The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Less is More

This is the first in a series of posts in which I profess to know something about screenwriting. One day, after a long and illustrious writing career, I might bump into these nuggets and chuckle at their caveman-like simplicity. But, if I determine that I actually had it right, I’ll build a time machine so that I can travel to the past and pat myself on the back. Since that hasn’t happened let’s just all assume that I came to my senses and decided to do something more useful with my time machine like killing Hitler. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia (It is never wrong) World War II did in fact happen, so I can safely assume that I’m better at writing than time-traveling.

Anyhoo.

Less is more. Yeah, it’s a tired cliché, but that doesn't make it less apt. In the rewriting process, nothing has rung more true for me. Every draft I do, shrinks in page length, but grows in content. Amazing right? What it is, is the product of bloat coupled with the startling reality that more than one thing can be happening in a given scene. Yeah, I know, mind-blowing stuff. Take my football script that started out at 165 pages and is dangerously close to a respectable 120 as I write this.

On the second draft I took 165 pages, chopped out a bunch of scenes and added a bunch more, and still got it down to 136. That told me that I shouldn’t be showing everything between breakfast and bedtime, but it also showed me just how my method of storytelling works, and how exactly I can tell when things aren’t right.

I don’t know how other writers’ minds work, but when I read through my own work, there is a little part of me that cringes when I read something bad. It is important to recognize this cringe, this wince because it can be very subtle. Especially when you are dealing with a scene or sequence that you really like. When I feel the wince I put a note in the script and go back and look at it later. Most of the time, the wince is right.

On the third draft I read through the extremely tight 136 pages. I winced a lot. Now I’m into the third act and I’m already down to 125. And this is all with adding three scenes and enhancing some existing dialogue and moments. Every time I read through I find more and more things wrong. It seems obvious to me now why some scripts can take a dozen or so revisions before they are finished.

Another handy tool is the ol’ “What would happen if this scene never existed?” It is disconcerting how often the story will march on without skipping a beat if a particular scene is removed. If I’m having trouble with a small scene I try and step back and look at how the story would flow if the scene wasn’t there. Too many times, I find that the script says to the scene: “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”* No kiss goodbye, no cab fare.

As a result, the story is leaner, meaner, and stronger. I’m hoping to get below 120. Then the real work can begin, and the questions can be tackled. Less is more. Anyone telling you different is worried about something else.

*Scripts are not very cordial or polite. Actually, they can be downright mean.

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