"White Space" is the text to blank space ratio on every page and it's crucial to the success of your screenplay.
Usually more white space means a faster read and polished text. It also demonstrates that the writer is seasoned and recognizes that screenplays are not novels. Page long descriptions and blocky text can scream inexperienced.
But, every rule has an exception.
Renowned screenwriters have been known to write pages without dialogue in order to bring a point home (though they tend to break it up in paragraphs!). The power of silence cannot be disputed. The actions of your characters speak louder than their words, more often than not. This leaves many aspiring screenwriters confused. I don’t blame them! The debate of white space vs. no space contradicts itself in every way.
Now, to be clear, when I’m taking about long shots here, I don’t mean in the sense of the camera. That’s for the director and cinematographer to discuss and something that most screenwriters have little control over. What I’m talking about is an action rich sequence with little to no dialogue to break it up. I’m talking about a sequence in which we are “live” with the characters in the scene. Nothing is sped up and we are forced to fully evaluate what is happening.
Luckily, writing sequences of this nature is not as complex as you think. There is a place and time for everything. Here’s how you should use long shots within a screenplay to your advantage.
A HISTORY OF LONG SHOTS
There are a lot of famous examples of long shots in now classic films and TV series. The writers on Breaking Bad used to challenge themselves to write full pages of description/action only in their screenplays. This was a shocking revelation for most as it went completely against everything we are taught as screenwriters. But, like most artistic crafts, screenwriting evolves with the times.
Film began as a sort of magic show, then turned to pure entertainment, then began to attempt to realistically mimic reality. Our era of film is one that is monopolized by money and therefore, the entertainment value of the story.
However, what we are beginning to see now is a lot of writers who are pulling back from that ideal and forcing their audience to revel in one, long moment, in order to make a point. These sequence force the audience to think and get inside the mind of the character in order to understand their actions.
Examples of this method can be seen in:
The Goodfellas, The Big Night, The Player, Touch of Evil, most episodes of Breaking Bad…
And many, many more…
HOW & WHEN TO USE THEM
Understanding that long shots can be powerful is one thing. Knowing how and when to use them is a completely different story. The reason that producers and screenwriters are obsessed with white space is because most writers do not use long shots properly. A long paragraph of text is not automatically a “long shot”. To the amateur writer, it could just as easily be a poorly written chunk of dialogue.
The important thing to remember about writing a long shot is it's all in the purpose. What does this sequence reveal and why is it more effective to reveal it in this manner?
There is a very famous scene in Breaking Bad in which our protagonist, Walter White, is ordered by his wife to return his son’s brand new Dodge Challenger. Instead of doing that, Walt takes it to a parking lot and blows it up. The shot itself is only a couple of minutes, yet it still serves as an excellent example of this technique in your screenplay. Let’s break it down:
In this scene, we are witnessing an act of defiance from a protagonist who is corrupt at best. His intentions are mostly good, but he is also becoming greedy. When his wife, Skylar, (who has no idea about all the drug money he has), forces him to take back their son's car because they "can’t afford it,” Walt is frustrated. The following scene in which he blows up his son’s car delves deep into the changed personality of Walt.
In his mind, he would rather blow up an expensive car than face the humiliation of returning it. He would rather be reckless, than safe. We learn all of this and more without him uttering a single word about it.
(Yes, there is a small bit of dialogue at the end, but none of it has to do with his humiliation or frustration.)
That is how you use a long shot.
Placement of long shots is just as important. Think of these sequences as accents. A screenplay full of moments like that is likely to drag. Too many long shots in a row and you’ll lose your audience. Instead, use them only when attempting to drive a significant point home. They can be used to demonstrate a sudden change in your character arc, to reveal an important plot point…etc. Use them when it makes sense. Do not use them for the sake of doing so. Nobody wants to read about your characters having lunch in silence for 3 pages, unless there is a good reason for it (again, see Breaking Bad’s breakfast scenes…).
WHITE SPACE VS. NO SPACE
Like most arguments the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s all about balance. Great screenplays with no long shots exist, but there are equally fantastic ones that do incorporate them. There is no “right” answer. There is, however, a right way to use long shots, as we’ve discussed today. The real thing to remember is that screenplays are about purpose. There should be a valid and understood reason for everything written. Novelists have much more freedom in this area. Anything that doesn’t make sense they can just explain. Not us, screenwriters. We need to make sure that everything we’ve written is understood based on content.
Long shots are powerful, but only in the right context, be that the placement or the relevance to the story.