by William C. Martell
You've finished your screenplay and it's brilliant! Great characters who struggle with internal conflicts, big emotional moments that will break your heart, an exciting visually told story, laugh-out-loud dialogue, dynamic dramatic scenes that every star will want to play, spectacular conflicts with explosive "trailer moments", and an amazing high concept that's actually thought provoking. Only one problem: your script is 136 pages long and your name isn't Randall Wallace and there is little chance that David Lean will return from the grave any time soon. You need to do a little trimming before you send it out.
Want some more bad news? Screenplays are getting shorter. The average script used to be 120 pages, but now it's probably around 110 pages... less if you're writing a comedy. Graham Yost's script for BROKEN ARROW was only 98 pages. Your script needs to be UNDER 120 pages to survive in the Hollywood jungle. Even PEARL HARBOR was under 120 pages - I think it was 113 pages, including all of those battle scenes! Even if you just get it down to 119 pages, that's better than 120 pages. If you've seen BOFINGER, you know that the first thing any studio executive does is flip to the end of a script to check out the page count. What part of your brilliant script do you cut to get it down to 119... or 110 pages?
The main culprit in over-long scripts is redundant information. Writers are often worried that a reader won't remember an important bit of information, or that a critical scene won't be given the gravity it deserves... so they repeat the information. It's not required to tell the audience more than once. The "Rule Of Three" is used only when you are establishing a pattern and then breaking it. If you are just giving us information, you only have to tell us once. If the reader misses it the first time around, that isn't your fault.
Make sure every scene and every line of dialogue is giving new information. If the scene is just re-hashing information, get rid of it. I read a cop drama recently that opened with a crime... then the police interrogated all of the witnesses. Each witness told us EXACTLY what we saw in the opening scene. There was no new information, no clues, no misinformation that would send the detectives on a false trail. The writer gave us a half-dozen re-hashes of the opening scene! Hey! We were there! Tell us something we DON'T know!
Pay close attention the scenes between the same characters. If your hero and his ex-wife have three scenes together discussing the break up of their marriage, each scene should not only be about different events, but a different aspect of the break up, and explore different emotions. Find three different reasons for the break up and focus each scene on one of them. Betrayal, irresponsibility, being self absorbed. Does every scene I your script give information that can't be found anywhere else in the script? If not, get rid of it!
Do you say the same thing three times? This is so common, that it must be genetic among writers. We tend to take three sentences to give one sentence of information. Though each sentence may give a different piece of information, the bulk of the sentence is redundant. We could easily combine the three sentences into one:
"The green car is parked at the curb. A freshly waxed 1967 Camaro convertible in perfect condition. George opens the door and gets into the car, puts the keys in the ignition, starts it, puts the car into gear and drives away."
"George gets into the green 1967 Camaro convertible and drives away."
"A twisting stretch of California Highway One hugs the cliff overlooking the Pacific. Surf crashes against the beach below, and seagulls fly overhead. A steady flow of cars, vans, and SUVs, all carrying surfboards or towing Sea-Dos, are headed to the nearest public beach several miles away. Brake lights come on. As traffic slows we center on a Dodge Caravan with two surfboards on the roof. A young family of four inside."
"A Dodge Caravan with surfboards on the roof is trapped in slow traffic on the narrow ocean-side road to the beach." (Once we get inside the car, you describe the family.)
Fifty one words shorter! Just go through it line by line and trim anything that gives us redundant information. Though readers aren't geniuses, they can figure out that slow traffic will produce brake lights... and fill in that detail. You know that crashing surf and those seagulls? We imagined them along with the ocean. We don't need detailed descriptions, just the information that's critical to the story.
The same happens with dialogue. "You know, most people would try and handle something like this with, oh, subtlety... not a sledgehammer. I mean, Jeff, I know where you're headed. Don't mind me saying so, your "Let's get down to business" speech sucks." That's the same information three times. Find the one golden line that sums up exactly what you want your character to say. Something quick, clear, and concise. Get in, get out, get home alive. If your characters beat around the bush too much, your audience is going to beat it to the candy counter. Our job is to keep them in their seats.
If your script doesn't kick into gear until page thirty, it might be that you are starting too early. Let's say your script is about a businessman who witnesses a murder on his lunch hour and gets a great look at the killer. He describes the killer to a police sketch artist. The sketch looks similar to three known criminals. The criminals are brought in, and a pair of detectives that fit the same general description are added to the line up. The witness looks at the five men in the line up, identifies the killer... it's one of the cops!
Okay. You could start your story with the witness waking up in the morning, driving to the office, working half a day, breaking for lunch... then seeing the murder at end act one. But the story doesn't really start until he sees the murder - all of the stuff before that may be setting up the lead character, but it's boring. It's stuff that happens BEFORE the story starts.
You want to start as late as possible.
If the story can't start until the businessman witnesses the murder, that's the beginning of your script! Start your script when things get juicy... when stuff is already happening. You don't need to show people meeting, the small talk that comes before the meat of the conversation, the little moments in life that happen BEFORE the story starts. Cut to the meat. Get in when the story gets good!
The same is true for the end of your scenes and the end of your script. Get out before it gets boring. In real life, conversations just run out of gas. Even a big argument reaches a point where is begins to slowly dissipate. That tail end of the scene is boring... so get rid of it. End on a strong point, then get out of there. Actors always want to have strong exit lines... it's your job to provide them!
When your script is over, get out of there! In William Goldman's ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, he talks about the ending of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, where dozens of plots are resolved in exciting, dramatic, action... in only a few seconds of running time. Once your film is over, you want to get out of there as quickly as possible. You've probably been in a theater where the audience has started leaving the theater as soon as the villain gets blown to bits... what else is left? That scene where the cop gets his badge back and hugs the girl? Booooring!
Make sure the movie ends when the story ends. If there's no more story to tell, there should be no more pages left in your script. That means there has to be plot information in the very last scene... the very last words of your script! Cut everything else.
I have invited you to a party. I introduce you to my friend George, who is a lawyer working on a big murder trial. Five minutes later I introduce you to my friend George who is a divorced dad with a twelve year old girl. Ten minutes after that I introduce you to my friend George who coaches his daughter's soccer team. Five minutes after that I introduce you to my friend George who... Now I may think that introducing George over and over again is a good thing because I'm giving you new information about him... But you are probably ready to scream "Okay! It's George! I already met him! Why didn't you tell me all that other stuff the first time you introduced him?"
If you take four scenes to introduce a character - each introducing a different aspect of the guy - you are going to make the audience scream. Create ONE scene that introduces every important aspect of George. One character - one introduction scene. Once we've been introduced to George, we don't need to be introduced again.
The best way to trim pages is to combine scenes. First, make sure every scene in your script is doing three things at once: advancing the story, exposing character, and creating emotions in the audience. Sometimes a long script has scenes that only do ONE thing, so it takes three times as many scenes to tell the whole story. If that's your problem, start combining scenes so that the character moment comes in the middle of a conflict that advances the plot... and that conflict has an emotional component.
Don't be afraid to completely rethink parts of your script. You may have a romance scene in a restaurant, a car chase, and a scene where the hero takes a bath and suddenly realizes what the villain is up to... Those might be three great scenes, but two of them have to go. So put your hero and love interest in the car chase and have the hero suddenly realize what the villain is up to while he's trying to negotiate a turn. All in one scene. You lose that great bathtub scene, you lose that great restaurant scene, but you end up with a scene that covers all of the material... and because of the contrast, might be better than any of the three original scenes!
There are two kinds of pointless details usually found in description: Telling us what we already know, and telling us what we don't care about. You know that great description of the police station detective's squad room? You don't need it. We've all watched NYPD BLUE or some other cop show and know what it looks like. The slugline probably gives us all the description we need. Similarly, you know that great description of Cessna cockpit that explains what all of the gauges do? We really don't care. You're showing off your research.... but not advancing the story. They will rent a Cessna for the scene, and the cockpit will have gauges. No one has to BUILD the plane, so they don't need a detailed description. Cut anything that's not REQUIRED by the story.
SCENES WITHOUT CONFLICT
Any scene that doesn't feature either the protagonist or the antagonist can probably be cut. These are the two characters that drive your story. The center of the conflict. Your screenplay will be ABOUT the protagonist and his or her struggles with the Antagonist. Usually a scene without the Protagonist or Antagonist is irrelevant and unimportant.
Every scene should also have conflict. One character should always want something from another character, and be maneuvering or fighting to get it. Any scene without conflict is dead weight. Get rid of it.
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION
Does your script have sub-plotitis? Are there lots of great scenes with great characters... that really don't matter? Your subplots are there to support your plot. They are integral. Not pasted on from the outside, but grown from the inside. That means your subplots will be connected to the central conflict. They can be connected to the protagonist or the antagonist... but if you have a scene where the protagonist goes to a lawyer for help, then you follow the lawyer home and show his relationship with his troubled teen daughter; you are creating an extraneous subplot and an unimportant character (the lawyer's daughter). Make sure your subplots are connected to the protagonist or antagonist. One degree of separation. If you can cut a subplot or character an no one will notice it, CUT IT!
SCENES THAT STRAY
Do you have scenes that stray? Sometime a scene will get off track onto some amusing little side track... but it's not going anywhere. We don't want our stories to get side-tracked, even if it's a pleasant diversion. Look at each scene and ask yourself, "What is the purpose of this scene?" Then remove any part of the scene that strays from that purpose. Cut the part that leads to the dead end. If it's not important, get rid of it... even if it's a good scene. Remember, we're STORYtellers, not SCENEtellers. If part of your scene doesn't service the story, cut it. We have to look at the big picture.
I began my career writing films for cable which require scripts with casts limited to around 15 speaking roles and 8 locations. You know those WAITERs and TAXI DRIVERs? They're the first to go. You know those INT. WAITING ROOM -- DAYs? No one waits in a cable movie! Start cutting unimportant characters and unimportant locations. For the past two years I've been writing big budget studio scripts and I still limit my cast. Ask yourself: "Why is this character important? What is their function?" If they aren't critical to the story, cut them!
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Put your script in a drawer. Now, write a list of every scene required to tell the story. Go over this list and cut out anything that isn't REQUIRED. Now turn that into a beat sheet and chainsaw the script to match. Next time, don't let it get away from you. You control the script! Every time I take a pass through a script, I find stuff to cut. Places where I let a scene go on two lines too long. Places where I have an extra (useless) story beat in a scene that's just padding. Places where I can combine two characters who perform similar functions into one character and trim a couple of scenes. If I can find stuff to cut every time, so can you.
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copyright 2001 by William C. Martell