Sooooooo Let's Talk About A Screenwriting Rule
Updated: Aug 16, 2019
Does Using Extra Letters Hurt or Help a Script?
And now it’s time for the dorkiest thing I’ve ranted about in awhile. I'm going to begin blogging on WordPress and will figure out how to connect it with Wix, which doesn't have a lot of options for writing. I decided after writing this post that that was the best option, so I will announce when that's up and running. Until then, here are some reflections on a screenwriting rule and practice I see a lot.
The world of screenwriting is heavily focused on formatting which leads to passionate differences in opinions and practices that become the stuff of debates in bars among writers. Some people believe that formatting is a professional courtesy and a sign that you’re a good writer - because some mistakes good writers just don’t make - whereas others believe place more weight on story rather than conventions and thus don’t have a problem with improper formatting; after all, that’s the easiest part to fix with a screenwriting handbook. In this post I discuss one of these rules: never use excessive letters for emphasis.
Screenwriting Rule: Don't Use Extra Letters
The first time I heard about this rule was from one of my professors giving feedback to another classmate who wrote a scene between two employees with nothing to do on a slow day who often said "this suuuuuucks" and "I'm soooooo booooored" to each other. The professor explained that the writer should get rid of the superfluous letters and to never signify how the line is to be delivered.
It's a rule I have looked up and can't find so I decided to write about it specifically because I continue to see it in scripts. I feel for writers who might be seeking more information on a rule they may not have heard of until they received feedback or coverage. In fact, I am surprised that something I learned in a writing program from an experienced screenwriter in Hollywood hasn't been written about as much considering how much I see it in a lot of amateur scripts. But I've also seen it done well.
There are a few reasons why this rule makes sense. We know how words are supposed to look. That is the basis of typography, or the design of letters to aid in communicating effectively or in a stylized way. We know how many repeating letters words can have, so we jolt when we see the word "boook" for example. It doesn't look right, and it takes us out of the story momentarily as we register this mistake. These misspellings or gratuitous punctuation marks make the page look cluttered.
How It Affects Page Count
Keep in mind that the margins for dialogue in a script are very narrow, so excessive exclamation points or drawing out "heeeeey" and "wooooow" can affect how long the line is, and can increase one's page numbers. Anyone who has ever tried to fit within a certain page limit knows just how much those dangling orphans can make a difference. If a script is 140 pages but 15 of them can be cut out simply by paring down then it probably has other structural issues, not to mention pacing issues for two reasons. First, extra pages means it takes more effort to get to the next beat or plot point, and by the time the reader gets there it feels like time was wasted. Screenwriting is all about economic writing. The faster you develop that skill, the better.
Another way pacing is affected is in how humans actually read. Iiiiiiifff yoooooooooooouuuuuuuu read this yooooooooooouuuuuuuu wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilll rreeeeeaaaadd it with varied paaaaaaaaaaciiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Ifffff yooooou doo it alot (or that) evryooone souuuunds ridiiiiiiiculus. Remember that time is perception and we use it for many types of decisions and judgments. In the absence of illness or old age, when people talk slowly we also assume that, well, they're not that bright. Writing dialogue with this style signals to the reader that this character is envisioned by its creator as speaking this slowly. Is it worth watching, or is this choice from an underdeveloped skills and taste?
Takes The Reader Out of the Story
When a common writing rule is broken it feels like an abrupt and mild offense, the focus moves to that. If we are focused on the words (or the spelling of them) then we are taken out of the story. Now, if one minor thing takes me out of the story then I usually let it go. But I have seen scripts that are polished, and it's hard to put an unpolished one next to them.
What It Says About A Writer
Reading screenplays can mean a lot more than simply finding a good script - you're also trying to find a good writer, and as writers we want to have solid samples of our skills. Too many makes me think about the person writing. How conscious were they when writing? How old are they? Why did they choose to express themselves in this way? It detracts from the story because instead of focusing on the story I’m now transfixed on why the writer chose to use that form of language.
Formatting, to me, is like saying to the reader "I know what I'm doing, thank you very much." When a writer plays around with format in a wise and clever way then I pay attention not only to the story but to the fact that there's a person with that talent.
What I Think
In my personal opinion, I don’t mind it that much when used wisely and I think it’s worth considering screenwriting rules. Tone is one of my favorite parts of a screenplay, and using extra letters can help weave that tone into the dialogue. Since anything can happen it’s impossible to come up with unalterable rules in screenwriting. A good example of such use is a character falling, flying or driving away, being kidnapped/taken by force, or disappearing while screaming “Nooooooo!” If I just saw “No!”, a very short word, after a long description that led up to this climactic moment, then I’d feel I read it in my head too abruptly.
You're allowed to break the rules for your creative needs. By all means, do what it takes to tell a good story. Here and there throughout the script is fine. In fact, the same can be said for the use of common vernacular. If you're not trying to be the director and have a real reason for needing to put accents in, then that will more than likely be obvious to the person reading the script. The problem is when it's done excessively.
Why Adhere to Formatting Standards?
It is in the best interest for a writer to just write well, period. So what matters more, the story or how well the writer can adhere to formula and format? The story. But that doesn't mean that rules are less important. When you've been writing for some years and know formatting pretty well then it's likely that your storytelling skills have improved, too. You take pride in your work and thus you write clearly and with intentionality. You have something you want to say. Great writers yield scripts that are enjoyable to be on a journey with, even if the characters residing in their worlds are evil, selfish, or obnoxious.
If a writer is using words misspelled intentionally then there is probably good reason for it, as they are breaking a rule for a reason.
Sometimes writers misspell words intentionally and consistently throughout their script because they aren't good writers yet. (I always say "yet" to not discourage anyone.) More often than not, when I see rampant intentional misspellings there are concomitant issues such as excessive use of camera angles, characters who are really caricatures of real people, and dialogue that is on-the-nose or isn't distinct for each person. You prove you're a good writer in a script by not showing off how good of a writer you are, at least until you're able to break rules and have a very good reason for it. "Edgy", "to stand out", or anything that begins with "to make [insert desired reaction here]" are not good enough reasons, and shouldn't be the primary driving forces behind your writing. You don't eat hot dogs to transfer mustard to your mouth. Mustard isn't the point, and it wasn't what you wanted. Writing in a way that signals "look who I am" in a script feels like someone trying to convince me that what I really want is a mouthful of mustard rather than the pleasant backyard barbecue scene with a hot dog and great conversation I know I've had before. At that point it's not enjoyable, it's forceful. Reading a script should feel like a really good visit to someone else's head rather than like a sales pitch by a used car salesman.
But if the writer tells a good story that needs to be tightened up but also reformatted and rewritten for excessive misspellings, then they’ve still achieved writing a good story through the fantastic development. They will get notes back to make those edits, and then submit it to the Nicholl Fellowship.
Either way, the cream will rise to the top. You can’t be a solid writer and not write well. And people who care to get good at this craft care to get good about certain conventions. They work around them. It is amazing how refreshing it is every time I discover someone’s new way of breaking the rules.
These Are Human-Made Rules After All
I’d like to close with an I saw an example of one of the earliest scripts ever written. You have to scroll down a bit to see it, but there it is - a simple description of what was going to happen in "A Trip to the Moon". My body sank and my heart melted. This is how they wrote their movie. It was all the wonderful innocence of people figuring it out for the first time for all of humanity. (Let's never forget that - it's quite a very cool, recent thing to happen.) When I was little camcorders were inexpensive enough that almost everyone had one, and I remember sort-of-scripted home videos becoming a big thing. I certainly planned a few backyard romps that we described as epics but watching now would just cause me to cringe not only at myself but at just how bad it was. Unbeknownst to us at that stage of self-awareness, one had to actually communicate with the audience as they do not automatically and emphatically give a hoot about your silly adventures. But with our delusions pushing us onwards, we came up with what we thought were the plans of Oscar-winning film after film. I found these notes years later. They looked much like this one. My notes would never be taken seriously by anyone in the screenwriting business, but that is because the story was bad; it was written by a child with no understanding of how to fathom what the audience sees or what they find amusing, much less how to hook them with intrigue. Back then I created completely and uncontrollably from within. Now, after years of wrestling with it, I have guided myself into making with an audience in mind. Effective communication and expression are a constant process that will be the work of my life. I think that matters more than whether or not a colon is missing. Some people think this is common sense, and others think it is heresy. I think the best answer is to learn the craft and put in the work to be a better writer. You can't go wrong with being good.