“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
So sayeth Polonius, in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet.
In a rather pedantic and wordy speech where he makes this statement, Polonius (father of Ophelia and Laertes) is advising his listener, Claudius, (and the audience) that being brief will get to the heart of the matter.
In other words, cut out the unnecessary words and get to the point.
While revising my two-act stage play, I joked about how easy it was to tell that I’m a novelist, not a playwright. How did I come by this observation? The obvious culprit is the word count – as I revised my script, I cut some lines down from twenty words to ten. The line still conveyed what I wanted it to say, but it was concise, it was clear, and, more importantly, understood.
Look at the image to the right:
The dialogue between Catamitus and Melpomene is incredibly wordy, more suited to a novel than a script. Whether it’s a screenplay or a stage play, the dialogue must be crisp, tight and minimal to do its work.
While some scriptwriters/playwrights can get away with wordy passages, it’s in part because A. They’ve been writing a long time in that form and know the rules and how to use them or break them; and B. The language is still concise and to the point.
Scripts are for a visual medium, whether it’s for the screen or for the stage – the audience is presented with subtext that can be seen via the actors and the cameras. There is no need for the narrative filler, as in a short story or novel – the director and the actors bring that to life through trial and error in rehearsal.
Let’s take a look at the revised version of the scene:
Compare the original draft with the revised version to the left. Notice that the lines have been revised and arranged differently.
Did the intent change from Original Draft to the Revised Version?
No, the intent is still the same between Catamitus and Melpomene – resolving the confusion surrounding the issue of hotel reservations. Notice how the dialogue has been broken up, refined and shortened – when in performance, the dialogue is snappy, almost coming one on top of the other.
That is the purpose of revision – to produce a maximum image or emotion while using the minimum amount of words. Whether it’s a script or a short story or a novel, less is more and writing is constant re-writing.