Cassandra Hennessey: The 7 Deadly Sins of Overwriting

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by Cassandra Hennessey

There are many ways any aspiring writer can send red flags a-waving to a prospective agent or publisher.

Allow me to demonstrate:

INT. UPTOWN OFFICE – DAY

Our handsome hero, HARRY HOLMES strolls into the office which boasts a tropical motif complete with rattan furnishings and potted palm trees the size of luxury SUVS.

He saunters jauntily toward the RECEPTIONIST who is a youngish fiery-haired former cheerleader. She files her nails with a pink emery board. He adjusts the right lapel of his Jos. A Banks navy blue suit jacket, clears his throat twice and grins like someone’s just called his number at the supermarket deli.

HARRY
Hi. My name is Harry. Harry Holmes. What’s your name?

SUE
(puts down file, smiles sadly)
Susan; but most of my friends—the ones I’m on speaking
terms with—call me “Sue”. My mom still calls me “Suzy-Q”.
Since childhood. For as long as I can remember.
Even in front of my dates. I wish she’d stop doing that…

HARRY
(cringes comically, smoothes back gelled hair)
Sorry for the childhood trauma you’re currently
experiencing, Sue, but I was wondering if I could
speak with your employer, Mister Walters? You
see, Sue, I’m here to audit his books for embezzlement.

SUE
(drops her emery board in shock, gasps)

Not Mister Walters! I’ve known Mister Walters for years!!
He’d never steal money!

HARRY
(shaking his head, dubious)

Sue, Sue, Sue, I believe you may not know Mister
Wayne Walters as well as you think you do!

Sue grasps the phone and frantically dials a five-digit extension. Waits for three seconds, practically holding her breath. When the phone on the other ends is picked up, she instantly blurts out—

SUE
(with hysterical tears on her flushed cheeks)
Wayne!! How could you do this? Wayne, say this isn’t true!
There’s a Mister Harry Holmes here, telling me you’re a
thief and a crook! Say something, Wayne!

END SCENE.

(Thank Goodness…)

OKAY!!

Can you guess what’s wrong here?

There is sooooo much to work with (to be truthful, it actually pained me to write something this horrible… but it is for the greater good, so I made the sacrifice…)

Here are the Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing (in no particular order…)

  1. Deluges of Details. Character appearance is not THAT important to note every single detail. I mean, unless the hangnail on the protagonist’s pinky plays an integral part in the story, I suggest you omit it. Same goes with surroundings. You want to set the scene, not “set dress” it.
  1. Going Through the Motions. There’s no need (or space) to start a running tally of gestures, expression, stances or involuntary tics and twitches.
  1. Too much supposition/narration either revealed by the character or in the descriptive action paragraphs. If it’s not essential to the story, it has no place in the script.
  1. Curb “Talking Head Syndrome”. Dialog should be brief and to the point.
  1. Too much exposition, like salt, spoils to the “plot pot”. (See Sin #4).
  1. Adjectives. Don’t. JUST DON’T.
  1. Overuse of a character’s name in dialog. Unless your character’s doing this for a specific reason (being obnoxious, or perhaps suffering from amnesia), one character should not address another by name every time he/she speaks.

When writing for television, trust that the director and actors will do their very best to “flesh out your characters”.

Yes. I used the word “Trust”.

It’s the best advice for your script.

Trust me.

I know. It’s your “vision”, your “brain-child”, your “baby”. I get it. But if you’ve written your best and raised, nourished and doted over this brain child of yours well enough, it can and will survive in the world all on its own.

Then you will be the proud parent-writer of a great manuscript!

To demonstrate, here’s the sample god-awful scene how it SHOULD be written:

INT. UPTOWN OFFICE – DAY

HARRY HOLMES enters and approaches the receptionist, SUE. She files her nails behind her neat desk.

SUE
May I help you?

HARRY
Name’s Harry Holmes. I’m here to see Wayne Walters–

Harry eyes her name plaque on the desk. It reads “SUSAN” but he says—

HARRY (cont’d)
–Sue.

SUE
It’s Susan. And your business with Wayne—Mister Walters?

HARRY
Let’s just say I investigate incidents like embezzlement.
So, may I speak with your boss or do I come back with a
subpoena?

Sue picks up her phone and dials an extension.

SUE
(into phone)
Mister Walters, there’s someone here to see you…
(whispers to WALTERS)
…About that situation, Wayne.

Sue opens WALTER’S office door to allow Harry to enter. WAYNE WALTERS rushes to block Harry’s entrance, but Sue blocks him. She tosses him her name plaque.

SUE
Consider that notice of my resignation.

(to HARRY)
Have a good day, Mister Holmes.

With her purse and emery board, Sue exits the office with a SLAM of the door.

…Aaaand CUT SCENE!!!

Better, right?

No description of the furnishings. No tics, twitches, gulps, blinks, grimaces. The dialog sets the tone of both characters. And Sue’s actions speak louder than words when she quits, without the use of exposition or supposition. We KNOW she’s more than merely a “receptionist” to Wayne. We KNOW she knows something’s rotten in Denmark, and we definitely know she doesn’t want anything to do with either Harry or Wayne.

TAA-DAA!!!

The 7 Deadly Sins have been eradicated, and the script has been saved!


Cassandra Hennessey is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE