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Saturday, October 8, 2011

HOW TO PLEASE A SCREENPLAY READER: Does Size Matter--how long should narrative paragraphs be

Another issue that comes up when I’m reading scripts is the length of narrative paragraphs. Sometimes it seems to me that writers either don’t know or just don’t care or think it’s irrelevant what the length of paragraphs should be. But I suggest that by not caring, it is so easy to create a screenplay that a reader has to slog through rather than breeze through. And believe me, I’ve done more than my fair share of slogging in my time.

One way to deslog one’s script is to find user friendly lengths to the paragraphs. Most writers tell me they are taught, or read in books, that narrative paragraphs should be no more than 3 ½ to 4 lines each. However, I wish to support a more reader friendly length. Narrative paragraphs should be no more than 2 ½ lines each. The exception here would be for action scenes, which I suggest be no more than 1 ½ lines each (a column on action scenes, on which I sometimes feel my opinion to be a lone voice in the wilderness, will be covered in a future column).

My preference for 2 ½ line paragraphs (or less) is not based on anything but experience; I can‘t point to anything empirical here, just a feeling based on reading script after script for years. It’s not unusual at my peak period to read four to five a day (not that unusual for people who read for a living). And based on this, I have found that paragraphs of 2 ½ lines each are easier to read than 3 ½ or longer. And there are times when even less than this is better.

Also, having a paragraph line that ends halfway through or sooner (and no more than 2/3rds of the way through) is psychologically easier to read than a paragraph in which the last line reaches the end of the margin. It’s the same thing as something costing 99 cents coming across as way cheaper that something costing a dollar on the dot.

In addition, the number of paragraphs you have in a row or in a scene is also a pertinent factor. There is little that is more dispiriting than for a reader to turn a page and see four or more paragraphs of 3 ½ lines or longer in a row. A reader’s usual reaction here is to sigh heavily, roll their eyes, then gird their loins and start on a painful journey through a mire of slogginess.

It is thus suggested that the more paragraphs you have in a row, the shorter the paragraphs should be. It is also suggested that if you have three or more paragraphs that you vary the length, say make one 2 ½, the next 1, the next 2 lines, etc. In addition,
my experience has been that if a writer has three or more paragraphs of 3 ½ lines each, most likely the paragraphs are overly written, filled with unnecessary details, and need to be ruthlessly edited.

This is where the concept of “white space” comes in. In the end, what the author is trying to achieve with his screenplay is having as much “white space” as possible, i.e. to have more white space than words.

The easiest way to check this out is to pull up a number of pages at a time and look at them (they don’t even have to be readable here; all you need to be able to do is to see at a glance how much white space there is). I agree that this sounds arbitrary; and it is, in a way. Shouldn’t the number of words parallel what Mozart said to the Archduke when the Archduke commented that there were two many notes in an opera Mozart had written--paraphrasing, Amadeus replied, only the exact number that is needed, no more and no less?

At the same time, the more I read scripts, the more the idea of white space does seem to correspond to a screenplay that is easy breezy to read. The less white space there is, the more likely again that the narrative is being overwritten. The more white space there is, the more likely that you will have the exact number of words you need, no less and certainly no more.

There are methods one can use to help with tightening paragraphs to within an inch of their lives, thus keeping paragraphs at a user friendly length and adding to the amount of white space. But first, I want to talk about what actually goes into narrative and what doesn‘t, which is the subject of my…


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