Here's a little Hollywood secret — script readers can make or break your screenwriting career. What they think of your script matters (a lot). Luckily, there's a quick and easy way to make a reader fall in love with your script. And all you have to do is improve the pacing. Because script pacing is the single most important element to the experience of reading a screenplay. And a script that's easier to read is almost always a script that's more fun to read.
Here are three simple techniques you can use to improve the pacing of your script and a few reasons why you need to pay more attention to script pacing as a professional screenwriter.
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Who are script readers?
Professional script readers read and evaluate hundreds of screenplays in a very short amount of time, and not just at the studio level. Industry readers also read scripts and submissions for many of the major screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships. And while strong concepts, engaging stories, and rich characters are all elements that will ultimately determine the success of your screenplay in the long run, you can't ignore the process of the reading experience.
Because if your script can't hook professional script readers (and quickly!), your screenplay might not get very far.
Why script pacing matters
Great script pacing can be what helps a screenwriter:
Script pacing really is that important. You can't afford to bury an amazing concept, story, and collection of characters in long blocks of scene description, and overly-written dialogue. These unnecessarily-long scenes/sequences can easily bloat your screenplay to 140-pages. And that's not going to be a great reading experience for the reader.
But if you can take all those great elements and craft a well-paced 100-page screenplay (give or take) you promise the reader not only an entertaining read. You make it easy for them. And people like easy reads. Here are three specific screenwriting hacks to help you strip out the fat and speed up the pacing of your screenplay.
How to speed up script pacing: Trim scene descriptions
Screenplays aren't novels. They shouldn't have long paragraphs of text or lengthy descriptions. If you want to speed up the pacing of your script, start by removing unnecessary scene descriptions and trim important descriptions to the bare essentials. The more "ink" on the page, the longer it takes for the reader to read it, so cut out as much as you can.
If you're having trouble shrinking scene descriptions down to size, use these three screenwriting devices to help you trim descriptions to the bone:
- Single-Sentence Blocks of Description
- Broad Strokes
How to use fragments to speed up your script
Fragments offer you the freedom to get a visual across to the reader with minimum effort. Less really is more here:
- Dark and cold.
- Cold and wet.
- Hot and miserable.
Fragments are a screenwriter's best friend. Use them as often as you can.
Single-sentence blocks of scene description
Single sentences that represent a single block of description help you to communicate a visual beat. Remember that screenplays are ultimately meant to describe a visual medium (movies). So every block of scene description needs to communicate a single powerful visual that you hurl at the reader.
- This is what I want you to see.
- Now you see this.
- Now, this happens.
There's a beat to it, right? But watch what happens when we put those three short sentences into one longer block of description. Watch how the rhythm changes as you read it:
This is what I want you to see. Now you see this. Now, this happens.
It's the same information, but when you put it on one line together, it reads differently. It feels heavier. It also feels slower. If we change the text to represent a musical beat, you can feel the rhythmic differences:
- Boom Bada
- Boom Bada
There's a beat to it. But when you combine those beats by taking away that white space — that pause — you get a vastly different rhythmic experience:
That second example has your mind reading it as more of a garbled sentence than a series of flowing beats. You're forced to slow down to make sure that you read it right. That's pacing. Go through your script and space those paragraphs out to create single-sentence blocks of scene description. Use two sentences at the most, if need be and you'll accelerate your script's pacing.
Broad strokes and script pacing
Details are for novels. If the scene description you're writing isn't vital to the story, don't include it. Always focus on the broad strokes. Go through your script and see where you've gone into too much detail — then condense that section or remove it completely.
Here's a quick example of how to cut down scene descriptions to just the broad strokes:
The rewrite embraces fragments, includes a single sentence block (in this case, accompanied by two single-word fragments), and focuses on the broad strokes of the visual the screenwriter wants the reader to envision. And it reads like a dream. All the information you need is there, and you didn't even realize you'd read it.
How to speed up script pacing: Focus on a smaller story window
A common issue with screenplays written by novice screenwriters is that they tend to use too wide of a story lens. This leads to extra characters, too many story arcs, and lots of locations. All of which, in turn, can lead to a slower-paced screenplay (and a more expensive production). An easy way to fix this is to ask yourself three questions:
- Do I need that first act buildup, or can I just throw my characters into the concept's conflict after briefly showing them in their ordinary world?
- Do I need to have the characters return to their ordinary world and linger there? Can I just briefly have them return within only a page or couple of visual moments?
- Is there a story within the story that I could focus on more?
In The Big Chill, we see brief glimpses into each character's ordinary world before throwing the conflict (news that their common friend has committed suicide) at them. The audience has a solid understanding of the backstory for all of the main characters in less than five minutes — with almost no dialogue. That's a fast-paced script. And it's accomplished by showing snippets — moments — of each person's life. The story lens is close and intimate, and it works. It gives you context while leaving you wanting more.
In Good Will Hunting, after Will's court-ordered therapy and math sessions are complete, we briefly see his new evolved ordinary world and that of the supporting characters around him.
Beyond shaving off the front and backend of the script, you should see if you can condense the scope of your story to a smaller story window. This can actually benefit the script by increasing the conflict within the confines of the smaller story window you use. You can enhance key genre elements as well by adding more comedy, action, melodrama, or scares as the genre demands.
Viewing a story with a smaller lens means more focus on the story and characters you chose to hone in on. And you're able to enhance the genre elements within.
How to speed up script pacing tip: Intercut different scenes
By now you're cut most of the extended scenes and trimmed unnecessary sequences. But eventually, you'll get to a point where you can't trim anymore without affecting the story narrative and characterizations. It's frustrating, right? You've done plenty of rewrites, and you believe that you've cut away all of the fat that you can. Yet your script still seems to linger. The solution to the problem is actually quite simple.
This is where you need to think like an editor. Figure out how you can break up longer scenes by intercutting it with other scenes. Move from one scene to the other, back and forth, and feel free to do so with multiple scenes and story points as well. Give your script some energy. The opening character introductions of Magnolia intercut multiple character scenes, creating a fast-paced drama:
The film utilizes this style throughout the whole story. It's so much better than the usual bland collection of scenes built up on top of each other. Intercut your scenes to convey fast-paced energy, flow, and style. That is how you truly create a well-paced, engaging, and cinematic screenplay.
Read ScreenCraft's Why Screenwriters Should Think Like Film Editors!
How to speed up the pace of your script
Script pacing is a tricky thing to describe, but it's an easy thing to fix. Use these three actionable and easy screenwriting hacks to speed up the pacing of your script and entice readers to keep reading:
- Cut down your scene description
- Focus on smaller story windows
- Intercut multiple scenes together
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter's Creed starring Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O'Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies