Posted by: steveonfilm | October 13, 2008

Making Things Vertical

One of the hardest things for new screenwriters to do is learn the act of making their screenplay vertical. They have a tendency to write big blocks of text describing a scene, action, or other miscellaneous information. Likely this is because the only formal writing they’ve been instructed on is for prose, such as for writing a novel or short story.

The act of writing vertically is not natural. Charles Deemer sums up vertical writing pretty well in his book “Practical Screenwriting”:

“Reading is a horizontal exercise. We begin at the left of the page, read across to the right, drop down a line and repeat the horizontal sweep.

The screenplay, as we’ve said, is not a literary document, but an invitation to a long journey toward a completed film, a blueprint to be skimmed.

What is easier to skim, dense paragraphs with long complex sentences or snappy sentences in short paragraphs? Why?

Because the eye, seeking information, travels more quickly down the page. Vertical writing allows potential producers to skim the story, characters, genre, and budget.”

I know I’m certainly guilty of this. I know how to write prose. I’ve got a B.A. in English. I make a living as a “writer.” So, the concept vertical writing was as strange to me as probably anyone else. But as I’ve read more and more screenplays, and examined more and more of my own work, I’ve been very cognizant at identifying it and correcting it in my own writing.

Usually when I write a scene I’ll just throw down whatever visual images pop into my head. Then, when it’s finished, I’ll go back, pick out the key components, and strip away the rest. It may not be the most efficient method, but it works for me, and as I get better at this I find myself needing to do it less and less.

Here is a before sample of a scene in Marianas I just revised”

INT. SWEATSHOP – DAY

Hell on Earth. The warehouse has no windows. Ceiling fans hang down from roof, but few are spinning. The warehouse is hot with the type of humid heat that makes you want to rips your skin off.

It’s enough to make someone break down, which has happened to several of the women working. You can see it on the way they hold themselves. A person is standing there, but the soul was ripped out and crushed long ago.

Rows and rows of female garment workers span the giant sweatshop. Some work on steam machines. Some work in dye pits. Others on silk screens. Some on sewing machines. All faces are the same, hopeless.

Xia works on a steam machine, pressing fabric and moving pressed shirts from a wrinkled pile to a pressed pile, a conveyor belt moving behind her. She wipes her brow before the beads of sweat can drip to the floor.

Guards patrol the entire work floor, making sure that the workers don’t stop, no matter what happens.

Xia pulls down a level and the steam machine presses a shirt with a whoosh of steam. She releases the lever and the machine lifts up. Xia reaches in for the shirt but grazes the press, slightly burning her arm.

XIA (CHINESE)
Ouch!

On a formated page in Final Draft this works out to 6 paragraphs, most of which are four rows. It’s big. Blocky. And just like Deemer said its all “dense paragraphs with long complex sentences.”

Now, check out the revised version of the same scene in my current draft:

INT. RED STAR SWEATSHOP – DAY

Big. Metal. Intimidating.

No windows. Broken ceiling fans sit idle. Overhead fluorescent lights flicker.

Row after row of FEMALE WORKERS, soiled, covered in sweat. Sewing machines. Garment presses. Conveyor belts.

The workers look like zombies. Lifeless. Hopeless.

A few FEMALE GUARDS patrol the floor.

Xia works a garment press. She grabs shirt from the “winkled pile”, presses it, then puts it in the “ironed” pile.

Xia reaches for another shirt. Her arm grazes the press.

XIA (CHINESE)
Ouch!

Drastically less words. Simpler sentences. No paragraph with more than two rows. It’s the same scene, just more vertical. It’s not perfect, but I think the revised version reads much easier.

One of the negatives of writing vertically is that if you’re not carful it can ad extra lines to your script, which in turn will combine to add extra pages to your screenplay. This can be a bad thing, if you’re pushing 120 pages, or a good thing, if you’re having a hard time hitting 90.

I find myself more often than not staying at about the same number of pages. For each extra line I insert, I negate with two lines I removed from an earlier paragraph.

If you want good examples of vertical writing, read the “Children of Men” spec script I’ve got posted on the site. Not only did it win an Academy Award, it’s just a great piece of work for an aspiring writer to be exposed to.

Enjoy.
-Steve


Responses

  1. Very nice rewrite! I’m reading the two versions in my class today.

    Appreciate mentioning my book.

  2. Mr Deemer, thank you for visiting my site.

    That’s quite the compliment, and to say it totally made my day is an understatement!

    Thank you for your writing on the art/science/theory of screenwriting. It’s helped me a great deal as I’ve worked to hone my craft.


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