Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Dont cut the CUT TO's

Scripts are always too long. They just are.  Even when they’re the right number of pages. Read aloud and time any script. It’s too long. You have to make cuts.

And in many cases, that’s not easy. We have an expression in the writers room: kill your babies. (Lovely expression, isn’t it?) What it means of course is that you have to cut stuff you love. In comedy scripts that usually means laughs. Why? Because story is most important. If you take out story steps the audience might no longer be able to follow the narrative. Jokes are the tinsel and ornaments we hang on the tree.

Or you discover you have five versions of the same joke. Two (or four) have to go.

Whenever I have a long speech I always go back and trim it. You’d be surprised. There are ALWAYS trims.

When you’re on a show you sometimes have the luxury of saying, “I know the script is long, but let’s hear it. Once we hear it we’ll get a better sense of what’s working and what’s not and then we’ll make our cuts.” The good news is the decisions are easier; the bad news is that you might have a lot of other work to do on the script and even before getting around to making the cuts you’re going to be there till 2 A.M.

And sometimes you just “know” going in what’s eventually going to have to come out. You’re just delaying the inevitable. And the leaner and meaner you make a script before production begins, generally the easier your life will be.

Another advantage of being on a show is you can start an S.O..S. file (Some Other Show). You can bank jokes for later use. This doesn’t help much if you’re writing a screenplay.

Writer/blogger Earl Pomerantz has an interesting theory. He says you can always just lift page 8. As crazy as that sounds he’s often right.

But here’s what you don’t want to do (although many people do): widen the margins, futz with the template, and squeeze more content onto the page.  The greatest insane example of this comes from when I was a Story Editor on MASH. The script was too long so our head writer decided to take the “CUT TO’s” and “DISSOLVE TO’s” out. We said, “What difference does that make? The script will still read just as long.”

But he insisted and we took out all the transitional commands and sent the script off to the 20th Century Fox typing pool, where they re-typed scripts for printing. They didn't have the script five minutes before we got a call from the head of the department. “What the fuck do we think we’re doing?” As this head writer tried to explain to her his reasoning, my writing partner David and I ducked into our office where we laughed for five minutes.

The next day the printed script arrived. The “CUT TO’s” were back and surprise, the script was still too long. That night we went back and took out dialogue. Turns out that works better. Who knew?

Strict page counts are deceiving. A script with long block speeches can be 30 pages and be way longer than a 36 page script where everyone speaks in a line or two. The key is don’t try to fool yourself.

A universal truth is scripts get better when they’re shorter, tighter, funnier, with a better flow. I have way more to say on the subject but blogposts get better when they’re shorter too.

So I'll just conclude with happy ornament removing.

13 comments :

ChipO said...

If memory serves (and perhaps, yet again, it isn't) Moonlighting contained a lot of people talking over each other. Were those scripts substantially longer?

Matt said...

Have you ever just wanted to tell the actors to talk faster?

VP81955 said...

What's true for writing sitcom episodes also applies to writing comedy features, as I've learned from repeated editing of my romantic comedy. The only difference? Extrapolate the 30 pages to 100. And don't try to fool the reader with margin tricks; it never works.

Michael said...

If I remember correctly, the script for the film version of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" was too long, and the producer had them take out some of the stage directions. Since Larry Gelbart wrote it for Broadway, maybe he talked about that?

I believe Mark Twain was the one who said a writer has to kill his darlings. That could have been a problem on The Andy Griffith Show.

By the way, I read that Fred Friendly, who co-produced Edward R. Murrow's great work on television in the 1950s, would do something annoying when he was the executive producer of the documentary series CBS Reports. He would ask to see his producer's best hour and tell him to cut, say, 20 minutes. The producer would come back and Friendly would tell him to cut more. He would come back and Friendly would say to cut more and the producer would say, no, this is it or I quit. Friendly's response then would be something like, good, now we've really got your best stuff.

Steve Bailey said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of "Mary Tyler Moore." According to Ed Asner, the script came in five minutes short, but everybody loved it as is, so nobody wanted to touch it. Asner said they "acted the hell out of it" and managed to bring it in at just the right length.

Chris Dunn said...


"Whenever I have a long speech I always go back and trim it. You’d be surprised. There are ALWAYS trims."

- Things never said by Shonda Rhimes, ever. Nor by anyone who works for her.

Meanwhile, SLATE is reading this blog for column ideas: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/tv_club/features/2016/tv_club_2016/is_the_tv_comedy_dead.html

Mike M said...

If I had a nickel for every commercial script that was too long or too short because someone used a word count instead of a stop-watch... or just eyeballed the length of the copy, I could probably retire.

MikeN said...

Wouldn't it work if you actually eliminated the cutto and dissolveto? Isn't that 1-2 sec each and you end up with a Bourne movie?

Kaleberg said...

Since scriptwriters now work on computers, I'm wondering if any script writing software even gives an approximation of script length if only by counting words (or syllables) and some transition time? Obviously, many a skilled writer doesn't need this, but it might make tracking the time budget a bit easier. (Hey, make it an app. Even if this is a dumb idea some venture capital firm will fall for it.)

Donald Benson said...

Definitely. Back in my days as marketing copywriter, I wrote dozens of scripts for live reads. Tricky stuff, because we usually had to get things like phone numbers (or later, URLs) in twice. A lot of mouthing words while staring at my watch.

Also learned quickly there's a heck of a difference between something that reads well and something that sounds right.

Canadian Dude said...

You can see the Moonlighting pilot here: http://www.zen134237.zen.co.uk/Moonlighting_1x01_-_Pilot.pdf

Years ago I worked with Jason Alexander and he told me "Seinfeld" episodes were always 5-6 minutes heavy after the first assembly. So every week they were cutting out gobs of stuff that they'd rehearsed (and presumably timed) and shot ... sometimes omitting entire scenes... seems extravagant, but they WERE the number one show on TV for most of their run...

SharoneRosen said...

I am writing a little stage show musical with my cousin. She was a very successful TV writer in the '80s, drama only. I keep telling her, to keep it funny, it's an economy of words, stop explaining. I feel incredibly nervy telling her how to write. She's the one with Emmy awards turning green on her bookshelf.

You'll have to some see it when we produce it at the retirement community club house :D

John said...

I'd love for you to expand on Earl Pomerantz's theory that you can just lift page eight. Where in the story are you on page eight that often makes it so expendable? I can't seem to find his post on the topic.