Friday, August 31, 2012


It takes a second to toss a ring into a volcano.
Editing (\ˈe-dət-iŋ\): a curious act that simultaneously inflicts pain and pleasure.

I'm a big fan of what UCLA professor Richard Walter refers to as integration. This is the idea that your script, your scenes, your actions, your dialogue, everything, must accomplish two tasks:

1. Tell us more about the character.
2. Move the story forward.

Walter posits that if a script is integrated from start to finish, then that's a huge step in the right direction. I agree, and I'd like to couple that with an idea that fellow UCLA professor Hal Ackerman shared in a recent lecture that I had the pleasure of attending.

Ackerman stated that when a U.S. president is elected for a second term, he asks his entire cabinet to submit their resignations. The president then approves or rejects the resignations, depending on whether or not he wants them in his second-term cabinet. Ackerman then extrapolated this anecdote to apply to a screenplay. "Each scene must submit its resignation," he said, "and justify its continued existence in your script."

Well said. Like Michelangelo, who freed David from a block of marble, or da Vinci, who produced the Mona Lisa from a just-right amount of oil paint, or Peter Jackson, whose rough cut of The Return of the King was fabled to be over six hours long – if you write, you create. That's certain.

However, inherent in writing, inherent in artistry, and just as important, is the ability, indeed, the duty to destroy.

Or, as professor/screenwriter Mari Kornhauser bluntly states, "Sometimes, you have to kill your babies" (after Faulkner).

For your voice to shine through your work as purely as possible, you must edit. Being an artist means knowing what to take out, as much as it means knowing what to put in.

Or, as classical pianist Artur Schnabel said, "The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes ah, that is where the art resides."

It's not just about choosing sublime words. It's knowing when to remove certain sublime words to make your work even better.

In most of the early-draft scripts I see, the biggest issue is the unnecessary inclusion of what Professor Tim Albaugh calls "the movie outside your movie." I read a draft recently that included a sequence with a young man leaving his art studio, heading out of the building, going to the train station, catching a train, sitting on the train, walking from the terminus station to his house, and finally entering his house.

My notes to the writer were, "What does this tell us about the character? How are we engaged? What invests us in this train ride so strongly that necessitates our seeing it? Why couldn't he simply leave the studio and arrive home? It's implied that he had to transport himself there."

That's an easy one. It's a lot tougher when you have to cut an action-filled or dialogue-heavy scene. First drafts are called first drafts for a reason. Screenwriter David Koepp (Spider-Man, The Lost World, Carlito's Way) said, "I'm successful because I can tolerate 17 drafts." From what I hear, 17 drafts is on the lower end of things. Expect to do more.

Screenwriter and friend Kelly Fullerton has a helpful formula. It boils down to, "A character wants something, but X, Y, and Z stand in his/her way." The trick is to tell that story as simply as possible. Simple story, complex characters.

Each line, action, and scene exists in your script for a reason. As soon as that reason's accomplished, move on to the next scene. Don't take 10 pages to say what you can say in half a page. Look up the Buddha's Flower Sermon, for an even more poignant example. Wisdom without words.

Less is more.


  1. Great post! The problem with art, whether paint, sculpture or words, is that it is a piece of the artist's soul, and no one wants to destroy what is so intimate to them. It's why the critique process is so painful and many fail to grow because they avoid it. Writers need good mentors who can pick apart their work and encourage the writer to grow without destroying the writer.

    1. Well said, Elizabeth. You're absolutely right. It's up to the artist to not only create, but to share his/her way of seeing things with the widest possible audience, and editing is the best method of opening that door.