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Digestible Sentences: One Thing That Will Immediately Improve Your Screenplay

Tweak + Polish Tip No. 4

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by Naomi in rewriting, screenwriting

File this under “things you don’t even realize you’re doing but which make readers like your screenplay less.”

I see this particular thing in a fair amount of screenplays and it’s easy to fix – once you’re aware of it, of course. What is it? Non-digestible sentences!

Long, unwieldy (aka “non-digestible”) sentences are difficult to consume. Even if they’re full of delicious stuff, they’re sentences that pack too much for one bite.

Digestible sentences, on the other hand, are easy to take in and grasp the meaning of. And they make for a smoother, faster read.

There are several types of non-digestible sentences but I’ll start with the two versions I see most often.

1. Sentences that contain too much description

You’re trying to paint a picture so more description is better, right? Not really.

Sentences that contain more descriptive words than you need to make your point just dilute the picture. A few vivid, precise words are more effective than a laundry list of details.

How do you avoid this?

Choose your details carefully and deliberately. Use specific details to guide the reader’s attention. Rather than trying to describe everything, select essential or representative details that evoke the world without getting bogged down in it.

2. Complicated or complex sentences

These are mostly run-on sentences or sentences with subordinate clauses. They’re sentences that include several different thoughts or pieces of information – all of which may be necessary. But even if the sentences are grammatically correct, the presentation dilutes the message.

When sentences go on too long or include too many separate pieces of information, the reader gets overwhelmed. The various points you’re trying to make can end up obscuring each other. No one point is made with any impact.

How do you avoid this?

Write (or re-write) in simple sentences. The easiest place to start? Limit your need for commas. Split pieces of information into their own sentences. Don’t be afraid to use sentence fragments too.

Let’s look at some examples to make these ideas concrete.

First up, the non-digestibles. In these examples, you can see a mix of the issues described above. And the point isn’t to call out these writers, but to help you recognize ways you might be getting in your own way without even realizing it.

As you can see, many of these sentences attempt to string several ideas into one continuous thought. When they do they’re harder to consume, even if the information is necessary to the story. We have to work to think through the geography or follow the action of the scene. We get less of a sense of the moment-to-moment flow of the movie in our mind’s eye.

Now let’s look at some examples of writing with digestible sentences. This one is from a screenplay we read and discussed earlier this year, CRAWL:

And even if you don’t like this staccato style that uses a lot of fragments, you can still apply the “one point per sentence” and “limit your commas” tips, like in this example** from the screenplay for HARRIET:

**And I bet you can even find a few commas that can be eliminated from this example, too.

When should you worry about digestible sentences?

This is a Tweak & Polish tip for a reason. Meaning, save it for the end of your process. When you’re writing, just write. Don’t force yourself to conform to a style, especially if it feels unnatural or gets in the way of your flow.

But when you’re polishing, think about readability. I’m still not saying to change your style. You have a unique voice and that’s important. BUT… if it’s hard for a reader to absorb and grasp the story you’re telling, that’s not doing you any favors. Don’t let non-digestible sentences get in the way of your story.

Using shorter, simpler sentences may feel less writerly. But they actually make reading your screenplay easier and faster, which equals a better experience for the reader.

Want more tips on making your screenplay reader-ready? This is part of an ongoing series and you can see the other Tweak & Polish posts herehere, and here.

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