Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reader questions - Using big words in your script, scene headings

Cody sent in a question somewhat related to Tuesday's post:

Your post today somewhat coincides with my question. Last week during my screenwriting group in LA, one of our members (always highly critical, yet never brings their own pages) chastised me for using words that he said "a reader might not understand." The words were both used in description, they were "kitschy" and "eponymous." He said readers are looking for any reason to toss your script aside and too big of words might cause them to do that. I read you blog, Amanda's and countless others and have never heard this. Thoughts?

I don't think those two words are too obscure, so I can't say I'd figure you have anything to fear from them.  So long as they work in context, words like that shouldn't be a problem.

Your friends might have a point, though.  If - IF - you're using a few too many "thesaurus" words, that might result in a scenario like the ones your friends posit.  There's nothing wrong with some word variety, but if you're so focused on using "intelligent" words that EVERY word sounds like it belongs on a vocabulary test, then you might have a problem.

There's a scene from Friends that is a good demonstration of what I'm talking about.  Joey has to write a letter of recommendation and he's worried about sounding stupid, so Ross convinces him to use the thesaurus to dress it up a bit. Joey runs the entire letter through the thesaurus word-by-word and picks the smartest sounding word for each one.  This results in a letter that... well... just click here.

I'm not saying that's your problem, or even if that's what your friends are reacting to, but keep it in mind.

Michael writes in with a formatting question:

What is the hard and fast rule when it comes to reading a Scene Heading at the end of page? Should it always be avoided, as Trottier says, or are there exceptions? 

I found my script has many pages ending by starting a new scene but the character speaking doesn't show up until the next page. If I push all my scene headings down to start the next page, I end up with an additional page added to the script count and several pages where there's a heavier block of white space at the bottom of the page. 

What is more acceptable to the reader? Seeing bigger gaps at the bottom of the page or seeing a Scene Heading and maybe one or 2 lines of description, but nothing else. 

This one's an easy one - put the scene heading at the top of the next page.  Final Draft should do this automatically, in fact.  I'm a big believer in making your script look as professional as possible, so that's the direction I'd go in.

Beyond that, it's a little confusing to turn the page and be launched into the description.  A scene heading at the bottom of the page might get skipped, forcing the reader to turn back.  It's a minor detail, but another point that falls under the "don't break the flow of the read" rules.

Hope this helps!


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    1. Yeah, you're correct. If there's some scene description before the page break, that's acceptable. But my understanding of how he explained the situation was that we were just dealing with scene headers as "widows."

      And since this problem wasn't being solved automatically for him, I merely assumed he wasn't using Final Draft. But I definitely get the source of your confusion. The original question is a little unclear once you parse every word.

  2. Hey Zuul,

    The last question writer sorta pulled a bait and switch in the last paragraph. Confused me for a second there too. I'm sure you'll agree with me when you read it again, but if there's at least some scene description beneath the scene heading at the bottom of the page, it's perfectly acceptable to have dialogue starting on the following page. Without the scene description, it's a naked slugline, and that's not a good thing -- and Final Draft will correct it for you.

  3. I think the "big word" question will yield you different answers based on taste. I agree with Bitter that those 2 specific words (especially "kitschy") aren't super obscure. I personally like it when writers challenge my vocabulary, but if I have to look up a word on every page, I'm going to get annoyed. (Now, I'm an SAT tutor, so that would require some VERY obscure words.) Specificity is good; visual and sensory imagery is better. Painting a picture for the reader is more important than impressing her with your vocabulary. Also, readers HATE huge chunks of description, so don't let big words take up too much white space in your script.

    I've always liked this exchange between Faulkner and Hemingway (I don't think either is "right"):

    Faulker said that Hemingway has "never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary."

    "Poor Faulkner," Hemingway responded. "Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words? I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."

  4. A good example of why not to use too many big words in a script would be the scene with the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded.

  5. Hey everyone, good catch! You're right, I changed it up as I was writing, and answered my own question. But I didn't catch the discrepency until I after I sent it.

    Thanks for answering though. My scenario was having several scene headings with no more than 2 lines of description at bottom of the page. Not a naked slug line.