Why ‘too much black’ matters on the page
You may have heard the term before or read it in the many screenwriting books out there on the market “Too much black”. Too much black means nothing more than too many words on the page – an overflow of mostly useless information, over-describing the setting or over-directing the actors and cameras, which is not part of the writer’s job and often considered disrespectful toward the affected departments and their skills.
As script supervisor, I am part of the pre-production process and get handed every revision that comes through. In the years I have been doing this job, one script in particular stood out to me where the writer came across over-controlling and obviously suffering from severe trust issues toward anyone involved in the production process (yes, your writing style can tell others a lot about your personality), hence, I was forced to navigate around “too much black” on the page. Part of my job is not only to identify continuity issues before we go into production but prepare a thorough breakdown and an estimate of the ultimate length of the movie or TV episode which we call pre-timing. These pre-timings serve productions and networks to know whether a movie or TV episode is not running over or under their required air time, and whether they either need to add more pages or cut them down.
Numerous books talking about the principles of screenwriting make mention of “too much black” on a page and advise to keep descriptions short and simple. I agree. Yet, even scripts that are already in the middle of the production process still struggle with this issue. A general rule of thumb is that one page (8/8) equals one minute of screen time, but this is rarely the case. Too often, I am handed a 115 pages script and am asked why my estimate is barely 90 minutes? Because there was “too much black” on the page which had nothing in it to time – in other words: no action and no dialogue, also known as unfilmmables.
When I started out as a screenwriter, I had plenty of these unfilmmables on the page myself. With more experience, and especially due to my job as script supervisor who needs to chew through every single page every time a revision comes in, I have learned to avoid them. It can be quite an exhausting task for everyone involved to prepare and break down a script again and again, and too much black and unfilmmables can easily distract from what is truly important.
The following questions may help you to avoid too much black in your script:
1. Am I over-explanatory or can I use less words or synonyms to convey the same?
2. Do my words move the story forward?
3. How do my words serve the reader to understand the plot?
4. Is my script efficient to read?
5. How do my words serve the filmmakers and actors who turn the script into reality?
6. Is my script efficient for production?
7. Does any of my writing direct someone (crew or actor) to do something specifically and is it appropriate?
8. How long would the pre-timing be for my script?