Hey kids! Welcome back! Come here and give your Uncle Spike a hug. How've ya been? Dang, you've gotten tall. What are they feeding you? Did ya have a good day at school? Tell me everything.
(Listening, listening … definitely active listening.)
Uh huh. Yeah, yeah. Wow, that's nifty. Anyway, do me a favor. Come into the living room for a second, will ya? Go ahead and sit down. We need to have one of those good ol' fashioned family meetings.
No, no, no. You're not getting grounded (yet), I promise. But there is something we need to discuss. It's a pattern of behavior that needs to stop. And it's happening with enough consistency that I'm finally calling it out.
Your scripts are getting too damn long.
Features. TV. You name it. If you're reading this, then you've got a serious problem with your page count.
"But, but ... not me, Uncle Spike!" you pipe up from the back, "I'm always concise with my length.”
"Nope," I reply with finality and firmness. "Even you.”
And listen, even if you are somehow in the 1% of scripts I'm reading these days that don't suffer from this problem, what I'm about to say still applies as a refresher. I'm sure about that.
Listen: I've been reading screenplays and pilots for well over 12 years now. At agencies, production companies, networks, and screenwriting contests. I know my way around a story with Courier font. And lately, I've been seeing a ton of 40+ page, half-hour scripts. Like, truly a ton.
Not only that, but I've also been seeing lots of 70+ page hour-long pilots. Like, a lot a lot.
And while newer writers pushing the limits on 120 page features is nothing new, it's also worth mentioning that nobody wants to read specs this long anymore. Let's face it ... 110 pages is the new 120. And 100 is the new 110.
Blame millennials. Or smartphones. Or freaking TikTok all you want. Point is, in the 2023 spec-script landscape, the name of this game is about "condensing," and too few of you are doing it!
Don't believe me? Fine, I'll give you an example. A few weeks ago, I got sent a brand spanking new batch of specs for First Look Project feedback. Here are the exact page counts from the eight scripts in that group:
126 pages (again)
Do you see what I mean? Literally, EVERY SINGLE HALF-HOUR clocks in at 40+. Two of the features are over 125! And in case you're thinking, "Well, there's that 87-page feature for a quick and easy one,” NOPE! That was a PILOT. Yes, people are writing pilots as long as movies now!
Exactly one script in this batch was written to an acceptable length. Which out of eight is a measly 12.5%. That's a failing grade no matter how you slice it.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: er, a Script Pipeline executive note ... we did have one First Look Project winner this year whose script was longer than the "recommended" length, so you never know]
I'm not trying to jump on brand new scribes here. Everyone starts somewhere and I want to be supportive of your journey. But as I said above, this is a trend I have been eyeing for a while now. To the point where I've actually had to Slack my Pipeline compatriots to ask them: "Hey, has there been a rise in demand for 40+ page half-hours? Because I'm seeing an influx of those.”
It has been argued to me in the past that page count isn't as important as it once was. Now that streamers exist, and commercials or network time slots aren't as prevalent as they have been, that you can write more and get away with it. I am here to tell you that this is unequivocally false.
Page count absolutely still matters. Sorry to bust your bubble, but that's the damn truth.
To drive my point home, let's go over the reasons why this is the case:
#1. ATTENTION SPANS ARE GETTING SHORTER
People just don't have the same ability to focus anymore. Social media, streaming videos, and the business of our day-to-day lives have eroded our capacity to pay attention for long periods. This applies both to your reader and audiences at large. And yes, I’m just as much at fault for this as the next guy.
I've said this plenty of times before in other articles, but I'll say it again: the first thing I do when opening a new screenplay PDF is check how long it is. The same goes for every other reader I have ever met in my entire life. If you see that a half-hour is 40 pages, or an hour-long is 65 pages+, or god forbid, that a feature film is more than 120, it immediately puts you in a bad mood before even starting the story. It's simply more work that must be done. And that's not what you want if you're trying to break into the industry (or even if you have broken in and are trying to get a sale).
"But ... but ... Marvel movies are regularly two-and-a-half hours! Martin Scorsese just released Killers of the Flower Moon, which is over three! That means I can model my narrative after them, right?”
No. Absolutely fucking not.
Both of the above examples are based on intellectual property. Marvel is a behemoth brand. Killers of the Flower Moon is a well-known book. Plus, Marvel has long action sequences, and the latter example is directed by one of the greatest living filmmakers. He gets to break the rules. You don't.
At the beginning of your career, you must conform to page count. Once you've proven yourself (a lot) maybe you'll be allowed to do your own thing (and that's still a big maybe).
#2. TRADITIONAL NETWORKS STILL BUY SHOWS (AND YOU SHOULDN'T DISCOUNT THAT)
"Fine!" You're thinking, "I'll just stick to writing TV stuff! I'd much rather have a show on Netflix anyway. That'll be way cooler, and might actually get me the validation and approval I've always wanted from my father.”
Sure, go on ahead. More power to you. But you still need to watch your page count in a pilot script.
Because networks like CBS, NBC, FOX, FX, AMC (etc.) still exist. And they still spend money buying original content. Their money pays rent and groceries, just like the streamers do. And their model still has very strict slots for when shows can air and how long they have to be ... because they play commercials.
So, if you say "fuck it" and start writing like there's no tomorrow, you're quickly cutting out a huge chunk of potential buyers from your prospective pool. And that's no bueno.
Think like a salesman for a second (because, in essence, you are one) ... if you have a product you need to sell, which would you rather have? More potential buyers? Or fewer?
There is only one correct answer here. You always want more chances to hit the jackpot than not.
Yes, it's a dream to sell to Max, or Netflix, or (insert your favorite streamer here). But you need to stick to the parameters of the medium. If for no other reason than …
#3. TRYING TO BREAK THE RULES TOO SOON MAKES YOU LOOK LIKE AN AMATEUR
Do you want to know the first thing that crossed my mind when reading the 86-page pilot from above? "This person CLEARLY doesn't know what they're doing."
Sure, that might be an extreme example, but still ... the more you can't work within the boundaries of the system, the worse it makes you look. Again, Quentin Tarantino can do whatever he wants. Because every studio and actor under the sun wants to work with him.
You aren't Quentin Tarantino. And until you are, don't think you can act like he does.
"Fine!" you scream, crossing your arms in disgust, "You convinced me! I'll cut my script down ... now, uh, how exactly do I do that? When I read it, everything seems important.”
This is a great question, and one that I wish more young scribes would ask. I've got a few suggestions for you that will help you shed length like unwanted pounds at the gym:
#1. DON'T INCLUDE SO MANY CHARACTERS
Flat out, the more characters you have in your story, the longer it's generally going to be. This applies DOUBLE for a TV show.
Why? Because introducing new people takes extra time. Even if you do your best to spread everyone out and not overload the script, I'm extremely confident it's going to be at least somewhat bloated. Which is why I always suggest cutting your ensemble as much as possible.
That janitor with eight lines who is there for comic relief? Trash him.
And the snooty woman with great zingers but adds nothing to the plot? Bye.
For features, I find this helpful because the attention should be on your hero as much as possible anyway. I would always rather read a script that spent more time developing the lead than less due to the fact that they had too many ancillary cast members.
And for TV, you don't need to introduce every character in the pilot. Let me repeat that for people in the back: YOU DO NOT NEED TO INTRODUCE EVERY CHARACTER IN THE PILOT! Like, come on y'all. Even "Game of Thrones" didn't try to do this. It is perfectly acceptable to push characters off to episode two or three ... especially if they don't play a key role in what is happening in the very beginning.
#2. TRIM YOUR DIALOGUE BACK SIGNIFICANTLY
Because more than anything else, this takes up the most space on the page.
A sentence of action description is just one line of text. But dialogue? That's, at minimum, two lines (Character SLUG, plus the spoken word). AND the margins on this are SO MUCH SMALLER than anything else. Getting your character to say eight words will likely take up a whole extra line. And while that doesn't seem like much, saving one line a page can result in a script that is significantly shorter than it would otherwise be.
So, if you're struggling to get your story down to size, dialogue is the first place I would look as a fix. Nothing else you do will get you results as quickly as doing this.
And now, for a personal pet peeve of mine …
#3. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, KILL YOUR WIDOWS!
This is a writing trick as old as time. And it's just as relevant today as it ever was.
Widows are those little one or two words that hang over the edge of a sentence. They take up the space of an entire line of text, while only adding ten or so characters to your story.
Kill them. Slash their throats. Murder those fucking fuckers like they bullied you in middle school.
[Editor's note: Spike is not actually suggesting you murder your middle-school bullies.]
[Spike's note about the Editor's note: But you should get vengeance in some non-violent, ethical way.]
See the below picture if you need a visual representation. Do you see how the scene I'm writing here could easily be half this length if I was just ever-so-slightly more concise?
A lot of you are doing this. Don't be that guy. You're better than that.
Well, there you have it folks. 2000 words on why page count still matters in screenwriting.
Wait a seco—is that right?? (Goes back and checks) ... holy shit, it is. Hot damn, I'm verbose.
Thank Heavens my articles aren't measured in pages. Otherwise, I'd be a monumental hypocrite. ;)
Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.
*Feature image by psychoshadow (Adobe)