Compression: Why You Need It In Every Your
Tuesday, 03.05.2019, 09:00 AM
Compression: Why You Need It In Every Script Your
By Christopher Keane
A writer’s journey to the heart of a story is filled with obstacles, detours and reversals. Distilling the story’s essence to get the most potent effect requires an understanding of one of screenwriting’s flagship concepts – compression.
One definition of a movie is a rapid acceleration of events happening over a short period of time. A chief component of that definition is compression. Squeezing things together so that there’s no flab hanging from the story.
The three elements of compression: time, space, and language.
Compression of Time
When you think about your story one of the things that will come up is length of time. If your story takes place over a six-month period, ask yourself if it’s possible for it to take place over a week or even a weekend.
Take Three Days of the Condor, staring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. The book upon which the movie was based is called Six Days of the Condor. For Hollywood, six days were three too many.
Some movies demand five years or more (Lawrence of Arabia; A Beautiful Mind), in which case the writers used compression in other areas.
The key is to eliminate dead time. If, for instance, a character must go through a pregnancy, a weekend won’t cut it. The problem might be what to do with those nine months waiting for the pregnancy to unfold, in which case you ask yourself: can my character already be pregnant for, say, eight months? Maybe the story is not the pregnancy in its entirety, but the events leading up to the birth.
Compression of Space
A rule of thumb: never separate your characters for long periods of time, no matter what Nora Ephron may tell you. In Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle the characters meet only at the end. It’s a tribute to writer Jeff Arch and Ephron’s talent that they were able to sustain the tension for as long as they did.
They say that the best way for turmoil, drama, conflict and tension to prevail is to throw the characters into a closet with and lock the door.
One of the best uses of compression of space is in one of the most popular movies ever made, The Graduate. In this movie the writers have a situation in which they want to put the main character through a series of life-altering events. They want to make him squirm and sweat bullets so that he earns the rewards from changes he goes through. This will be no walk in the park for Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman).
So what do the writers do? The first thing is to put the character in a place he does not want to be, where he will be in constant conflict.
They came up with the only place guaranteed to make him miserable – at home, with his parents, who give him sports cars instead of love and treat him like a stranger. Pressure from the get-go.
In your stories you have to put your character where he is most uncomfortable. In that way he needs relief, and in order to get the relief he needs to act.
You never want your character comfortable. Or if he is comfortable, make sure it isn’t for more than a second or two before the shit hits the fan.
Next the writers say, okay, what life-altering experience can we give to Ben that he has not had before? How about – sex? Okay, what shall we do? Bring in an old flame from school, or maybe somebody he used to have a crush on? Too easy.
They look around and their eyes fix on next door, right across the hedge, to the neighbor. Who’s living there? It’s Mrs. Robinson, an older, wiser woman who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.
Perfect! Older woman, young man. Ben falls into her clutches, right in plain sight of his parents (if they happened to glance across the hedge), who also know and disapprove of Mrs. Robinson.
So off Ben stumbles, to have this eye-opening sexual experience with Mrs. Robinson, who can’t believe her good luck. Nice fresh, young meat, next door, marching into her clutches. Ben gets an education.
What exquisite pressure. Right next door to his dreaded parents, and he’s with a woman old enough to be his mother. Ben gets laid for the first time.
Compression of space under these conditions is pressing the characters together in a confined space, in this case, as next door neighbors. If these two houses were separated by even an empty lot the sense of claustrophobia would have been lost.
The story doesn't have to veer off somewhere in search of a woman. She’s right there, and ready. Lesson: look around before you go traipsing off in search of adventure that may be under your character’s nose.
Now that he’s in this awful place with his awful parents, the writers are thinking, and no longer a virgin, having given it away to the hawk-like, booze-swilling Robinson - what else has Ben never experienced? Ah. Love.
The writers start searching for an object of his love. They go through the same drill: What about somebody from college? What about a girl he knew from high school, still in town, maybe across town, or even in the neighborhood?
Wait a minute, they cry in a sudden burst of inspiration: Doesn’t Mrs. Robinson have a daughter? Perfect!
And so Ben, while boinking Mrs. Robinson, or, more appropriately, getting boinked by her, falls in love with her daughter, and she falls in love with him. Next door neighbors, upstairs/downstairs. Compression.
And all of it right next door, and in just a short period of time. Ben goes through a life-altering experience and in the end heads off with the girl towards an uncertain, but possibly more promising future. The Panic Room, Phone Booth, etc., all used the compression of space to their great advantage.
Compression of Language
This is Strunk and White territory. I am not one of those who believe that screenwriting has no author’s voice. There’s some ridiculous press out there that says that because screenwriting is a bastard art that other people will eventually turn the script into digital or celluloid, the writing by definition is without much originality. These critics have not read many screenplays.
The voice or style of the writer may not be in evidence as much as in novels, but read some screenplays. Read screenplays by screenwriters and not necessarily directors with laptops. Not that directors can’t write, but it’s not usually their primary concern. They want to make a movie, not write a movie. Screenwriters want to write movies.
I mentioned earlier that some studio people insist that 80 percent of all screenplays options or purchases are due to the concept, not the writing. Fair enough. That’s true in publishing, too. You can write up a storm of a story but if it’s not going to entice an audience, it’s not going to be bought.
I once read a 40-page short story about a guy watching and cogitating over a rock he found by a river bed. It was beautiful, profound; it transported me, as all good storytelling should, from one place to another. Would it have made a movie? No. A book? No. A short story in a book with other such well written evocative stories? Probably.
How many times have I heard agents and producers say, “Boy, can so-and-so write. All she needs is the right idea.” Sometimes if a script is well-written an agent will take on a writer and send it as a writing sample to producers or studios with open writing assignments.
Even if you have an idea but the writing stinks, readers at agencies and production companies will toss your script by page ten. Nobody wants to slog through a badly written script.
Major problems to watch out for:
1 - Big blocky paragraphs chock full of Architectural Digest descriptive passages of rooms and lawns.
Bad: Raffi passes by a 150-year-old weatherbeaten house with gables and a widow walk. A tire hangs by a rope from a tree branch. The lawn has needed mowing for months. Chipped paint flakes lie on the ground from where they have fallen from the house. Stringy curtains hang inside the house. The veranda is lopsided.
Better: Raffi passes by a dilapidated Victorian mansion.
In screenplays always search for the essence of things.
2 - Dialogue that sounds as if it’s come out of a law book, or a crashing bore who can’t shut up, or someone who uses “Really?” or “Totally!” every other sentence.
Raffi: I absolutely adore that outfit you’re wearing you purchased yesterday afternoon at Bonwits on 5th and 57th. Did you go there with your husband of five years and his kids from a previous marriage?
The Key West Woman: Oh thank you, Raffi, for saying that you admire my outfit from Bonwits, and yes, my darling much older husband Reggie and his two collage-aged children came down from Columbia and Sarah Lawrence in that luxurious Cadillac Reggie ordered just last week when we were visiting Count Olaf in Norway.
I’ve seen much worse.
3 - Characters who incessantly explain the plot to each other.
Raffi: Did you get the feeling that Samuel, who, by the way, spent 13 years in prison for pistol whipping his Aunt Jane, could have stolen the paintings, which I think he’s hiding in his brother-in-law’s basement?
The Key West Woman: I think we should follow the both of them while at the same time bringing Detective Blue in on this, though did you know that Detective Blue four years ago had been questioned in conjunction with those stolen Rauchenbergs?
Raffi: Before we get into that why don’t we go back to your place and have sex before your husband gets home from target practice?
The Key West Woman: By the way, did you wear protection last time, Raffi? I meant to tell you that I forgot.
Raffi: Having a baby might complicate the investigation and create pressure on us to marry, which in both cases would constitute bigamy, but I’d chance it. How about you?
The Key West Woman: That would drive my terminally ill sister to suicide. Then we’d never know what she did with the stolen paintings. Oops. I sure let the cat out of the bag on that one.
Had enough? I have.
4 - Herds of characters galloping across the first ten pages.
The reader will have enough to do in simply familiarizing herself with the set-up without having to confront a hoard of newbies. The old British spy movies used to brutalize their audiences with this device. I am convinced the whole point was to throw in as many characters as they could so that the audience could spend the rest of the movie trying to sort out who they were.
Things to do to prevent these problems:
1 — Build Active Sentences. The boy was not hit by the boy. The boy hit the ball. Use basic active sentence construction. We tend to forget this. A movie is about someone in active pursuit of something: a way to get into it or a way to get out of it. The language should reflect that. If you offer us dollops of passive sentence construction you’ll interrupt the reading experience, sabotage your characters and lose story momentum.
2 - Kill All Adverbs. Adverbs are lazy, showy accessories that prevent the writer from utilizing the power of the verb. How many sports announcers, those great saboteurs of the power of the verb, make good writers? None? Right answer. Those “l-y” weasel words ruin more good scripts. They’re like vermin. Use a simple noun, a strong active, visual verb, and move on.
3 – Avoid Long Paragraphs. If you must write a long descriptive paragraph, write it out and then edit, edit, edit, breaking it down into smaller paragraphs. Read it aloud. Does it sound too phony or overwritten or purple? This also goes for characters. When they speak let them go, edit later. In that coal mine of babble there is a diamond hiding. If they talk too much put a sock in their mouths and condense.
Don’t write to fill space. Don’t worry about how long, or short, the script is supposed to be. Keep in mind what each scene itself is about. Don’t get the characters jabbering about what we can already see, or have already seen. You don’t need a Greek chorus to explain action. Compress and distill.
See Monster’s Ball for compression of language and absence of dialogue. We are inundated by TV, in which people never shut up, even on clever shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. On TV, silence is anathema. If we hear silence we think the set is broken.
4 – Kill Excessive Description. Do you NEED all that description? The essence of the place or object or character will do. Ask yourself this: if you were looking at a room or a vista you’re about to describe, what are the one or two things would grab your attention first? There’s your answer. Get them down and move on.
Are the character’s ears huge? Is her face pasty white below a shock of dreadlocked red hair? Is the house a faded blue, a small stucco box on a gravel lawn, with orange sprinkler stains running up the walls? Essence.
5 - Watch out for clichés. If you’ve heard it before, and still use it, you’re being either lazy or plagiaristic.
Chris Keane is a member of the Writers Guild of America West, the Author's Guild and Pen. He has written screenplays for feature films and television. He has written 14 novels including The Hunter with Steve McQueen. Chris has taught at colleges and universities all the US and abroad. He lives between LA and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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