A Great Screenwriting Exercise:
If you’ve ever produced your own independent film, you know what I’m talking about: entire scenes get slashed because there just isn’t time (or, more accurately: ever enough money). But even in development of big budget studio features, writers must reduce their scripts to the critical. Each and every scene must do double- or triple-duty heavy-lifting: simultaneously forward plot, develop character and reveal theme – all while still satisfactorily delivering on the audience’s expectations for the genre (if appropriate, each scene must be funny, full of action, suspenseful, mysterious, etc.) – or the scene must go.
This is not to say you can’t write that $200 million dollar summer tent pole movie. It just means you can’t waste potential production money, time, energy or resources on unnecessary scenes, dead-end subplots, set-ups that never get paid off, erroneous payoffs whose set-ups somehow got lost, clichéd, stereotypical characters or even fascinating ones that drag you off on irrelevant story tangents who really ought to probably be extracted as the heroes of their own future scripts.
I agree with those who say that films are created three times: first when the script is actually written, then as it is directed and finally, as it’s edited. But I don’t agree with the many who say that some scenes that won’t ever end up in the final cut actually need to be shot (in order to facilitate the communal creative process). Written and/or rehearsed, maybe – I’ll give ya that – to imbue the actors with shared comprehension of backstory experiences to layer subtext into the performances. But if you can head these budget- and schedule – busters off at the pass? You should. If not, someone more objective will cut them before they get shot. Or, more likely, simply move on to another script without these dead zones, slumps or speed bumps.
Likely as a legacy from my mortgage banking days: I think in spreadsheets. How can we mitigate our risk by limiting our exposure? Or in terms of lists. What are the critical “prior to funding” (filming) conditions that must be met to complete our package? What on earth does all this have to do with screenwriting, you ask?
Well, let me rephrase it back into “creative-speak” for the wonderful, tactile, kinesthetic right-brainers among us. If you’re a gourmet cook (or even just a foodie):
Think of it as a reduction sauce.
You start with all these great colorful, flavorful ingredients (moments, characters, images, etc.). Maybe you sauté them individually to bring out their rich, unique flavors, but ultimately, everything gets dumped into the same pot to be patiently and diligently boiled down for hours, sometimes even days, evaporating all the unnecessary watery dilution until it is condensed to its wonderful essence. That’s what I’m talking about.
Let’s figure out how to get there: how to reduce your script to everything – and nothing but – what must be shot to powerfully and cinematically tell your story.
Pretend it’s your money. Making your film.
Let’s say you just won the lottery.
~ Just walk with me for a moment in this possibility…
After taxes (and relatives you never knew you had come out of the woodwork): you net a cool ten million dollars.
Now, you can finally self-finance that brilliant 100-page script that’s been collecting dust on your Ikea shelf for over a decade!
You can actually – dare I say – put your money where your beg-pitches and groveling-queries have been!
You can add or subtract a zero if you like (to plan your million dollar indie or your hundred million dollar studio blockbuster) but just to keep the math easy:
$ 10,000,000 Fantasy Lottery Winnings Production Budget
÷ 100 page Script
= $100,000 Cost per page (out of your own pocket!)
Now, let’s see how this new perspective changes things…
First: would you – even – invest in your own script?
(Tough question to answer honestly. Let’s assume you would…)
- Set your script aside.
- Take your favorite pen and paper to your most effective writing environment: a quiet beach, noisy coffee house, hole-in-the-wall dive bar, library, cramped airplane seat, living room filled with the chaos of children – whatever and wherever it is.
- Don’t even BRING your script or laptop.
Make a list of the 25 most memorable moments from your script.
What are the:
- most conflict-rich scenes?
- images that most resonate with you?
- beats that get the most laughs or lean-ins during pitches?
- lines of dialogue that distill the whole story?
- the trailer moments (A/V script your trailer even!)?
- the decisions-resulting-in-visible-action – that if you had to take money out of your own pocket – this story could not be told without?
Don’t worry about chronological sequence or even order of priority – just jot them down as they come to you.
What might alarm you (or crack you up) are the scenes you can’t even remember!
These are the scenes that can go.
This is perhaps one of the best learning lessons of this exercise.
If YOU (who have written what, 17 drafts of this script?) can’t even remember a particular scene (or character or subplot), do you really think it’s worth shooting?
Is that what your audience will talk about the next day in line at Starbucks?
If it’s not worth wasting your fantasy lottery winnings to budget for your imaginary shoot, is it really worth risking leaving in your spec script to take up precious real estate to distract your reader or deaden the pace?
Or worse, be the elusive deal breaker that costs you the sale?
Now, set the 25 ingredients for your reduction sauce script aside (yes it can be 16 or 31 – creativity, like cooking, is not a precise science).
Try to remember what inspired you to write this script in the first place.
Really think about it: do you remember?
Was it a heartbreak? A betrayal? A stranger’s intriguing comment? An image you passed while traveling? The combination of something you were reading colliding with a memory? What got so far under your skin that compelled you to spend this much time of your life trying to express it?
Does the same theme or pattern pop up over and over in your writing – even if it looks like different eras and genres? Is it all the same story? The issues you’re working through at this time in your life?
I encourage you to keep a journal or track your inspirations as much as what changes you made in each draft – why and for whom. It can be an invaluable paper trail as you navigate the development process.
Now, finally, you get to open the latest draft of your poor, neglected script. By now the pages that can be ruthlessly slashed will be glaringly obvious to you.
Suddenly – when it’s your money – you’re not so eager to save that on-the-nose, boring expositional scene of:
“How are you?”
“Fine. And you?”
“Good. Say, how long have we been friends?”
Nor are you willing to trade your beach house or that convertible Jaguar or that trip to Greece for that two or three page throw-away transition getting someone from the haunted mansion to the magazine office? Does it really contribute anything? Probably not.
Once you’ve taken a fine paring knife to the extra fat in your script, look at what’s left. Is it as crisp and clean as it can be? Mise en place? Mise en scene? Everything in its place – and a place for everything? Feng Shui the clutter out of your screenplay. Clean it up.
I write a sentence per shot.
A paragraph per point of view.
Emulate the viewing experience in your reader’s mind. Unfold the story cinematically by using your grammar and punctuation to control your reader’s eyes on the page – implying the camera movement and pace – while leaving white space for your actors.
Who said: “Seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”?
Great writing is rewriting.
Enjoy the process!