The cardinal sin of overwriting

I hate overwriting. Where writing and plotting are concerned it is a cardinal sin.

The dictionary definition of overwriting is as follows:

Transitive Verb

“to write too much or in an overly elaborate style.”

Overwriting manifests itself when a writer takes a simple thing and makes it massively complicated for no goddamn reason other than to stroke her own ego. Creative people fall into this trap because we’re tremendously insecure and desperately want others to perceive us as clever. But the truth is when we overwrite we don’t come off as clever. All we do is strain our audiences’ willingness to suspend disbelief – frequently to the breaking point.

Take, for example, The Awakening. In it a skeptical young woman investigates reports of a haunting at a creepy boarding school.

Initially this struck me as a fine film. Damn creepy, too (what with a faceless child ghost and all). But in the third act it runs right off the rails, crashing and burning and scattering body parts all over the place. The reason is a plot twist.

Apparently the protagonist grew up in the house that was later turned into the boarding school. She has traumatic childhood grief related to the place. In fact, she witnessed a double murder there and the faceless ghost is actually her dead brother, who it turns out wanted some company (!)

See what I mean? You get to the third act and WHA-BAM!, the twist hits you like a kabob-smack to the face. All the tension that’s built throughout the film evaporates. Suddenly the script dumps a bunch of backstory on you to make sense of it all, and the last thing you’re thinking about is the faceless ghost.

What, pray tell, is so wrong with a skeptic going to investigate a haunted house because it’s fucking haunted? Why does every goddamn detail need to be interconnected? Why can’t we just flash back to a scene of the murder because the ghost voodoos our protag with some spiritual Jedi mind shit, like Mola Ram does to Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom?

Mola Ram

Mola Ram doing some crazy shit.

I don’t need a convoluted reason for a character to have strange visions in a haunted house. People see weird shit in haunted houses because they’re fucking haunted.

That’s all the explanation you need. It’s an intuitive leap the audience is more than capable of making it on its own.

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2 comments

  1. I think screenwriters are often given liberties that print writers are not. Your overwriting is a good example. Many modern films tired retreads that are overloaded with cliches, something print writers are told to avoid at all costs.

    1. Interesting point. One of the thing that excites me about the democratization of the publishing process is that it should (fingers crossed) open up even more space for original projects and voices. Unfortunately film making is an inherently costly affair. Investors want a return on their capital and they prefer to put their capital in whatever happens to be hot. This of course leads them to buy high and sell low, except instead of tech stocks they end up overweight zombies or sparkly vampires. Unfortunately this predisposes the entire medium to low quality, derivative work.

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