Screenwriting is hard. Really hard. No surprises here. Shaping and telling a story takes a long time. It’s a long process of trial and error. You must write many permutations and combinations of your story during the outlining, writing and rewriting process.
This process of creating, destroying and recreating your screenplay is something every screenwriter faces on a daily basis. Not everything in your first draft will remain in your film script. It may be rewritten or removed entirely. It may end up in a delete folder or in another screenplay. Every story element has a life of its own, even if doesn’t end up in the shooting script of the screenplay you’re currently writing.
Don’t get too emotionally attached to your screenplay. It is a blueprint for a film or TV show. It is fluid and far from being final. Anything that doesn’t serve your story MUST go.
This process of sacrifice is called ‘Killing Your Darlings.’
Story service is a mercurial concept. A good part of writing is exploring; exploring your story, your theme and your characters. Only after you have investigated every story possibility are you truly heading toward a completed screenplay. Once the story is defined, you can decide how best to serve it.
The savage act of murdering your script babies is not a loss. It is freedom. It clears the way for a leaner screenplay. And that’s always a good thing.
Why are many screenwriters afraid of it?
A large part of killing your babies is FEAR and EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT.
Let’s break this down. Imagine a stand-up comic who writes ten jokes for his set. He road tests them on his trusted friends. They like all but two jokes. They miss the mark. The tone is off. The style is different. The jokes just aren’t as funny as the rest. They try too hard. They feel like fillers. Sound familiar? Thought so.
Yet the comic resists removing those jokes from his set. Fear sets in. Followed by excuses. I don’t have any backup jokes. I spent a whole week coming up with these. They’ll just have to do. Maybe I can’t come up with ten excellent jokes at a time? Maybe I can only come up with eight great and two okay ones?
Screenwriters face the same dilemma. Only the jokes are replaced with scenes, unless they’re writing a comedy. Have I got news for you? If you can write eight good scenes in your screenplay, you can certainly write ten.
The other resisting factor is a deep emotional attachment. This is trickier to handle. Fear is irrational, but superficial. Bringing awareness to fear can alleviate it. But attachment is more difficult for screenwriters to detach themselves from. The excuses roll out. But that sequence is so cool, that character really exists, somebody actually said that…. And so on. There is something that so deeply resonates within the screenwriter’s psyche that they can’t let go. The tight bond is beyond story. It’s part of the screenwriter’s identity and they can’t bring themselves to let it go. But they must kill their darlings in order to see the bigger story picture. All in service to a better script.
When should you resist?
There is a time to be flexible with your story and a time to stand firm. Not every reader has the same vision as you. They may not ‘get’ your story. They may not like it and give you feedback to bend it into something they prefer. They may give generic notes for the sake of it. They may not have connected with the story at all or they don’t care.
If you’ve done the background work and killed enough of your screenplay darlings already, stand your ground. If you’re certain of the strength of your screenwriting and your story, don’t budge. You can confidently reject contrarian claims of “your screenplay needs a happy ending” or “there’s no audience for that material.” No groundbreaking film or TV show ever got produced from conventional thinking. If they’re not your crowd, they’re not your crowd.
Resisting change is not a license to be stubborn. Even if you don’t agree with the new story direction, you may be forced to if a producer demands it.
Even if you decide not to murder your weakest story darlings, the process of considering such a heinous crime has value in terms of your screenwriting skills. It shows you are open to new (and often opposing) ideas and alternative ways of telling your story.
You don’t have to murder all your darlings at once. There are some which have potential, but haven’t yet proved themselves. You may be unsure about where to pull the trigger next. That’s okay. Incremental change is better than no change at all.
Get uncomfortable because the best screenplays are written there.