Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, Editor and Online Community Manager of Script Magazine talks of the importance of script length.
Slashing 25 words is one thing, but cutting 25 pages takes an entirely different approach. When it’s done, your story will be free of everything that’s dragging it down.
Often people interchange the words “editing” and “rewriting.” Rewriting requires major story analysis, challenging your character development, plot, conflicts and subplots. Editing is the process after the rewrites.
Have you hit all the turning points of the story? Have you pushed your protagonist to the point of torture? Is there too much fat and not enough action? Is your theme clear?
Each scene has to be meaningful, and hopefully, serve more than one purpose. If all it does is provide exposition of a character or a single plot point, it’s not developed enough.
Take each scene one at a time and ask:
- Does it advance the story?
- Does it add exposition?
- Does it create a new conflict?
If the answer isn’t “yes” to two out of the three questions, sharpen that blade and kill the darling. But if there’s an important piece of exposition, find a way to add it to a different scene. Another trick for cutting scenes is to examine the flow of the story. Put each scene on an index card: Plot A on blue, Plot B on yellow, Plot C on green, etc. Lay them on a table and switch up the order. Some scenes fall away naturally.
Put your dead scenes in a folder. You might need to revive them in later revisions or in another story.
START LATE AND LEAVE EARLY
Now you have the scenes you want, make them late for the party. Once you think you’ve entered the room late enough, enter even later. Challenge each scene to serve its purpose in fewer words. Above all, choose the final line of the scene carefully. Does it leave the audience hanging, needing to know more?
ACTION SHOULD MEAN ACTION
Scripts are entirely different than novels. Less is more. No flowery, self-indulgent prose. Get to the point. Fast. Cut those adverbs, gerunds and adjectives. Only write what the audience can see on screen or the reader needs to visualize your story.
TALK AIN’T CHEAP
Read every piece of dialogue out loud. Most people write rambling dialogue in early drafts. Make it sound natural in as few words as possible. If you can convey in ACTION what the character is spewing from their mouth, do it. Savor those moments of silence.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Read every line of action and dialogue as a standalone to determine if it is imperative to either the subplot or the main plot. With a 120-page limit (some say 110 is the sweet spot), there’s no room for filler.
Read your script backwards, one line at a time. This way, you don’t get distracted and pulled into the story. You simply are an editor of words. Ask yourself, “Can this story be told without this line?” The fat will rise to the top.
MAKE IT A SILENT MOVIE
Remove all the dialogue… every single word. Then read the action as if it were a silent movie. This will force you to avoid the “talking heads” problem of exposition via dialogue. See what you can remove from speech and replace with action.
Once the script makes sense as a silent film, add back any dialogue that is needed. You’ll be shocked how much isn’t. Force yourself to be picky. Allow each character only one treat, e.g. a joke or throwaway line, but only one. Trust your audience to get it.
Give more meaning with fewer words.
This is the stage to pull out the thesaurus and change “runs quickly” to “dashes”. Or if you have a whole paragraph describing the setting, change it to a small descriptor, such as, “it’s red-neck heaven”.
Your script will pop if you create one or two lines an audience will be quoting for years. We’ve all heard Rhett Butler’s line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” more times than Scarlett got married. You need to create that type of line in your own film.
YOU HAVE ONE CHANCE TO MAKE A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION
The opening lines of your screenplay introduce you as a professional. That first page should show your voice, talent and ability to grab a reader. By “voice” I’m referring to the style of writing that sets you apart from others. What makes your voice different? Don’t imitate other styles, find one that flows from you naturally… and trust it.