BY CHARLES DEEMER
A number of readers responded to my last column on
Verticality and raised several interesting issues,
most of which relate to a confusion about the nature
of spec scripts.
For example, several readers asked this: if
verticality is so important, why are so many published
screenplays without it? Indeed many published scripts
contain the very "literary" and "verbose" qualities
screenwriting teachers are always warning against. If
the pros write this way, why shouldn't beginners?
Excellent questions. Indeed an observant screenwriting
student should be confused by what appears to be
conflicting information such as the above, teachers
saying one thing, the "evidence" suggesting another.
Several things are operating here that lead to the
First, screenwriting format and style have evolved
over the past several decades in major ways. For
example, CUT TO: no longer is used in a spec script.
However, if you read a recent script by William
Goldman, you will find dozens, maybe hundreds, of CUT
TO: What gives?
What gives is that William Goldman is William Goldman.
An established professional screenwriter learns the
craft at a given moment in time and changing fashion
is unlikely to sway him into another writing style.
Goldman and other established pros write the way they
learned to write when they learned the craft -- and in
many cases, this format and style are very different
from what is considered "proper" today.
Moreover, Goldman and virtually all pros differ in
their relationship to readers. Pros get paid first and
write second. That is, they sell an idea, a
story concept, get a check and start writing. This
means they are already an investment by the time a
reader enters the equation. If I pay you fifty
grand to write something for me, I am going to read
what you deliver no matter what style it is written
in! The writer-reader relationship for the pro is far
different from the writer-reader relationship when a
spec script arrives in the mail.
Spec script writers are far from being an investment.
On the contrary, they are merely one of hundreds of
similar writers competing for attention and trying to
attract limited resources. There is no vested interest
in play. In fact, a reader risks more by liking a spec
script than by disliking one! If a reader rejects a
spec script, the boss doesn't know the difference; the
script is returned. But if a reader approves a script,
it works its way up the power structure and the boss
may read it. If the boss hates a script approved with
enthusiasm by a reader, then the reader's judgment
comes into question and s/he may be looking for a job.
The reason spec scripts are written with great
economy, which includes the technique of verticality,
is to make the reading easy in a very competitive
marketplace. I tell my students your script has to be
understood by a reader who is "reading" while having
lunch, having one conversation on the phone and
another across the desk, all at the same time. Your
script is skimmed before it is read carefully, and if
the story doesn't grab the reader in this pressure
cooker, you may not get another chance. This is the
reality of the writer-reader relationship for spec
Other readers pointed out that adding verticality to a
script would increase pagination, perhaps changing a
110 page screenplay to a 130 pager. Yes, it would.
Which means, get out the chain saw and make your story
even more efficient. David Mamet has written
eloquently about the moment when his transition from
playwriting to screenwriting was complete: he turned a
good five page scene into an excellent two page scene.
Remember, "the chain saw is your friend."
If you start writing vertically from the start, you'll
be able to track your pagination. But beginning
screenwriters almost always write more than they
should. I'll have more to say about this in future columns.
Charles Deemer teaches graduate and undergraduate screenwriting at Portland State University. He is the author of the electronic screenwriting tutorial, Screenwright: the craft of screenwriting. His book Seven Plays was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. His new book, Practical Screenwriting, is due in 2005. Deemer maintains two websites:
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