How to Cut the Fat from Your Screenplays
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
— Stephen King
This isn’t about rewriting — this is about cutting your script as much as you can to make it the leanest of “meats” for studios, producers, talent, and representation to feast on.
Rewriting usually entails working on the story and character arcs to create a cohesive and engaging story. Sure, cutting scenes down is a vital part of that, but such cuts usually need to also happen when those character and story elements are right where they should be in the final draft.
Cutting the fat from your script will save you pages, better the script’s pacing, and make it easier for the reader to do what they need to do while reading your script — see it through their own mind’s eye as if each and every line of scene description and dialogue were a frame of film on a rolling reel within their mind. That’s the secret to writing a page-turner, which we’ve covered previously in 4 Keys to Help Screenwriters Write Page-Turners.
Even if you think you have a solid draft and are set to market it, go through it again and utilize the below actions to cut it down to the leanest piece you can.
For each and every line of dialogue, ask yourself these questions:
Does that line need to be in there?
Does it move the story forward?
Does it move the character forward?
Is it revealing or filled with emotion?
If the answer is no to any or all of those questions, it’s time to cut that line out. It’s very common for screenwriters to leave unnecessary lines in for any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s a joke that they think is funny. Sometimes it’s an attempt to add quirkiness or style. Most of the time they are left in there because the screenwriter doesn’t realize how important each and every line of dialogue is. Less is more. Actions and reactions speak louder than words, and sometimes outright silence says so much more.
The biggest mistakes that novice screenwriters make while writing scene descriptions are directing the camera and writing pretty prose.
Directing the camera isn’t a screenwriter’s job. Dolly shots, close-ups, zooms in and out, and angles are decided in pre-production through storyboards, while shooting during production, and eventually while editing in post-production utilizing the various coverage shots that were captured by the director and cinematographer. Screenwriters are not part of any of those processes.
The best writers can say the most by writing the least. Everything else should be left up to the imagination of the reader, producer, director, talent, and so on. Unlike literature, which is primarily a one-on-one experience — writer to reader — film is a collaborative medium where the screenplay is only the beginning step in what will eventually involve hundreds upon hundreds of people.
So go through every line of scene description and see what you can cut. Use two sentences instead of four. Use one sentence instead of two. Use a fragment instead of a sentence.
Look at the difference between two different versions of the same scene opening below. Hopefully, you can see the difference between the two.
The overwritten version of this scene is a perfect example of what a majority of screenwriters mistakenly write. They try to create atmosphere and visual style, but it hinders the read and gives too much information to process quickly. In the end, all that the reader needs to know is that it’s a dark and wet cell block.
Go through your script and find every example of these types of mistakes that you can — and know that there will be plenty to choose from because even the most seasoned screenwriters make these mistakes. We’re writers, what do you expect? But part of being an excellent writer is to know when you’re writing too much.
Scenes and Sequences
This is where being a cinematic butcher really hurts. Yes, you have to kill your darlings. You have to take them out back with tears streaming down your face, raise the butcher knife, and slice away.
It’s not pretty, but it’s necessary.
Sometimes great action sequences don’t work within the context of the whole story. They can often slow the pacing of your script to a halt, no matter how well written they are.
Sometimes great dramatic scenes that showcase some more character depth don’t need to be there. Hopefully, because you’ve done a great job of creating character depth with every other scene.
Sometimes great gags and stomach crunching laughs, while may be well written and hilarious, don’t serve the overall story.
But what you have to remember is that you’re saving upwards of a few pages with each scene or sequence you cut. Those pages are prime real estate that can be either used for something that the script needs or the absence of those pages can streamline the read of the script with some excellent pacing.
As Jack Nicholson sang to us in his Oscar-winning performance:
While it will hurt to cut the scenes and sequences that you’ve spent a long time crafting, it will help your script ten-fold in the end.
Merely ask yourself the same questions with every scene that you come across:
Does that scene need to be in there?
Does it move the story forward?
Does it move the character(s) forward?
Is it revealing or filled with emotion?
If the answer is no to any or all of those questions, it’s time to sacrifice that lamb, no matter how precious it is.
Every line matters. Whether it’s dialogue, description, or scenes and sequences, you need to cut away as much fat as you can from your script. You have one chance to make an outstanding first impression with whomever you’ve gotten to read it. Give them as few reasons as possible to say no.
So take the time to go through each and every line in your script obsessively. Leave no stone unturned. Give the draft to a trusted friend or peer and track their reactions and notes. Print the script out or give them an editable copy and ask them to cross out or delete anything that doesn't need to be there. If you can cut away as much as you can, your last draft will truly be the final draft that you, and hopefully others, have been waiting to see.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies
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