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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Trimming, Slimming, from the Beginning

Trimming pages is a normal task, one that writers are asked to do regularly for budget reasons, pacing reasons, or because a directors style may trump one's dialogue.

Or maybe your first draft came out to 160 pages. Don't laugh, it happens. And for those of you not laughing, I guess I'm talking to you. It's certainly happened to me. Some writers write exactly to the page count, others don't. Regardless, all will be asked to cut something at some point.

(I was once told by a friend who was on a board meeting at the guild, as writers were sharing their war stories, that one team related their first draft usually came out to 250 pages, which was normal for them, and then they started cut. Wow.)

But how do you actually do it?

There have been various definitions of what screenwriting is in books, on this blog, and on the other writing blogs out there that are all excellent. It starts with Hitchcock's observation that movies are "life with the boring parts taken out" and goes from there. Every moment matters, every word matters, because every second on screen matters. And if an image carries more power for your story, write the image and hold the silence. Writing doesn't necessarily mean make your characters speak non-stop for 90 minutes.

Another definition on this blog that I love came from The Thinking Writer
which essentially remarked that good scene writing starts as late into the scene as possible, and leaves before the scene ends. It marries posts on this blog where I talk about maintaining tension, and to never resolve tension, which means - don't resolve all your scenes in a nice little package and tie it up with a bow. Scene can end, abruptly if need be, tension continues.

Now, some have to write a whole scene to get to the meaty part in the middle and figure out that's what they need, others go right to it. But it's a great way to start trimming.

So here are my first three go to spots for the trim:

First place to go: There's plenty of excess set-up, exposition, talking without saying anything, and overly ornate description to clog up any script, and that happens to writers on every level, which is why you don't see a lot of first draft scripts shared on the internet. They often suck. That's the first place you go to trim.

But a story beat that happens on page 40 of a fat script, may seem perfect landing on page 30 after you cut and condense what comes before it.

The second place to go: Kill repeated action. Often young writers hit the same beat two or three times in one script. The same joke in a comedy (hey look, this time the pie hit my dad!), the same threat in a thriller (okay, this time I'm really going to kill you if you don't tell me where the &$%! is), these are important to cut as they hurt your story anyway, you can't build a drama on repetition. (caveat: in comedies the "running joke" is a piece of gold and doesn't count as repetition.)

The third place to go: Visit the idea of multiple action to condense story. We tell stories linearly, meaning we walk them out on a straight line as we weave them into the world. That often means single events happen in each scene, then we move to the next scene for a new event or piece of information, etc. I have written here before about the "one new piece of information a scene" idea, which I think is important so you don't lose your audience. But if an idea/character/element has already been introduced, there's not reason it can't double up in the same scene. So rather than have your hero and his best friend have a falling out at lunch, and then in the next scene have your hero meet his love interest for the first time and embarrass himself because he's nervous, you can place both events in the same scene, perhaps using the first moment to help affect the second moment.


Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

One wonderful "trick" I use is to emulate THE AVENGERS TV show. They would pose a question at one location and immediately CUT TO a new location with the person giving the answer required. No exterior establishing shot required.



Steed and Mrs. Peel stand over a dead body in the middle of a dry grassy field. Steed turns him over and a lungful of water pours out of his mouth.


A LAB TECH turns to Steed and Mrs. Peel...

LAB TECH - He drowned, no doubt about it...

STEED - In the middle of a dry field?

LAB TECH - Could he have been placed there afterward..?

MRS. PEEL - No, his footprints lead right up to the point where he keeled over...

STEED - Or in this case, keel hauled over...

LAB TECH - Dreadful.

No exterior shot of the ministry to establish where we're at...and gee, it really works well too!

Monday, January 30, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Bill: that's an excellent tool. They had to do it for the rigors of tv story telling in a limited time frame. But a great way to maximize ones transitions - going from a visual to the middle of the next scene, no establishing shot. The best scripts have a breathless, must turn the page quality, and we all strive for that - pulling the reader along, NEVER RESOLVING THE TENSION. Great point. Maybe I'll try it. I always loved that show.

Monday, January 30, 2006  
Blogger Eleanor said...

Thanks for posting guys. This is all really useful stuff.
I'm still working out my writing process; and I always write the first draft overlength, by quite a lot.
I'm getting the hang of distancing myself enough to be able to start to cut/edit, but it's still rather traumatic for me.
Your insite/comments on how to go about this are greatly appreciated. :-)

Tuesday, January 31, 2006  
Blogger ggw07 said...

Have been following your comments for a few months now- Extremely helpful, honest and generous specifics- Many thanks! All the best to you-

Wednesday, February 01, 2006  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

(1) Trim setup, exposition & dialogue
(2) Cut repeated action
(3) Multipy to condense
(4) Avengers' trick (thank you, Bill)

K. I got it. Working on a second draft now. Thanks to you both.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

You're welcome, (Not bird, nor plane, nor even frog - just little ole you) "Underdog"!

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

It rather fits an out of state wannabes with no industry connections.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger deepstructure said...

hmm, interesting. im working on a short film that takes place in one location - one room to be more specific. so essentially one scene. figuring out how to apply these ideas (if they apply), will be an interesting challenge.

Saturday, February 04, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Deepstructure: these ideas always apply. Look at Resevoir Dogs and the intense and awful conflict in the one room warehouse the badguys hole up with their hostage for most of the movie. Sometimes the most limited venue forces you to be more creative to engineer the most unexpected conflict and tension.

Saturday, February 04, 2006  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Maryan -

quit feeling sorry for yourself. You live in TX which has one of the best film festivals around with a great gathering of screenwriters who attend - a tremendous opportunity.

It doesn't happen if you don't do it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006  
Blogger deepstructure said...

you're right phillip, i actually was thinking of bill's tip when i wrote that. one of my concerns with what im currently working on is a time-constraint and how to condense the time of a scene that essentially takes place in real-time (or at least has that feel - like many of the scenes in reservoir dogs).

so condensing time by jumping between locations isn't much of an option here - but the principle can definitely apply.

Monday, February 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still believe in the power of Three though: Setup, Reinforce, Derail where there is a running visual throughout the film... I love that Avengers technique, awesome

Tuesday, February 07, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

deepstructure: jump cut within your one location - jump ahead, fracture time, break rules of linearity.

Thursday, February 09, 2006  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Bill, to steal a line from another animated icon "him don't know me very well, do he?" No pity party over here. Underdog rocks. His talent just isn't readily evident to everyone he meets.

Monday, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An addition, or really expansion, to the above "avenger's trick"--

DELETE ALL ESTABLISHING SHOTS. every one. every last stinking one.

You'd be amazed at how much fluff you add in, and how many pages you can trim by cutting them all.

NOW as you read back through for pacing and story flow, if you feel like you need them, look at your interceding scenes and try to find ways to use film language to provide the information, the avenger trick being only one of those ways. If that doesn't work, ok FINE you can add the establishing shot back in.

Point being that most times estblishing shots are pointless, wasteful, kill pacing, kill tension and waste a lot of pagination you can better use to focus on the rest of your story.

Monday, February 13, 2006  

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