Word Games

14 Jan

My girlfriend just told me about this Chinese word game. You start out by having a conversation of a few lines, for example:

A: “Ni shi shei ya?” (“Who are you?”)

B: “Shi wo, Wang Jian.” (“It’s me, Wang Jian.”)

A: “Ni xianzai zuo shenme?” (“What are you doing right now?”)

B: “Wo qu shang cesuo.” (“I’m going to the bathroom.”)

The next few rounds of the game involve trying to have the same conversation, but with each utterance having one word less than the last time every round, so at the end you have something like this:

A: “Shei?” (“Who?”)

B: “Wo.” (“Me.”)

A: “Sha?” (“What?”)

B: “Niao.” (“Piss.”)

It’s a little bit like the improv game “half-life,” where you try and do the same skit in half as much time each round. It’s funny to me that she brings that up now when that exact kind of search for economy of language is what I’ve been involved with for the past week. Television screen-writing places terseness and economy on a pedestal higher than any other quality, which can be pretty dumbfounding for people who come from a background of any other kind of writing.

When you’re a writer of novels, short stories, comic books, or poetry, your dominion over the final product is total. What you say the character does is what the character does. What you say the character says is what the character says. With screenwriting, though, you are fully expected to leave an excess of room for the creative processes of everyone else involved: director, cinematographers, actors. Don’t include any instructions for how the camera moves. That’s the director’s job. Don’t include directions on how to read a line. Actors, by habit, I have been told, will black those out with sharpie marker anyway and make the decision for themselves. An actor may decide they don’t want to even say a line at all.

At least with theatrical pictures you have a little more room for length. If you want a character to linger on a word or an action, it’s more forgivable. In television, you have to make sure everything fits that 22 or 5o-minute limit if you want it to get in there at all.  A director may throw a scene back at you and tell you he can’t do it for you and still fit it in a nice block that can be broken up by commercial breaks. It’s all on you to fit his needs.

It’s kind of a sweet oxymoron, screenwriting. The script itself is very un-visual, but is supposed to be used to create a purely visual product. When you’re writing, you’re tempted to write as if the screenplay is a product onto itself and should be read as a novel or some other such thing, with scenes like this:


Wayne and Wanda stand at the train station, a remnant of Victorian Era architecture with ornate arches and chandeliers. The setting sun sends rosy fingers through the windows onto the tile floor, catching Wanda’s cheek, enhancing its natural rosiness.


Wanda, why do you continue to let your filthy murderer brother into our lives, wrecking our relationship?


How do you expect me to throw away my own flesh and blood? How can you put that on me? After all, you were the one who sheltered your cousin Bernard in our cellar to escape those tax fraud charges!

Wayne rushes to Wanda’s side and gently cups her cheek, the sunlight passing from her cheek onto his hand. Wanda’s brow furrows with betrayal and anger, her eyes rippling with a sad rage.

Sure, it’s beautiful, vivid, and florid, but it’s all very unnecessary. You have to remember that there will be people acting this out, and that even REAL PEOPLE don’t talk about everything in such detail. People in novels do so because they have no faces, and it actually is helpful to the reader to be over-descriptive. Add to that the fact that sometimes authors are purposefully redundant for the sake of making their words pretty, as well as the fact that in a TV program, things happen much quicker, context is much more apparent, and people don’t need to be reminded of things as much. The whole scene above could be condensed as so:


Wayne and Wanda stand in a Victorian-style train station. Sunlight comes through a window and hits Wanda’s cheek.


Why are you doing this?

Wanda furrows her brow with betrayed anger.


How can you say that to me?

Wayne rushes up to her and caresses her cheek. She is having none of it.

Boom. In there, done, and out. It almost seems better the less is said, doesn’t it? Every day this week I’ve been sitting in front of my screen trying to think of every single extraneous detail, redundant word, and overly florid detail that would overly slow down a scene.  I wrote a scene with the following exchange:

Joe and two firefighters are about to leave a burning building.


Alright, everybody’s out, let’s go!


There’s someone still in there.


Negative! We’ve cleared everything out!

Joe hesitates for a second, then runs back into the building.



Then, Norman Steinberg gave me notes that led to the whole thing being shortened to:


Out! Out! Out!

Joe hesitates for a second, then turns and runs back into the inferno.



Done. Obviously if he’s hesitating and going back, Joe feels there’s something or someone that’s still in there. Let the audience infer it. In a scenario like that, where a split-second makes the difference, you wouldn’t waste too much breath talking. Steinberg would undoubtedly think think that the “Shei?” “Wo.” “Sha?” “Niao.” version of the Chinese game conversation would be the TV version.

It’s amazing how arduous the editing process is. When working on another scene, there was a character who was drinking a cup of coffee and eating a waffle. I ended up removing the waffle entirely because the action of him taking the plate and putting it in the sink slowed the scene down too much, but it would be odd of him to just leave the plate there.

It’s like taking a woman who is rather full-figured, and who is BEAUTIFUL in that way, the kind where you see it as perfectly proportioned, not excessive, and then forcing her into a girdle and pulling on the strings as tight as you can, to the point where she can’t breathe, but the producer thinks she’s lovely. Sure the words are just words, but the process of becoming attached to them and becoming defensive of them happens alarmingly quick.

I’m hoping that with this exercise, I will start to naturally write stuff that comes out economic, terse, and very slim and lean so there will be less need for the girdle in the first place.



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