A famous filmmaker – I think it was Steven Spielberg – once said, “When in doubt, cut it out.” When it comes to writing a screenplay, truer words were never spoken. A lot of budding writers I meet tell me about the agonies of having to cut scenes from their scripts. They’ll tell me, “It just wasn’t working.” Ah yes, the ol’ “kill you darlings” dilemma. I’ll tell ya, I definitely faced this problem with my early scripts. Nowadays, if I write a scene, 99% of the time it belongs in the script. Sure, perhaps I’ll trim or embellish a bit, or add or delete some dialogue, but the scene needs to be there. But the ability to know whether or not a scene is working comes with experience. Lots of experience. I’m willing to bet most of you don’t have several years of experience – and several scripts – under your belt. Perhaps you’ve only written a screenplay or two. OK, so how do you know if a scene is truly integral to your script? First, a quick test:
Spot the incongruous scene…
a). Indiana Jones trudges through the jungle.
b). Indiana Jones finds the cave entrance.
c). Indiana Jones ventures forth into the cave.
d). Indiana Jones stops at a concession stand and picks up a Slushee and a bag of popcorn.
e). Indiana Jones finds the Golden Idol.
Hold it, back up. Do we really need to see Indiana Jones stop at the concession stand? No, of course not. I know, this is a really silly example, but I’m just trying to make a point here. If a scene has no real purpose…if it doesn’t push the story, plot and/or character development in a forward direction, then it needs to be cut. But you’ll plead, “I like the Slushee scene! It’s funny!” Perhaps, but it doesn’t belong. It brings the momentum of this exciting sequence to a complete dead stop.
Trust me when I tell you that a vast majority of novice screenwriters tend to have Diarrhea of the Imagination. They come up with all these “great” ideas and feel compelled to put all of them into their script. Big mistake. I’ve read scenes where this happens, that happens, this is said, that is said…but none of it really pushes the story, plot, and/or character development in a forward direction. Many times I’ve stopped reading a script, stared blankly at the page and thought, “Why is this &#$% scene here?” You must learn to pick and chose what goes into your script. You need to develop…
Your Own Personal Barometer
To determine whether a scene belongs in one of my scripts, this is what I’ll ask myself as I write:
a). Am I actually looking forward to writing this scene?
b). Are the words “flowing” out of me as I write this scene?
If I’m finding it necessary to force the words out, if I’m having trouble just getting through the scene, then I know what I’m writing is false. This is when I stop and rethink what it is I’m trying to accomplish with the scene. But eventually it all comes down to a gut reaction. Does the scene feel right? It’s like going out on that first date – either it’s working for you or it’s not. If it’s not, it’s a swift “Bye-bye, scene.” Don't worry, this gut reaction is something you will develop after time. Hopefully.
“Aw, ya mean I gotta cut all those pages??!!”
Most neophyte screenwriters hate the idea of writing things that will eventually be cut from their script. All I have to say is…don’t fret over writing pages and pages of “useless garbage.” Whether you know it or not, those pages probably aren’t as useless as you think. Remember two very important axioms: Sometimes you have to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff and Writing is rewriting. Both are very true. I suggest you write both of those down and tape ‘em above your writing space. So go ahead, crank out some bad scenes and some bad dialogue, then rethink, revamp, revise…and you might discover your own personal Golden Idol.