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Updated every Monday, one selected e-mail will be posted and answered here each week. With many years of experience in the film and television business, I look forward to providing answers to your questions about screenwriting or the entertainment industry in general.  Please send your e-mailed questions to: Script Advisor.  You may also wish to visit our Screenwriting Help E-Mails - The Archives.

This week's question: 

I've written this pretty good script, but it's way beyond 120 pages.  How do you go about cutting it without losing so much?

Carmen from Santa Monica, California

This week's Answer: 

The Art of Cutting It Out 

Carmen, I sympathize, empathize, care about, relate to, your predicament, quandary, problem, debacle.  (Wait.  Let me make an adjustment and do a little cutting.  Take 2:)  Carmen, tough break.  (Wait.  Maybe I overdid it with the "editor's scissors."  Let me make a different adjustment.  Take 3:)  Carmen, I empathize with your predicament.  There.  And only one, two, three, four, five, six words.  Six words.  Six words!  Six words!! (Maybe I should cut one of the previous "six words."  No.  I like the dramatic repetition.) But did it really capture what I was trying to say!?  Have I lost any tone, nuance, vitality, pace, definition, or clarity?!!  I need to get across as clearly as possible my intention behind these words.  And will only six of them really do that!!??

I have some news for you about cutting Carmen, and you might not like this one bit:   Most of your words other than dialogue will never actually get to the screen.  And even some of the dialogue (or much or most) will change.  Those description / action passages you painstakingly drew from your creative depths, though they would probably look wonderful in a novel or some other similar prose, will not be on the screen.  In a sense, when you write a taut usually-120-paged-or-less-than-120-paged script, you're just making it easy for everybody who may have a hand in translating your story to the screen (including the caterer who might run out of napkins and find the pages of your script very handy in a pinch).  You're making it easier for the underpaid readers (I know:  I was one of them) and the studio executives, among others (who actually don't like to read if they can help it.  "If it isn't already a movie or going to become a movie, not interested" is their motto -- and they claim it proudly.  Of course, I'm exaggerating. But exaggeration is the spice of life.  This business is based on exaggeration.  So, go ahead:  Feel free to exaggerate like I do.  Let yourself go and write yourself a fantastic screenplay.  Don't worry about cutting and editing and all those right brain activities.  So you come up with a "War and Peace" or "Brothers Karamazov."  Damn the studios with their 120-page limitations.  Why can't a movie be 41/2 hours long or longer?  "Cleopatra" was at least 3 and look at all the panoramic views of thousands of extras you got.  (Now they're called "atmosphere players" because extras like to think of themselves as being part of the atmosphere instead of being thought of as only being something extra.  I agree.  I mean how would Hitchcock have pulled off "The Birds" without all those bird extras -- I mean "atmosphere bird players"?  Now those were literally "atmosphere."  I can imagine what the directing of those atmosphere bird players must have been like:  "Okay, now you 348 atmosphere bird players line up on the telephone wires and monkey bars.  Speed.  Sound.  Camera.  Action.  All right, swivel your heads and peck a little... good... good.  Flutter your wings.  Not too much.  That's it.  Remember you're birds... Don't act like a bird; be a bird.)  So don't worry about cutting.  Especially not now on your first run.  So your script turns out to be 937 pages.  What's in a few extra -- I mean "atmosphere player" -- words?

On the other hand, there may come a time in your screenwriting career when you will be approached by a producer who will gently tell you that he's having a hard time with one of your particular scripts.  He's having a hard time fitting it into his car.  If that time comes, you might want to consider -- I'm only submitting this idea merely as a suggestion now -- and I know you're probably not going to like this one bit.  (Wait.  I wrote this exact phrase earlier in this article.  I think I may cut it.  No, it's too good, too pithy, too perfect to even consider such a thing.)  But you might want to do some... cutting.  To even consider this option is not to say that every single word you've written isn't a gem.  Some of those "and's" and "the's" are absolute genius.  And your "suddenly's" and "she turns and gazes at him with acute passivity and longing" should be in the Smithsonian.  I'm just saying that maybe, just maybe, and I know you're not going to like this one bit (I think three times is always best): 


Like this article.  Like most of my articles.  Too many words.  But I'll die by the sword if you think I'm going to cut one single word.  I have no editor looking over my shoulder to tell me that no one will ever get to the bottom of this and any other article of mine because I have too many words.  Mozart was told of his opera that he had too many notes.  Did that stop him?!  No.  He kept writing.  Although... I think even good ol' Amadeus wrote for his patrons, who held the purse strings.  Wouldn't it be nice if you could write anything you like and then pay yourself for it and make your own movie of your script that was 24,967,345 pages long and that ran for a month and a half in theatres?  (I'm talking about the length of the film.)  But, being as things are, that's not a realistic or viable scenario today.  There's a reason there's such a thing as a screenplay format, like it or not.

Here's some cutting tips:

1) Cut all scenes that don't have sex, violence, or more sex in them.

2) Cut all scenes that don't have people having sex, doing violence, or having more sex in them.

3) Cut any scene that would make an audience think.  Movie goers don't like to do that -- especially when they have to focus their attention on eating popcorn, drinking drinks in cups the size of their heads, and checking their cell-phones.

4) Cut any scene that is part of a slow build and has no overt sex or violence or more sex in it because audiences will throw their popcorn at the screen or throw their drinks at one another or start making cell-phone calls.

5) Lastly, cut all scenes that precipitate conflicting emotions or thoughts and do not provide cookie-cutter, black-and-white solutions with good triumphing over bad.  Audiences will not favor such deep concepts and will throw their cell-phones and start making calls on their popcorn.

Now start cutting.


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