Why Screenwriters Should Cozy Up With Their Film Editors

It has been argued that there are three stages to screenwriting; writing, shooting/directing and editing the final cut.

In fact, one of the Iron Man movies had a minimal screenplay and was constructed in the editing bay. Can you guess which one?

It’s important for screenwriters to talk to other people in the filmmaking process in order to understand their approach to storytelling. In doing so, they can improve their writing.

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.

What do some editors think about screenwriters?

Some editors still think that screenwriters 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? You don’t need too many words to do it. Convey the mood, feeling and perception of the scene too.

Other editors argue that many film 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 script writer, should too. Today’s film audiences are becoming increasingly film literate and don’t need every detail explained to them. It’s OK to have some action or the motivation behind it implied.

Avoid the highly-stylized, choppy, manic MTV-style editing in your movie 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 to your audience. This is also fueled by the current trend of spectacle over story 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.

Gideon's screenwriting tips, screenwriter, screenplay

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, or at least understand them.

Consider anti-heroes, dogged by flaws and human frailties. Editors consider how various devices such as voiceovers and flashbacks provide insight into character.

Avoid excessive exposition in your screenwriting. 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 screenwriters fail to understand this, insisting that nothing be cut from their scripts. If it’s not the essence of the story, it can be removed.

Some editors also contend that editors are the most trusted people to read movie scripts, because ultimately they have to fix their predecessor’s mistakes; much like house painters fixing up the faults of the builders. Editors are intuitive cinema 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. What comes next.

The most artistic license that editors have is during time shifting; speeding up (such as in comedy films) and slowing down time (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 screenplay, it is up to the editor to execute them with perfection.

Hopefully, their insight will help you write leaner film scripts.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks so much for your mention of my book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT.

    It’s long been a truism that editing and writing are the most closely related jobs in filmmaking. We are both concerned with character arc, audience involvement, pacing, nuance and a host of very small but very large (in effect) details.

    I can tell from your post that that truism is really true. I especially like your mention that, sometimes, “Shaping character can sometimes be more important than plot for editors.” It’s best when the two work together, but the great directors and editors always know that audiences identify with characters. Look at TERMINATOR 2. It’s a great character study wrapped inside of an exciting action film.

    This feels a tad rambling to me, so I’ll stop now. Except to say “Right on writer.” And, thanks again.

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      Unfortunately, many film makers don’t see the relationship between the two roles. Editors are often there to clean up the mess, but we know better!

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