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THE SCIENCE BEHIND WHITE SPACE & WHY IT MATTERS: 8 MUST READ SCREENPLAYS

Updated: Apr 16, 2023



This article was written by Screenwriting Staffing’s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart. SS is an online community that connects screenwriters with film/tv industry professionals. View success stories here; produced projects here.

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I've compiled eight screenplays that, in my opinion, exemplify the effectiveness of white space. But before we delve into these scripts, let's briefly discuss the science behind utilizing white space in your writing.


In Hollywood, reading is not a primary activity, or at least not one that individuals desire to engage in. If individuals in "Hollywood" were interested in reading, they would work in fields such as publishing, education, sociology, journalism, or law.


Hollywood is a community of artists who prefer visual storytelling over written work, and that's a positive thing. We rely on them to bring our words to life, and they do so brilliantly. We provide the paint, and they apply it to the canvas.


Screenwriters are often at a disadvantage even before beginning to write their script. Those who evaluate scripts are typically not writers themselves, nor are they fans of the written word. If you were to ask them to watch a new Netflix series and provide a review, they'd be eager to do so. After all, they're in the business because they appreciate the power and spectacle of cinema, the moving image.

However, when a reader is tasked with reviewing a script from an unproven or unproduced writer, they're already predisposed to finding reasons to stop reading by page 10, give the script a "PASS" stamp, and go back to browsing new releases on Netflix.


So, how does a screenwriter get their script read? White space.


I believe there is a science to using white space, but before I break down the best eight screenplays, let me offer six bullet points for you to consider:

  1. In screenwriting, our only job is to tell a quick and efficient story that can be translated onto the screen. Each and every word matters, and each and every word must move the story forward. Create a compelling story and leave the rest up to the professionals.

  2. Every page costs money. As money slowly dwindles and moves more toward television, it's more and more important to write features that are producible on an indie budget.

  3. White space shows that you know what you want to say and that you're saying it with confidence and authority. Successful writers who use white space pare down their prose, say less with more, and use a few select words that highlight the crucial action in the script. Thriller, action, and horror films thrive on this form.

  4. The best scripts read like poems. They have purposeful and specific beats that keep the reader engaged. In some cases, they even rhyme. Would you rather read a thousand-page book or a one-page poem if they both tell you the same story? When writing a script, go with the former.

  5. Don't fall for tricks that give off the illusion of white space. Any producer worth their salt will spot triple spacing or playing with margins from a mile away. The purpose of white space is to tell your story in the shortest amount of time as possible. Start your scenes when the tension is brewing and the stakes are at their highest. Then, move on to the next scene right when the reader wants closure the most. Keep them reading. The goal is to get your reader to page 90.

  6. The reader needs time to interpret, understand, and absorb your story. Too much content assaulting a reader at once is a major turnoff. Let your reader take breaks. After all, they are human. They may need to take a call, answer an email, or use the restroom. So when these interruptions happen (and they will), don't bombard them with so much futile detail that they have to scroll back a couple of pages to refresh their memory.

So, without further ado, allow me to present these 8 scripts. NOTE: this is NOT a list of the 8 best scripts ever written; no, these are 8 scripts that utilized white space to their advantage, told their story with a "less is more" approach, and chose their word count carefully to appease their target audience.

SLOW WEST -- "A young Scottish man travels across America in pursuit of the woman he loves, attracting the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as a guide." WINNER OF SUNDANCE 2015.

SLOW WEST does it best. This is a western film with a slow burn. When you think slow burn, you think 200+ page western scripts (OREGON TRAIL, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, THE ALAMO). This script captures the true western feel; heck, the script even has "SLOW" in the title. But the script is anything but slow. The script comes in at an amazing 75 pages. So the next time a professor, mentor, or script consultant tells you 75 pages will never sell, refer them to this multiple award-winning screenplay.


SILAS wakes up


JAY shouting Dawn throws light on an unexpected and chaotic state of affairs


Thunder crashes, lightning is flashes, heavy rain falls in sheets


The river has burst its banks and the camp has become the river


The water is up to SILAS’ waist as he sits upright against a tree


Food, clothing, blankets, equipment, all float around them and down the river SILAS leaps up


JAY looks for his gun


KEY TAKEAWAYS: Take note of John Maclean's writing style in this scene. He uses incomplete sentences without periods, but despite this, you remain fully aware of your surroundings and the action taking place, all while maintaining a fast tempo.

READ ENTIRE SCRIPT HERE
ALIEN -- "After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as a distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious lifeform, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun." Won Oscar 1980

ALIEN comes in at 111 pages. But it quite possibly has the least amount of words in a script ever penned. Important images and emotions are given their own lines in this innovative script. Thus, given it a POETIC feel. This may be the best example of a script that reads like a poem. ALIEN breaks a lot of formatting rules that are discouraged today. Yes, formatting has modernized since 1979. But Water Hill and David Giller were perfectly aware of "correct" formatting techniques when writing this script. But they chose this unique style because they were tackling a subject that was still a bit foreign to viewers. You're talking about a film set entirely in space, a female lead, a nest of Alien eggs that eventually terrorize mankind, a futurist world, and combining the sci-fi genre with the horror genre. The writers in this script direct with their words, not by using CAMERA ANGLES. This script is hailed by most prestigious circles as one of the best films ever made.


SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:


INT. ENGINE ROOM

Empty, cavernous.


INT. ENGINE CUBICLE

Circular, jammed with instruments.

All of them idle.

Console chairs for two.

Empty.

INT. OILY CORRIDOR - "C" LEVEL

Long, dark.

Empty.

Turbos throbbing.

No other movement.

INT. CORRIDOR - "A" LEVEL

Long, empty.

INT. INFIRMARY - "A" LEVEL

Distressed ivory walls.

All instrumentation at rest.

INT. CORRIDOR TO BRIDGE - "A" LEVEL

Black, empty.


INT. BRIDGE

Vacant.

Two space helmets resting on chairs.

Electrical hum.

Lights on the helmets begin to signal one another.

Moments of silence.

A yellow light goes on.

Data mind bank in b.g.

Electronic hum.

A green light goes on in front of one helmet.

Electronic pulsing sounds.


KEY TAKEAWAYS. This is the opening page. It reads like a BLANK VERSE poem, or even a NEW-AGE poem. Read it out loud, take short beats, and you will even notice it sounds like a SPOKEN WORD performance. Reading this is much more exciting than reading lengthy description. The writers chose not to double space each action line. They grouped them together, single-spaced.... but why? Well, I'd surmise it's because they wanted us to feel claustrophobic, trapped, alone. Study this opening scene. Look how the writer says ELECTRICAL HUM three times. Your screenwriting 101 professor would advise you to cut out this sentence, as it may come across as redundant. However, the writers chose to ignore this rule in order to set up a world where the only sound that the reader was meant to hear was the sound of HUMMING. This continues until all hell breaks loose!

THE VISITOR -- "A college professor travels to New York City to attend a conference and finds a young couple living in his apartment." Oscar Nomination 2009

At first glance of the script, one might think there's not a lot going on. Even the synopsis for this Oscar-nominated story may lead you to believe this story is long and lethargic; after all, it follows a very lonely professor. But the writer chose a very minimalist approach in order to take you from a life of solitude and piano playing to the hustle and bustle of New York city, where he meets a colorful and energetic couple who are ultimately separated due to deportation. I challenge you to find a script that goes 2-3 pages deep where the dialogue is only one (maybe two) words. Although the words chosen are small, they are powerful and riddled with beautiful subtext. THE VISITOR comes in at 105 pages, yet this is the quickest script I have ever read.


WOMAN: Mr. Vale?


WALTER: Yes.


WOMAN: Hello. I’m Barbra Watson. Nice to meet you.


WALTER: Yes. Come in.


BARBARA: Thank you.


She steps into the house and Walter shuts the door. They both stand there awkwardly. Barbara is tightly wound and overcompensates with a forced pleasantness.


WALTER: Can I take your coat?


BARBARA No, thank you.


WALTER OK. Would you like anything to drink?


BARBARA No. (Beat) Shall we get started?


KEY TAKEAWAYS: Remember all those screenwriting books that told you to stay away from cliché dialogue like "Hello," "Yes," "Thank You," and "No"? I do, and they were dead wrong. Yes, there are times when using that sort of dialogue may seem lazy, but not when you are going for something deeper, like isolation. This scene is on page 1. Tom McCarthy clearly shows from the start that Walter, an educated professor, has nothing left to say. He's bored, lonely, and unmotivated, and the writer conveys this not in the description line but through his sparse, meager, and carefully chosen dialogue.

READ FULL SCRIPT HERE.
ANNABELLE -- "A couple begins to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists." Winner of People's Choice Awards

I understand what you might be thinking: "Annabelle, really?" That's fair enough, and you don't have to like the film. However, you MUST respect the screenplay. Gary Dauberman takes an unorthodox first-person approach where he talks to you through his description, as if you are sitting there with him as he writes. He sprinkles humor in it, too. The movie is not funny, but he knew that a little humor thrown in the action line would make for a less painful read -- think about it, we already know who this character is, it's a spin off of 'The Conjuring'. It's unlikely that he would be able to surpass the original. After all, it wasn't meant to be "The Omen" or "The Shining"; it served a specific purpose for a specific audience. Interestingly, the script is only 86 pages, which is another example of Hollywood's shift towards a leaner approach.


Toward the street.


A CITY BUS speeds toward it.


Mia looks over her shoulder just in time to see --


The stroller HOP the curb. Roll onto the street and into the path of the City Bus.


Mia SCREAMS as --


MIA: LOOK OUT!


SMASH!


The City Bus crashes into the stroller. Library books fly everywhere.


Mia stands. She's holding Leah in her arms.


Thank God.


Bus stops abruptly as -- Fuller exits the apartment building.


Like he saw the whole thing.


KEY TAKEAWAYS. Many Hollywood-types may tell you to stay away from words like "Thank God" in the action line. Either explain why she's so thankful, or put that in the dialogue. But Gary wanted to keep the momentum building; he chose not to throw those two words in the dialogue. He places you right in the action. He writes as if he's reading it with you -- so he puts THANK GOD in the action line; like you, he's also relieved that the baby is safe! He's telling you to take a breath -- for now!

READ FULL SCRIPT HERE.
INSIDE OUT -- "After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions - Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness - conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school." Oscar winner 2016

This animation script is a must-read, not only for its effective use of white space but also for its efficient writing. I challenge you to find more than five instances where the writer goes over two sentences (usually just one) in the action line, despite the script being filled with action. By page 10, the writers show the birth of Riley, her upbringing in a small town in Minnesota, with all its simplicity, and her special bond with her parents, all while introducing the audience to her multiple personalities. By page 11, a "FOR SALE" sign appears, and the entire family moves across the country to San Francisco, where the movie takes off. It's remarkable that the writer can set up all of this within 11 pages, as it would take an amateur writer at least 30 pages to accomplish the same feat.


INT. MINNESOTA LIVING ROOM


Riley climbs the couch. She looks at the floor.


INT. HEADQUARTERS


Joy projects an IMAGINATION of LAVA onto the screen.


INT. MINNESOTA LIVING ROOM YOUNG


RILEY: Lava!


Riley jumps from couch to chair to avoid the lava.


INT. MINNESOTA HOUSE


Riley draws. Pull back to reveal she’s drawing on the wall.


KEY TAKEAWAYS: Observe how the writers remove "TIME OF DAY" in the SCENE HEADINGS. While it doesn't work in every script, this story switches locations often, so it makes for a FAST read when you don't have to stop and start to read "DAY, NIGHT, CONTINUOUS, SUNSET..." This device has become more and more popular in SPEC scripts over the last 10 years. INSIDE OUT hits all the right chords!

READ FULL SCRIPT HERE.
SCREAM -- "A year after the murder of her mother, a teenage girl is terrorized by a new killer, who targets the girl and her friends by using horror films as part of a deadly game." MTV Award-Winner.

Another horror film? Yes. And I still have 1 more I'm adding below. SCREAM is a cult classic and demands your respect. While SCREAM comes in at 105 pages, which is a bit too long for a horror film in today's market, keep in mind this film was released in 1996. But the script is not 105 pages because the writer takes too long to tell his story, it's 105 pages because the dialogue is full of one-liners with plenty of white space.


FADE IN


ON A RINGING TELEPHONE. A hand reaches for it, bringing the receiver up to the face of CASEY BECKER, a young girl, no more than sixteen. A friendly face with innocent eyes.


CASEY: Hello.


MAN'S VOICE: (from phone) Hello.


Silence.


CASEY: Yes.


MAN: Who is this?


CASEY: Who are you trying to reach?


MAN: What number is this?


CASEY: What number are you trying to reach? MAN I don't know.


CASEY: I think you have the wrong number.


MAN: Do I?


CASEY: It happens. Take it easy.


KEY TAKEAWAYS. This opening scene is crucial. Kevin Williamson doesn't dwell on the details of the room, the time of day, Casey's wardrobe, or what's on TV. Instead, he dives straight into the all-important phone call that sets the tone for the rest of the script.

READ FULL SCRIPT HERE.
WHIPLASH -- "A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student's potential." Won 3 Oscars

While WHIPLASH comes in at 113 pages, every word serves a purpose. The film is listed as a drama, but Damien Chazelle did a wonderful job incorporating horror, romance, and a bit of comedy into his script. As I alluded to in my bullet points, this script shows you just how crucial it is to start a scene during its most intense showdown, and right when you want to know the outcome, the writer takes you to a new scene in a different location, sometimes with different characters. The script has a tremendous amount of white space, yet the script has so much action and conflict. Without the writer's strategic use of starting each scene midway through, this script could have easily ballooned to 200 pages or more. Interestingly, this can be attributed to the fact that it began as an award-winning short. The writer already had a clear vision of what he wanted to convey, and now it was just a matter of extending his best scenes.


IN THE AUDIENCE


We see Jim, standing in the very back, by the doors... Mortified, heading for the hall...


ON STAGE


Fletcher sashays back to the drum set. To Andrew, with a grin--


FLETCHER: I guess you don’t have it.


Andrew is still in his seat. Tears stinging his cheeks...


BASSIST: Didn’t you get the fucking chart?


Andrew looks at the Bassist. Realizes what Fletcher did... Sees the other MUSICIANS glaring at him, infuriated...


IN THE AUDIENCE


Andrew feels the AUDIENCE staring at him -- can almost make out their faces as the stage lights begin to DIM...


Seated in one of the front rows -- is NICOLE. We see that next to her, holding her hand, is a YOUNG MAN...


ON STAGE


Feeling CRUSHED, HUMILIATED, NAUSEATED, Andrew staggers up... ..


... and RETREATS to the back of the stage. Out of the audience’s view -- about to leave this all behind once and for all...


KEY TAKEAWAYS. This scene starts on page 107 at the height of the most important performance of Andrew's life. There's so much that works in this scene. For starters, the writer chose to use SUB HEADINGS. Creating new SLUG LINES would slow down the action. He also puts them in BOLD so you wouldn't forget where you were. On this page alone, the writer was able to include our main character, ANDREW, as well as other important characters such as Fletcher, Nicole, Bassit, Jim -- and, of course, the musicians and crowd. The writer also stays away from dull words; take for instance, "SASHAYS"; an amateur writer would have written "walks" back to the drum set. Same goes with words like "MORTIFIED" (an amateur writer would have said "scared") and "STAGGERS" (an amateur writer would have said "moves"). While it may appear basic, having an economical script with precisely selected words can mean the difference between receiving a PASS or a RECOMMEND.

READ FULL SCRIPT HERE.
ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE -- "A group of high-schoolers invite Mandy Lane, an innocent, desirable girl, to a weekend party on a secluded ranch. While the festivities rage on, the number of revelers begins to drop mysteriously." Premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, South by Southwest

While the film itself had mixed reviews, some of that can be credited to the direction and casting choices. ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE follows a familiar horror-thriller narrative. But Jacob Forman was able to successfully market/sell his script by keeping the script focused. The writer doesn't drift away from the main storyline. Similar to SCREAM, the writer chose to show carnage at the start of the script, which is the catalyst that drives the story throughout. The writer chose stereotypical characters, characters we seen a million times before. While this is usually frowned upon, it was never about falling in love with these insipid characters; the focus was on their fast-paced mysterious journey. This is an impressive script that follows about every script formatting rule to a "T". Coming in at 99 pages, this is a lean script, the fat was cut out after the first couple drafts, and reads like a breeze.


As Lyle rolls Clive over, a shadowy FIGURE rises behind him.


The BASEBALL BAT makes a SICKENING CRUNCH as it meets the side of Lyle's head.


EXT. FENCE LINE - NIGHT


Tyrone hears a RUSTLE and freezes.


Slowly, he brings the rifle up to his shoulder.


The RUSTLE, again, but behind him.


Tyrone spins.


Then he hears the RUSTLE off to his left.


He aims as Landor emerges from the bushes, crouching, enormous, ready to pounce.


GARTH (O.S.): Don't shoot.


TYRONE (off dog): Easy boy... Easy...


Garth emerges from the darkness and puts a hand on the dog's collar. Tyrone lowers the rifle. Exhales.


KEY TAKEAWAYS. This scene has the potential to drag on. Instead, the writer uses incomplete sentences, focuses on single words that say everything that a full sentence would say (CRUNCH, EXHALES, ENORMOUS, RUSTLE, SPINS), builds up the tension by giving each sentence its own line, and draws attention to important noises and objects by CAPITALIZING key words. Seems simple, but applying these easy devices in your script is the difference between a PASS or a RECOMMEND.

READ FULL SCRIPT HERE.

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One final note. There is a stigma around novels; you know, that novels are allowed to drone on and on. If you are like me, someone who loves novels and its art form, I have found (personally) that these three authors nailed the minimalist form.


EARNEST HEMINGWAY found a more sophisticated approach with FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA

CHARLES BUKOWSKI took a much simpler approach with WOMEN, HOLLYWOOD, FACTOTUM

FREDERICK BARTHELME found a way to meet half way in the middle with BOB THE GAMBLER, PAINTED DESERT


Studying these books, I believe, will improve how you approach dialogue and description in your screenplay

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This article was written by Screenwriting Staffing’s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart. Jacob is an award-winning screenwriter with over 20 scripts either optioned or produced to screen, airing in over 15 different countries. He is a graduate of The Los Angeles Film School with a degree in FILM/ENTERTAINMENT. Outside of judging and spear-heading multiple film festivals across the country, he is a regular contributor for FINAL DRAFT, MOVIEMAKER MAGAZINE, and CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE. You can follow him on TWITTER AND INSTAGRAM @JACOBNSTUART

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