It has been argued that there are three stages to storytelling; writing, shooting/directing and editing the final cut. In fact, one of the Iron Man movies was virtually scriptless and constructed in the editing bay.
Up until recently, the trend has been to keep screenwriters as far removed from the filming and editing processes as possible. Although some screenwriters are creeping onto film sets, they still rarely meet the editors. This is less often the case in TV writing which is more profoundly a writers’ medium, In fact, the executive producer in many TV shows is generally a writer and former showrunner.
Editors consolidate the story, tone, pace, texture, rhythm and mood of a story into a finished film. During a recent panel discussion at The Scriptwriters Network, a group of respected editors discussed their relationship with writers. Their main gripe is that, all too often, writers still over-write rather than over-show their scenes. Say what you should see, not how (although you can hint at it). Are you clearly communicating your dramatic intention to the editor?
Many argue that many scripts are still too long. Editors looks for the thematic essence of a scene and the plot progressions in relation to the character arc when they edit. They also love subtext. What is happening as opposed to what is being said? They consider facial expressions, body language, lingering moments, silence and space. Editors enter the scene as late as possible and exit early. You, as a writer, should too. Today’s film audiences are becoming increasingly film literate and don’t need every detail explained to them.
Avoid the highly-stylized, choppy, manic MTV-style editing in your script. A cut is meant to enhance dramatic impact, not added for the sake of it. Too much high-octane action without any character motivation underpinning it, becomes overwhelming. This is also fueled by the current trend of spectacle over substance. As a writer, visualize and spell out the action beat by beat. Even if (or when) the director changes it, the editor isn’t cutting blind.
Shaping character can sometimes be more important than plot for editors. They alternate between likeability and unlikeability to make characters more rounded. If a character is unsympathetic, make them interesting and relatable because the audience needs to root for them. Consider anti-heroes, dogged my flaws and human frailties. Editors consider how various devices such as voiceovers and flashbacks provide insight into character.
Avoid excessive exposition. Editors enjoy trimming the film fat to tighten up a story. They understand the organic, evolving nature of film. It takes on a life of its own that transcends the written page. Many writers fail to understand this, insisting that nothing be cut from their scripts.
Some also contend that editors are the most trusted people to read scripts, because ultimately they have to fix their predecessor’s mistakes; much like house painters fixing up the faults of the builders. They are intuitive artists because they add the final flourishes to a film before it hits the screens.
Norman Hollyn, an editor, reveals many of the mysteries of storytelling in his book “The Lean Forward Moment”. Audience should be kept on their edge of their seats, desperate to know how the story pans out.
The most artistic license that editors have is during time shifting; speeding up (such as in comedy films) and slowing down films (such as slow motion action sequences), montages (to accelerate the rate of story telling), freezes frames, split screens, graphics and such like to add excitement to the visual pastiche of a film. Although these instructions generally exist in a script, it is up to the editor to execute them with perfection.
Hopefully, their insight will help you write leaner scripts.