When In Doubt, Cut It Out!
By Jacob Krueger
When In Doubt, Cut It Out!
Many writers make the mistake of thinking that rewriting is primarily about finding that “something missing” in your scene, adding that perfect line of dialogue or discovering that perfect image to take your script to the next level.
And it’s true that these are major parts of rewriting. But oftentimes the best (and easiest) rewrites begin not by adding anything at all, but simply by stripping away the stuff that’s obscuring the real heart of the scene.
Put a few extra pounds, some bad teeth, and the wrong makeup on Charlize Theron, and instead of seeing a beautiful woman, people are going to see this image from Monster.
And it’s exactly the same way with our scripts! It’s natural that early drafts tend to be overwritten—after all, it’s in these early drafts that you’re supposed to be exploring the limits of what your scenes and your story can be.
But once you’ve discovered the core of what the scene is really about, you’ve got to cut away all those extra layers, so other people can perceive that essence in its most pure and beautiful form.
As we discussed in the last article of this series, this always begins with theme. Ask yourself “what is this scene is really about?” And then see what happens if you cut away anything that doesn’t doesn’t work to serve that primary intention.
You might find yourself pleasantly surprised to discover that a few simple cuts can reveal the hidden “Charlize Theron” in even the “ugliest” scene. In fact, you’ll probably find that the more you cut, the stronger your scene becomes.
That’s because the best scenes function like a collection of greatest hits, catapulting the audience from one compelling moment to the next.
When you cut down your screenplay to its most essential elements, it allows readers to get right to the meat of your scene, without having to sort through all that garnish.
From a commercial perspective, it also allows your scene to be read and understood more quickly, which will pay off big time when it’s being skimmed by a time-crunched coverage reader.
Making these kinds of cuts is quick, easy, and extraordinarily effective. But it’s also emotionally challenging for two reasons.
The first is that we tend to like what we’ve written; and cutting away good writing that doesn’t serve our story can be incredibly painful.
The second is that we don’t tend to trust ourselves.
We imagine that if we just got right to the heart of the scene, keeping only our very best lines and our very best actions or images, the audience would never understand. Or even worse, that if we cut that 5 page scene down to one brilliant half a page, we’d suddenly have to come up with so much more story to fill those extra pages!
But the truth is, if you really want to take your script to the next level, you’re going to need those extra pages! Cutting out the wasted space in your script (getting to the best stuff faster and faster and faster) opens up room for you to take your story and your character’s journey beyond what even you imagined when you first sat down to write.
And this is exactly what you really need to do if you want to break in as a writer.
While professionals with impressive resumes and extensive relationships may be able to get away with phoning in scripts that play by the rules and simply meet the expectations of the audience, to get a producer to take a chance on you as a writer, you’ve got to deliver even more than they expect. You’ve got to blow them away.
So next time, before you start adding to your scene, see what happens if you try to tell the whole story of the scene with the fewest lines possible. Cut it down to the very minimum. And then cut it even further.
Cut everything boring, everything lackluster, everything redundant and everything that doesn’t serve your theme, until you’re left with only your most vibrant, vital and visceral writing.
See how quickly you can make it happen. Then read it to yourself. And notice not only how much better the scene becomes, but also how clearly you can now see exactly how to amplify or take it further.
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And if you want to study with me then check out Thursday Night Writes. It is free! Every Thursday night at writeyourscreenplay.com/thursday.
*Edited for length and clarity
Awesome basic advice, but what was a multi-paragraph blog could have been said in 3 words: cut the fat. There wasn’t any helpful examples or exercises after this statement. We’re writer’s, too. We KNOW you simply tried to engage us longer by rephrasing one idea. Maybe you should take your own advice.
Sorry; thanks for breaking it way down.
I have to disagree with JP’s second point. In addition to re-learning the concept of cutting the fat, I appreciate the more in-depth explanation of why writers should do this and the benefits. When I heard this advice previously, I admit I didn’t understand how to identify “the fat” vs. “the meat,” much less how to pare it down.
However, I’m possibly at a less mature stage of writing than JP.
Thank so much for your wonderfully insightful podcast, Jacob!