Margin Call Shows How Writing Less is More

by Sharleen Jonsson

Any writing instructor will tell you that revising is a crucial component of the writing process, and a big part of revising anything — from an academic essay to a short story — is cutting unnecessary words. If you want your writing to excel, take the advice a step further: Cut unnecessary information. Aiming for less is especially effective when it comes to writing screenplays and novels.

Consider Margin Call. This script by J.C. Chandor was nominated for best original screenplay and many reviewers have commented on the film’s great dialogue. In one scene I particularly admire, top executives Sarah (Demi Moore) and Eric (Stanley Tucci) sit in awkward semi-silence as they await details of their severance packages. “You have kids, yeah?” Sarah asks him. He shrugs an affirmative. And that ends the topic.

Here’s what Sarah doesn’t say: I spent my best years on this company when I could’ve had a proper life with a husband, two kids and a dog…coulda, shoulda, woulda. She doesn’t say any of this and we don’t need her to because we know what she’s thinking. Chandor doesn’t slow the story down by feeding us needless information. We fill in the details. And because we do a little work here, we’re drawn further into the story as a whole and deeper into the story of this character. I certainly have more empathy for Sarah after this scene, but if I’d had to sit through another lament of a middle-aged career woman who realizes she’s sacrificed too much for the corner office, I would’ve merely yawned.

When you come across great writing, try to figure what isn’t there as well as what is.

Less is more is worth taping over your writing desk. Don’t slow your story down by making your reader plow through unnecessary information. (The key, of course, is to provide what is necessary; good writers don’t confuse readers.) Make a reader work, in a good way, and she will be more drawn into your story.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brook April 24, 2012 at 10:25 am

I liked this movie, though I did wonder at times who was supposed to be the main character. The dialogue was “spare” in a lot of ways, and yes, that’s a good thing. There is much to learn from here.


Sharleen Jonsson April 24, 2012 at 10:39 am

I agree; that was one weakness with the film. When he’s passed important information by his fired boss (Tucci), I thought the young broker was going to be the main character. I suppose it’s meant to be an ensemble film. It must be a real challenge to maintain dramatic unity, etc., with this type of script.


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