How Lean is Lean?
Lean Writing vs. Dramatic Writing

By David Trottier

We are told to "write lean," but at the same time, we are urged to write dramatic and entertaining action (narrative description). Don't you have to use more than just a few words to be dramatic? But if you use too many words, you're no longer lean. What gives?

Lean writing means communicating as much as you can with as few words as you can. It's an overall or general guideline. Waxing dramatic or milking the moment is a specific guideline that applies in certain instances.

Let's first discuss "lean writing." Here is a description of a boxing ring in a gym:

The gym is littered with food wrappers, leftover hot dogs and tacos, gym clothes, and other debris. It looks like no one has cleaned it in over a month. It is truly a mess. And the ring is smaller than the normal-sized ring.

Do you see the overwriting and the unnecessary repetition? The revision below is actually taken from the original screenplay Rocky.

The gym looks like a garbage can turned inside out.

The ring is small enough to ensure constant battle.

That's lean writing. It conveys what is necessary to understand the scene in just a few words. In addition, I believe we'd have to conclude it is slightly more dramatic or entertaining than the original. It is more readable to readers.

Now let's look at a one-sentence paragraph that is lean, but clearly boring.

There is a battle and Martinelli is killed.

If you are the screenwriter, what you want to understand is this: the above is a movie moment that is completely unexploited.

Thus, you will want to expand this to at least a page or two and maybe more. Provide specific detail that will make this scene more visceral and visual. At the same time, don't stuff the scene with camera directions and unnecessary details. You don't need to describe every blow, but the reader has to "see" the battle.

The ending scene in the original spec of Juno is about a page or so in length. The revision milks the emotion of that resolution, and is about seven pages in length and consists of several scenes, beginning with the "water" breaking to the words "It ended with a chair."

In your screenplay, look for moments that are dramatic or ripe for emotion. Those you expand while maintaining a lean style. Incidental actions, such as a woman lifting a tea cup to her lips are totally unnecessary...unless there is poison in the tea. In that case, keep writing!