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English 112/212 - SCREENWRITING - Schilf

White Space: The Importance of Design

The "I" Page

There’s nothing worse than a plethora of “I” pages, that is, pages that are top to bottom dialogue.

When this happens, the page literally looks like an “I” because dialogue is margined to fill a narrower column.

This creates a lot of white space on the right and left of the page, but it also screams amateur. A screenplay is a visual story, not just a stage play. If you want to write characters that talk, talk, talk their way through a scene, you should be writing for the stage, not the movies.

The "Block" Page

Another mistake occurs at the opposite end of the spectrum with what is called the “block” page.

When a writer fills a page with only visual action paragraphs (usually quite long) and no dialogue, the page literally looks like a block of text.

The read, therefore, becomes a slower, thicker, more labor-intensive experience. In order to avoid this, dialogue needs to be inserted to break up all the action, hence, one of the reasons the one-liner has become synonymous with action films.

The Art of White Space

In screenwriting, the art of the white space is less art and more artifice. White space on the page is a clever and practical way to get the reader to turn pages: fast and furious.

The screenwriter must start scenes as late as possible and get out early. The less words that can be used to accomplish each scene without losing the voice of the writer, the better. It’s simple: less words means less reading. And if there is one absolute in Hollywood, it is that NOBODY READS. 

That fact alone creates quite a conundrum for the screenwriter. Nobody reads? The truth is that when a new spec screenplay comes into an agency or production company or whereever, it’s first stop is definitely not straight to a producer’s or agent’s desk. A director certainly won’t read it. And actors, forget about it. But there has to be somebody who reads it, right? 

Readers read. And who are readers? They are the secretaries, the assistants, the interns. They are the undervalued and underpaid (and sometimes unpaid) life-line of Hollywood. 

The first thing a reader does is flip to the last page. If the script is more than 120 pages, it goes right in the trash. Next, the reader looks at form. Wrong form, right in the trash. Then the reader flips through the script, looking for block pages and ‘I’ pages. Too many of those, you got it, right in the trash. And now, assuming the script has made it this far, the reader reads. Of course, a good screenplay must have engaging and interesting characters, a good story concept, a clear and structured plot, and original voice in the writing, but it also must have plenty of white space. 

A good screenwriter writes concise action that is broken up with short dialogue because he is conscious of the white space on the page and works hard at manifest it - lots of it.

“It was a fast read.” That is one of the best compliments a screenwriter can receive. Because a fast read almost always equates to a good script, and most importantly a ‘recommend’ from the reader. And these ‘recommended’ scripts that have made it through the appropriate channels from reader, to junior agents, to assistants of the assistants that are the screenplays that do end up on the desks of producers, directors, and A-list stars. 

There are a lot of keys to locking up a great script, and the art of the white space is one of them.

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