis83

    Find someone to bridge this gap – and while on the hunt, write in whichever language you feel strongest. Whatever identity or “voice” comes from that creation might be the thing that makes you stand out. Get your ideas/stories down and when you find the person (or people) that can help you, then you’re ready to go.

    Besides, you don’t have to write stories in English to succeed. There are a lot of great stories/movies out there that are foreign language films. Two I’ve seen recently that I really enjoyed were:



    Plus, you’ll have such a unique perspective to offer based on your background + current situation + life.

    No te rindas. Abrazar el desafío.

    Não desista. Abrace o desafio .

    • Poe_Serling

      Hey Link-

      If you enjoyed The Orphanage, I recommend Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone – a Spanish-Mexican horror film from 2001.

      It’s another ghost story set at an orphanage. Quite creepy and unsettling.

      • Linkthis83

        Thanks for these. I had The Awakening on the list but will bump it up now :) The Devil’s Backbone has now been added as well. Much appreciated.

        I thought The Orphanage’s story was really good. There were those times where it felt similar to other things I had seen, but when it got to the big reveal, it was truly an “oh no” moment. And I liked the non-traditional ending as well.

  • HRV

    Great article. I was surprised to see how many comments it already had.

    • IgorWasTaken

      How could you expect anything fewer?

  • carsonreeves1

    I see them as well. Like adverbs, you should use them judiciously. But I find that, when used well, they add a nice occasional break from all the active voice.

  • LV426

    Looking at the examples, both of the pro sentences from #3 (Shane Black) and #4 (Neustadter & Weber) ooze “voice” while the two amateur comparisons are not nearly as distinct.

    Does clarity and a unique voice add up to a high readability factor?

    • Midnight Luck

      I would say YES!
      a great voice AND clarity? Of course that will make for an amazing read.
      What else does anybody want?
      Great story will come in third, after those things.
      nail the first two and people won’t want to put it down.
      Nail only Great Story, but have no voice or a bland voice along with poor or zero clarity and you will lose every single reader.
      Great story comes only AFTER you have the others down.

  • Calvin Miner

    I rarely comment, but I’ve learned so much from this site I
    feel I should give something back to the community. After I finish a first draft I’ll make my
    first editorial pass electronically. Then I print a copy and make editorial
    passes with red ink then blue ink. I retype my changes, reprint my script and make
    another two passes with red ink then blue ink. Then I retype those changes. And this cuts a lot of the fat from my
    script. I’m sure many people on this
    site have a similar process. It’s the
    next step I take that I’d like to share, one that I recommend you save for

    The problem I have with editing my sentences is that I start
    reading the script. I get into the story, which is detrimental to editing. So I
    use the Final Draft feature that puts each character’s dialogue on its own
    page. Then I copy each character’s dialogue on to a separate Microsoft Word
    document. I also copy all of my scripts action lines on to a Microsoft Word
    document. I then put every sentence of
    action or dialog on its own line with two spaces above and two spaces below.
    Then I edit. The advantage of looking at each sentence on its own line as opposed
    to inside of a paragraph is that there is no place for weak verbs, generic
    nouns, or bad grammar to hide. Also Microsoft Word will highlight errors that
    Final Draft has missed.

    I won’t lie. This is a tedious process that took me over a
    week to do. But my script reads better and I cut another three pages of unnecessary
    script that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. I found that editing by reading the script
    backwards to be more tedious. I couldn’t
    get past one page.

    Calvin Miner

  • Gregory Mandarano

    Focus on the story first, and find a writing partner.

  • Sebastian Cornet

    Been thinking about this most of the day.

    I was never in your position. I always had (and still have) a childlike optimism that defies all conventions.

    It can be a hindrance sometimes in that it keeps me from fixing my mistakes as quickly as I should. But the beauty of it is that when I finally acknowledge a mistake, I’m confident I’ll be able to do it right the next time. Until I finally get it right.

    I should know. I’m a native Spanish speaker. I started writing novels in English when I was 17. I’m gonna be 26 next Wednesday. I haven’t written another novel or short story in Spanish in almost a decade now.

    There’s stuff that I wrote back in 2007 that makes me laugh now (never been much of a crier). The silliest, most embarrassing passages you can imagine. Enough to make you question whether I was writing so poorly on purpose. It didn’t help that my prose was so purple it could be mistaken for a bruise.

    I loved language too much to feel discouraged for long. The thrill of finding a new word or idiom was too much to resists. The man writing this is the same man who would watch The Wire and pause it every 10 seconds. Only to jot down a word or sentence that he would spend the next five days or so repeating to get it right. I didn’t see it as a chore, though. I loved it. It was like collecting keys that opened wondrous doors in a palace filled with them.

    If you don’t feel so strongly about it, that’s cool. I’m sure there’ll be other things you will be more passionate about it. I just wanted to share my own experience and remind everybody that Vladimir Nabokov, a master of the English language, was a Russian native speaker.

    Whatever you decide, the best of luck and thanks for being so honest and vulnerable with us :)

  • brenkilco

    As someone who cannot even converse in a second language I regard someone who can speak and write three with a certain awe. Write in whatever language your imagination operates. You can always find a way to proof and translate it later. And as Carson notes a number of foreign born film writers and novelists only mastered English as adults.

  • Lucid Walk

    I swear, I just read When The Streetlights Go On today.
    Mystery Example #1 is from that script

  • carsonreeves1

    A little angry but good post.

    • HRV


  • E.C. Henry

    Great advice, Kimberly. And yes that’s what I ultimately hope for; the characters in my novel and other scripts (like 18 now) speak for themselves. Very excited about a bunch of characters in this novel. One is like Princess Leia from Star Wars, and another is like Hans Solo from Star Wars, and YET they’re different. Characters are the fun part of writing. I don’t know about you, but I tend to gravitate towards character who are totally unlike me/better than me. Anywho, thanks for the responses. Much appreciated!

  • Eddie Panta

    Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.
    Know what each sentence says,
    What it doesn’t say,
    And what it implies.
    Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence
    actually says.

    At first, it will help to make short sentences,
    Short enough to feel the variations in length.
    Leave space between them for the thing words

    can’t really say.
    Pay attention to rhythm, first and last.

    -Verlyn Klinkenborg

  • brenkilco

    “Hadley settles in. The Maitre d’ snaps at a server, pointing to the table and holding up one finger addressing Hadley who has just joined the group.”

    I guess my point is that readability begins with clarity. Rhythm, style, effective imagery. All great. But first you have to understand what you’re reading. Which is why a comment like “it was so readable I didn’t realize the words were being used wrong” just baffles me.

    Went off yesterday on a particular word that created lots of unnecessary confusion. And here is another. What it appears the Maitre d is doing is signaling a waiter to provide service. But the line states that the maître d is addressing the diner, speaking to the diner rather than simply indicating to the waiter that the diner requires attention, which I assume is what is actually intended. Bad.

  • carsonreeves1

    My specialty is story, which I consider myself great at, and, consequently, is the most important aspect of screenwriting.

    I definitely don’t know everything nor will I ever pretend to. This craft is infinitely complex and will keep me learning new things about it until the day I die. It’s why I still have a “What I learned” section at the end of every review.

    It sounds like that bothers you so, as a gentle reminder, I’ll point out there are lots of other great screenwriting sites to visit. I’m thankful that you’ve enjoyed the site at times though.

  • brenkilco

    Yes, they are admitted to the cordoned off section but the cab doesn’t admit them. And since the cab is doing the admitting and the verb has no object the natural, and I would argue only logical, meaning is that they are being admitted into the cab. Surprised I got so much pushback on this. At the very least you must admit that admit is an ambiguous and poorly chosen word.

  • Bob Bradley

    From Todays GOTS
    I have to say: this is why so many movies really suck.
    Why is this stuff being touted?
    Are we all that simple?
    These are terrible loglines.
    If you can defend them: fine.
    But why?

    Even if you’re trying to write a more independently-minded movie – what are the six words that make your independent movie different from every other independent movie? I don’t want to diminish the actual craft of telling your story and creating memorable characters and dialogue and conflict and emotion, but I also think younger writers don’t necessarily think of the bigger picture as well.

    The six word test for K-9: Headstrong cop. New partner. Police dog. Boom. You see the movie.

    Circling back to the original question, here are three stellar loglines from spec scripts which sold in the last few years:

    Once a year globally, people lock themselves at home and fend off the senseless and random attacks by Grims. Tonight’s that night. – The Grims

    A 7-year-old girl accidentally misspells “Santa” and instead invites Satan to bring her a toy for Christmas — and he does. – Dear Satan

    A dog will go to any length to ensure its owner ends up making the right choice between two eligible young women. – My Owner’s Wedding

  • Jeff D

    Great post! Loved the takeaways — the writing style is as important as the story.

  • SplishSplash

    Well, you’re in my wheelhouse here — or I like to think so anyway — and there’s a few things I feel the need to say…

    First, much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think that good, readable writing really counts for much. A sensitive reader — or a tired one — might thank you, but that’s probably about as far as it goes. Still, every little helps, so by all means go for it,

    Second, Carson’s examples here are mostly good — except for Shane Black’s ‘a black and white patrol car pulls up, admitting two beat COPS’, which leaves me not knowing who did what to whom and is a total train wreck that needs to be completely recast. Anyway, except for that one, all the other pro examples are fine, while all the amateur examples are painful at best and barely readable at worst. But I’m afraid the analysis is seriously flawed. To stick with the Black example for a moment, Carson says —

    Notice how everything in Shane’s example is in the ACTIVE VOICE.

    No it isn’t. ‘A section of the parking lot is cordoned off by yellow streamers ‘ That’s passive voice right there. It reads just fine and there’s nothing wrong with it, but please, don’t use terms like active and passive if you don’t know what they actually mean and/or can’t tell one from the other.

    Similarly, it’s also wrong to say that “…who has just joined the group” is PASSIVE. It’s not passive, it’s present perfect active. Anyway, I don’t want to belabor the point, especially since Carson immediately puts his finger on the biggest (but by no means only) problem in this example, which is the chronology: ‘[E]verything flows. Every word/fragment/idea is a logical progression from the word/fragment/idea before it ‘ Words to live by! And that applies to the visuals as well. Write in a way that guides the eye.

    Also —

    Keep it simple. This is Carson’s first point, and it bears repeating. It sounds easy but it isn’t. Work on it. Develop the trick of writing down what’s important and leaving the rest out.

    Find the right words and the right structures. Hint: the right word isn’t going to be that ten dollar thesaurus word, and unless you’re writing physical comedy, it isn’t going to be ‘patters’ or ‘ambles’ either. ‘Danny goes to the door.’

    Use the present indicative, but don’t go crazy with it. Keep it natural. ‘It’s raining’. Not ‘Rain falls from the skies’. It’s not a fucking poem.

    Read your script out loud. The tricky spots, the glitches, the passages where you stumble or hesitate? Don’t rationalize them away, go back and fix them. And then read them aloud again.

    Write to engage and entertain, not to impress.

    Lastly, the idea that alliteration might actually be desirable in a script is not something I’ve really considered before. On the contrary, unless I’m going for a comedic effect, I always actively try to avoid it. A bit of consonance — as in the final /d/s — doesn’t hurt, but as Carson cautions (see!) ‘a pair of printed pajama pants’ should be deployed with care.

  • webslinger48

    Tomayto, tomahto, etc, ect., let’s call the whole thing off.