Wednesday, June 15, 2011

You can always cut something

If there's one mistake first-time writers make, it's over-writing. I'm not just talking about writing dialogue and speeches that go on too long. Often they'll write too many scenes to drive home a particular point. They won't just start with Joe on a train just as it pulls into the station in his hometown, they show Joe packing in his hotel room. Then they show him checking out of his hotel and asking for directions to the train station. Then we see him buy his ticket for home, then an entire scene of him getting on the train and watching the world go by, and THEN at last, we see him arrive at home and the story finally starts.

So what could have taken one scene and one page ends up consuming ten pages and ten minutes of screentime.

Guys like me often harp on the "Start a scene as late as possible, leave a scene as soon as possible" rule, but I'd also encourage writers to think hard about if a particular scene is even necessary. We don't always need to see A to B to C to D. Sometimes you can show us A, cut to D and leave B and C as points that we can fill in for ourselves.

If you've got a script that's 128 pages and you're convinced you can't cut any more, you're wrong. I just read a script this week that was 105 pages and jam-packed with story and character development. It was a fast moving plot that seemed to contain twice the twists and turns that I see in the first-timer scripts I sometimes end up reading.

It's amazing the blanks that an audience is capable of filling in. Trust them. Leave something to their imagination. See how much you can cut before they get confused. And true, you won't always know. If you watch DVD deleted scenes, you'll often see scenes that were cut for redundancy. Even the pros have trouble with this, but that doesn't mean it's not worth the effort to master.


  1. Excellent post...

    I think you meant "go in as LATE as possible."

  2. Lol totally agree. My first draft of my one scripts I think was over 120 pages? Now it's 102.

    I think that is what works best for me... write write write whatever comes to your mind, but when you're finished the screenplay, go back and cut, cut, cut.

  3. Absolutely agree! That's another reason development readings can be great - the amount of times I thought a scene was as tight as it could be then cringed all the way through a reading as it became clearer how much dead weight there was that the actors really didn't need.

  4. 1) A development exex once told me to cut fifteen pages from my script. I asked which ones. He said it didn't matter. He was right.

    2) An adage I like is, "If you draw two dots and a line, most people will see a face. People don't need as much information as you think."

    3) If you watch the director's cut of something like 40 Year Old Virgin, you'll see a lot of unnecessary transitional scenes. A lot of "Hey, let's go over there" you didn't miss in the theatrical version.

  5. A lot of times I'll find it's an entire scene that needs to be rethought. You have to make characters explain themselves and bend over backwards to make something work, but when you simply change the whole scene to something more logical nobody has to explain anything. I cut 8 pages this way once.

  6. I agree, as a screenplay reader, I consistently see scenes that are much too long, or a redundant series of scenes. Less is definitely more. Noticing this in other writer's scripts has improved my own writing. I had a romantic comedy screenplay that was 121 pages; the page length bothered me - rarely does a romantic comedy need to be that long. I recently revised it to 105 pages. It's much tighter and there's nothing that I took out that I miss. I actually ended up developing the subplots more, despite the shorter length.

  7. Usually I know what needs to be accomplished or communicated in a scene way before I know what the scene will actually be (thanks to solid outlining and character work). This lets me design situations that can pull double and often triple duty. If I notice a uni-tasking scene it means I can get more out of it, or it can be cut and it's material integrated elsewhere.