I got this question recently:

“An agent recently read my screenplay and gave me the comment: It’s overwritten. What does that mean?”

Without actually seeing your screenplay it’s hard to know for sure what the agent meant, but typically what this means is that you have put in way too much description. Keep in mind, you’re writing a screenplay not a novel. I would suggest going back and reading through your screenplay again and really keep an eye out for any unnecessary description and cut it. Description in a screenplay is only necessary in order to move the story forward. So if it doesn’t move the story forward cut it.

I’ve seen a lot of novice screenwriters spend lots of time describing a location when a descriptive slug line will do.
For instance if your scene was in a run down bar this would suffice: INT. DIVE BAR – NIGHT. You don’t need to spend any time (or words) describing the bar as we all know what a dive bar basically looks like. So unless there is something specifcally needed for the story like a picture on the wall that is needed to move your story forward, don’t even bother describing locations just be descriptive and creative with your slug lines.

Another area where new writers tend to overwrite is in directing the actors. Things like: “Sarah sighs.”, “Mary smiles a toothy smile.”, “Jane puts her hand on Ted’s arm.” are not needed. Let the actors interpret your story. If they don’t do it correctly the director will hopefully help them. But as a screenwriter all you’re trying to do is tell your story as concisely as possible.

Bottom line: cut every single paragraph, sentence, word, and letter that doesn’t directly move your story forward. If you remove all that excess writing it’s hard for me to imagine that someone will tell you that your screenplay is overwritten.

I mention this in many posts, but the best way to get a handle on this is to read many screenplays by professional writers. One that I recommend is The 40 Year Old Virgin. It’s very lean with only a minimal of character and scene description.

Another huge benefit of having a lean writing style is that your script reads much faster. It becomes an “easy read.” If you spend too much time describing every detail it really slows your story down and makes it heard to like or “recommend.” Until you’ve read a lot of screenplays this is hard to appreciate. But trust me, the readers at the companies you will be submitting to will appreciate it.

3 thoughts on “What does it mean when I get the comment “my screenplay was overwritten”?”
  1. The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a fine example of economical screenwriting. Another trick to make the script more concise would be to remove (is) and (are) throughout. They are qualifiers for (ing) ending verbs. Write in the present tense, active voice. From 40 Year-Old Virgin by Judd Apatow and Steve Carell: “Andy is walking across the showroom floor.” Without (is) “Andy walks across the showroom.” Present tense – more white space.

  2. I read the Black Swan recently and I would definitely say it was an overly written script, but it sure was beautifully written. I could imagine every detail of the scene.

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