Inside the Chaos: Cinema writing 101- 5 Things About Overwriting

Everyone who has ever put fingers to keys on a computer with the attempt to write a cinematic piece has probably had to deal with overwriting. Everyone has overwritten something and it’s nothing to be ashamed about- as long as you know how to correct it.  But in this reviewer’s’ time as a script coverage provider, it is surprising how much, (and how easily) overwriting happens. Below are five things about overwriting you might want to refresh on for your next revision.



Writing is often considered to be playing God to a very tiny universe. In novels, this is certainly true. Collaboration pieces, where many hands touch the work before it is seen by the eyes of the masses, such as stage plays or screenplays, have a slightly different approach. Specifically for Screen writing, the script provides dialogue, setting and action- the combination of which creates story. But it is important to understand the parameters of that confine: you don’t direct the piece.

BASIC RULE: In cinematic writing, you want to avoid overt descriptions of the way a character moves, delivers or reacts to their lines, their micro expressions or mannerisms, or excessive details of their minute actions.


EXAMPLE: It is established that Character X always rings their hands when they lie. They are lying in this scene and Character Y needs to find out. Then you can write “Character X rings their hands. Character Y sees.”


EXCEPTION: If a scene or line is otherwise ambiguous and clarity can only be reached with a direction, or that direction is crucial to understanding the context of the scene.



Sixteen years earlier the mother of Character A and the Father of Character B had an affair, but no one knows or will ever find out and it’s all water under the bridge now. Characters 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 are staying at the Bed and Breakfast once owned by character 3’s great-great-grandmother whose husband fought in the war.  The details that make your characters rich, robust histories might be incredibly satisfying to read about in a novel, where we have hundreds of pages to bring out full deep back stories and elaborate web. But Cinema has time constraints. Constraints on the reader, and constraints on the audience. Stick to the story that is relevant.


BASIC RULE: If it’s not going to show up directly in the story, then we don’t need to know.


EXAMPLE: If it’s important, have a character make reference to it. If it’s not important enough to waste a line of dialogue on, or if the plot is not directly entangled in it, don’t bother putting it in.


EXCEPTION: Historical pieces, where details about characters’ based on real life people may, in fact, be needed. Consider adding them into a director’s’ note at the end of the piece instead of building them into a scene.



It is absolutely okay to reference that action in your scene, but you must say it plainly and to the point. Elongating the piece by over explaining the work only hurt the piece in the long run.


BASIC RULE: The Best Cinematic writing will create the clearest and most vivid images necessary, with as few words as possible.


EXAMPLE: Character X punches Character A in the face. Character A falls hits the floor. Their nose is broken and bleeds profusely. OR: Character X punches Character A. A crashes to the floor, smashed nose bleeding, instantly plastering in blood.


EXCEPTION: It is not unheard of to see the occasional flowery sentence in the scene description. Use the greatest discretion with these; one per page is often enough. If you use a more flowery or poetic line in your work, make sure it draws together the scene clearly and purposefully.


Anyone who has ever had to write an essay gets caught up in over explaining ourselves in order to make ourselves perfectly clear…and fill up those huge required word counts. But you want to disregard that training in cinematic writing. Utilize the power of suggestion and trust your audience is smart enough to pick up the clues. Don’t have Character 1 tell his buddies he’s going out on the town to cheat on his wife. SHOW Character 1 ignoring his wife’s calls, removing his wedding band and offering to buy a girl at a bar a drink.


BASIC RULE: Consider how’d you get this information across visually- then describe exactly what you see.


EXAMPLE: (After slug line establishes Character is at the Bar) Character 1 removes his wedding band, puts it in his pocket. Gestures for two drinks from the bar tender. Sees a call from his wife. Ignores it.


EXCEPTION: “On-the-nose” Lines, or lines that are overtly obvious, can be very impactful and incredibly useful WHEN USED SPARINGLY. Like, once an entire piece kind of sparingly. For an example, check out TV shows like BOJACK HORSEMAN. This show employs excellent and tactful use of on-the-nose lines. They are always emotionally compelling because they are done strategically and with exceptional care.




Overwriting can hurt your work. Excessive or unnecessary details can weigh down the action of your script, making your piece read heavy and slow. The quicker your story starts into the action and more fluidly (and clearly) that action moves, the stronger your piece will read.


BASIC RULE: Be clear, quick and efficient. Show, don’t tell.


EXAMPLE: *Taken from Graeme Manson’s Pilot script of Orphan Black.

Shower running.  Sarah undresses.  Beneath the clothes, bruises hint at a rough exit from her life with Vic.


EXCEPTION:  Historical, fantasy and Science-Fiction may require a slightly full description to establish world building.


Writing is a craft, and art and an on-going process. First drafts will always be rough and ideas will always need polishing. The clearer and quicker you can be, the better your work will read.



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