Overpacking Sentences

MCMFriday, September 1, 2017


Here’s the thing, people: you have a sentence like so…

Bob was feeling seasick for the first time in his life; he wished he hadn’t forgotten the Gravol on the counter at home.

I see SO MANY of these sentences, and they drive me crazy. Let’s deconstruct this for a second:

  • Bob is seasick. How do we know this? I mean, you can leave it up to the actor to make it “real”, but it’s a boring image, as it stands. Make it clear.
  • For the first time in his life? Really? How do we know THIS? Does Bob say “I’ve been on countless boats over the years, travelling from one corner of the Earth to the other, and this is the first time I’ve been seasick”? If he’s going to say that, MAKE HIM SAY IT! If you don’t want to have him say it because it doesn’t fit into the flow of the piece, then WTF are you writing it into the script for?
  • Wishes are verboten. How do you express a wish without dialogue? You can’t. You can express LONGING, but not WISHING. Wishing requires dialogue.
  • You cannot reference the absence of something. This one is worst of all: without dialogue (“Oh crap, I forgot the Gravol!”) you cannot demonstrate a lack of something. How does the audience know the thing is missing? Because it’s normally there? Says who? If nobody says it, it’s not real. A similar version is: “Bob would normally have taken the later ferry, but missed it thanks to a traffic jam.” OH DID HE REALLY? How do we know any of this? Have you shown his previous trips? Did you show the traffic jam? Did you show him realizing he was late? If so, why do you feel the need to write it out, here, again? If not, MAYBE YOU SHOULD!

See, here is the danger of overpacking sentences: you write something that is VITAL to the understanding of the story, and you think “It makes sense!” all the way to polish… and then everyone else in the production has to find ways to rewrite your script to accommodate the elements you buried in a single line of description. And they will kill your babies when they do, out of spite.

It comes down to the old-school advice: show, don’t tell. If you cannot see or hear the thing, do not write the thing. Concepts and absences are for novels. Scripts are for concrete things. If you need Bob’s late ferry ride to register, demonstrate it in moments along the way. If it’s NOT important to the story, leave it out.

Incidentally, now that I’ve written this post, if I see any overpacked sentences out there, I will chase you with a flamethrower.

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