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Writing is Deleting: Script Editing Techniques For Screenwriters

By Matt Giegerich

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We've all heard the famous expression, "Writing is rewriting". Writers, aspiring and accomplished alike, have beaten it into the ground. I'm positive none of us ever need to hear it again. And when I'm on my 35th draft, this truism spins painfully in my mind.

However, there is a similar yet little known phrase that does bear repeating: "Writing is deleting." Writing is cutting. Hacking. Sawing. Chopping and downright decapitating. And in many ways, this phrase is even more difficult to swallow than "Writing is rewriting".

As writers, it's hard for us to 'kill our babies'. We slave over our words, carefully choosing their order, spacing and placement on the page. It's difficult to admit that our own ideas might be bogging us down, but we must if we ever want to crawl out from the detritus of our own words. Alas, "Writing is mercilessly destroying dozens of carefully composed thoughts," right? So embrace your cleaver and learn to love the massacre. Your writing will be better for it.

Not sure where to start? Comb through your dialogue scene by scene. Remember, we need to be getting into scenes as late as possible and out as early as possible.

Scan for the following bits of dialogue, and you'll end up with a shorter, tighter script:
  1. Salutations – The vast majority of the time, we don't need to see characters greeting each other the way we humans greet each other in the real world. "Hi, John. How are you?" is dull and boring and completely unnecessary. Instead, jump right into the meat or conflict of your scene. Clearly, there are exceptions here. Salutations can sometimes be used to reveal character relationships or tendencies, or as a comedic device. But be honest with yourself, and if they have no purpose, push the pleasantries aside.
  2. Opening with a question. Scan your work for scenes that open with a question, and see if you can achieve the same effect by opening with a response. Or even the response to that response. But be careful not to rephrase the question in the response, because that comes off as sloppy. "What do you mean rephrasing the question in the response comes off as sloppy, John!?" See? Open with the demand for a divorce and work backwards, and I'm hooked.
  3. Any 'aside'.. At all. Especially to end a scene. Especially if the scene ends on a joke. Don't deflate your punch by having one character comment on it before you cut away. No matter how clever that comment is, you want to get out of every scene as quickly as possible, and end on a high note.
After you've done all this, re-read your script with an objective eye. Often times, you'll find huge chunks of screenplay that can be deleted or re-arranged. Does every scene move your story forward? If not, cut it. Is every joke as funny as it was in the first draft? Probably not. As screenplays morph from one draft to the next, jokes can lose comedic resonance. Jokes that are hysterical in the first draft might not make sense in the final draft. As a writer, we remember how funny it was in the first place, and struggle to cut it. The same logic applies to dramatic situations. If a new draft lost a small dramatic subplot, make sure all evidence of that subplot disappears. Misplaced remnants of old drafts in new drafts are confusing and easy to spot.

If you've done all that and your script is still a few pages too long, don't give up hope. Although there are plenty of well documented 'cheats' out there, there are a few legitimate avenues to pursue that don't compromise the format or integrity of your screenplay.
  1. Look for blocks of action tacked onto the end of your scenes. Often, this is just filler that slips through the cracks. If the action at the end of your scenes doesn't move the story forward or reveal something new, you can cut it.
  2. Look for lone lines of action between dialogue. Can these lines be tacked onto earlier action paragraphs or deleted all together? Each lone action line takes three lines of your screenplay, and it's probably not worth it.
  3. Inspect all your parentheticals. Delete all of them and then read through your screenplay again. You won't notice their absence most of the time, and if you do, you can always write them back in.
  4. Scan for ellipses in your dialogue. Is this the character hesitating, or you hesitating as you wrote? Trust the actors to insert trepidation, and save lots of space in the process.
  5. Cut overly long action. "JOHN GETS UP, CROSSES TO THE DOOR AND OPENS IT," can usually be replaced by "JOHN OPENS THE DOOR."
  6. Check to see if characters are referred to by name too often. This isn't how we talk in real life, but character names are often over-used in screenplays, and they take up lots of space!
Feeling lighter? It's surprisingly rewarding to discard unnecessary bits of writing. Even if it's like pulling teeth to admit they're unnecessary. Your script will always benefit from deletion, and at the end of the process you might even find you have room to squeeze in something new and improved. So put your pointer on that delete key, and CUT CUT CUT!

About Matt Giegerich

Matt is co-director of The Script-A-Thon and a recent graduate from Duke University, where he received a BA in English with Honors. He was the recipient of a Benenson Award in support of his screenwriting goals in LA.
Screenwriting Article by Matt Giegerich

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