INSIDE THE ART, CRAFT AND BUSINESS OF WRITING for Film, TV, Books, Stage, Print or Digital Media (with Particular Attention to Comedy)
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” — Michelangelo
I’m a cutter.
I love deleting. Sometimes I don’t wait to re-plan the rewrite. Sometimes I don’t even wait to finish the draft. My attitude is: cut first and ask questions later.
Near the beginning of any project I like to create a PROJECT OUTS FILE, then add to it early and often. The Outs File reassures me that the material isn’t ‘gone’ and can be easily retrieved.
Writing is an extremely wasteful process. You always produce way more words than you end up using in the project, and the Outs File is the perfect place to park material that isn’t immediately relevant—but may be later.
If you and your readers all agree something isn’t working, you don’t necessarily have to ‘fix’ it. You can just delete it.
As the great humanitarian Joseph Stalin said, “No man, no problem.”
4 Reasons to Cut Something
1. Focus—When you cut something, the material that’s left stands out more. Cutting clears the underbrush so you can at least see the trees, if not the forest.
2. Creative Mulch—Your ‘Outs’ file is an ecological approach to the inevitable over-production of words for your project. Phrases and ideas that leave your draft for the Outs file often become seeds for future projects and / or find a new and better context in another project.
3. Space—Cutting anything makes your draft easier to read. The simplest, easiest, fastest way to focus your writing is to separate your prose into lots of short paragraphs.
Negative space on the page is a friend to the eye, the reader and the meaning of your material, and all it takes is a liberal use of the ‘RETURN’ button on your keyboard.
4. Saves Time For You During the Writing Process—Deleting is much easier and faster than rewriting. If you’re even thinking about cutting something, cut it. You can always retrieve it from the outs file—or a previous draft file.
- – - – -
“The writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.”
— Dr. Seuss
14 Things to Cut
1. Opening (& Closing) Remarks—Most preambles, disclaimers, introductions, conclusions and post-scripts can probably get trimmed or cut all together, no matter how colorful, moody or atmospheric. Especially in a rough draft, a lot of writing is warm-up or run-off; it helps you get into and out of the important material, but ultimately isn’t necessary in the finished draft. You could probably trim the beginning and end of almost every scene, chapter and monologue (including this sentence) without losing anything substantial.
2. Banal Prose—Bland dialog or description is dead weight, unless that’s the point and, even then, a little goes a long way. If there’s nothing interesting to say, better to say nothing.
3. Clean Lifts—If you can cut a moment, scene, beat, character, storyline or even an entire chapter, without having to change anything else in the draft, cut it. That probably means it’s not totally integrated into the project.
4. One-Offs—If something doesn’t do double-duty, consider cutting it. Ideally everything in your piece is working on at least two levels. It’s funny or scary or dramatic and it moves the story forward. It’s a character set-up and it platforms the theme.
5. Set-Ups Left Standing At the Altar—Any setups that don’t pay off are usually a clean lift and can get cut. If you don’t want to cut the set-up, make sure it pays off.
6. Widows—Delete any vestigial payoffs connected to setups you’ve already cut.
7. Problem Children—Sections that remain unfocused, muddy or obscure should go join their friends in the Outs file. It’s easier and faster to cut something and then see what’s really missing (if anything), than to overwork something that still isn’t working even after a couple of rewrites. Don’t consider it a defeat if you can’t make one small element work. Focus on the greater victory of creating a working whole.
8. Fat—You can trim any words or phrases that don’t add meaning. Convoluted sentence structure, overly formal prose or dangling clauses can go too—unless you’re using them for effect or character definition. Any time you can re-word a sentence to use one word instead of 2 or 3, do it.
9. Operating Instructions—Anything that needs more than a sentence or two of explanation can usually lose the explanation, and maybe the thing itself can get lost all together.
10. Extraneous Redundancy—Duplicate ideas, actions, phrases or characters are all potential cuts. If anything repeats, leave the stronger instance and cut the others—unless it’s intended as a recurring thematic motif or is there for dramatic / comedic effect. More than 1 (one) major visual symbol and / or 1 (one) physical talisman per project is usually clutter. If a word appears more than once in the same sentence, cut and / or replace additional instances. An early reader of this book noticed my excessive use of ‘of course’. I did a search that revealed dozens of uses, and I ended up cutting or replacing almost all.
11. Clever-isms—The first rough draft of this book used (even more) clever section titles instead of more utilitarian prosaic headings. When I initially wrote them I was delighted with myself. When I reread them, I was disgusted. Clever writing almost never holds up to repeated readings and can be a real turn-off for readers. Are you trying to impress or communicate?
12. Backstory—Most background is superfluous to a reader. You can definitely cut backstory from the first half of the draft. Front story first, then backstory, and even then, only if absolutely necessary. Conventional wisdom used to lead a lot of writers to develop extensive histories for their characters. Anne Lamott and Lynda Barry (and many others) advise writers to spend extensive energy remembering the past and especially their childhood, and many people recommend inventing detailed histories for characters. Not me. I want the writer to have a great sense of the characters, where they came from and what formed their personalities, but I don’t need all that spelled out in the text. I want to know what happens next.
In a script: Use backstory only when there is literally no other way to explain a character’s motivation, attitude or actions. Otherwise, the action has to stop for you to cough up awkward chunks of backstory that no character would ever say to another character—either because they already know it, or because people just don’t talk that way. In almost every case, backstory stops the forward momentum of the story. And you don’t want to stop the front story, you usually want to accelerate it.
13. Dream Sequences—The dream sequences were pretty effective in “Vertigo”, “The Artist” and “The Wizard of Oz”, but those are exceptions. Dreams are usually either unnecessary or a trick (“Fooled you, it’s just a dream!”) that many readers find annoying. If you’re going to use a dream sequence, keep it really short and focused. (See “3 or 4 Justifications for a Flashback or Dream Sequence”)
14. Flashbacks—I’m usually against flashbacks unless the project is a thriller, courtroom drama or a comedy, and even then a little goes a long way for me. Other people like them, I guess. I’m always sad when the story’s moving forward then stops to go back, but maybe that’s just me.
According to screenwriting guru Syd Field, Waldo Salt, screenwriter of “Coming Home” and “Midnight Cowboy”, said a flashback is really a “flashpresent,” because it’s what the character is thinking and feeling at that present moment, whether a memory, or fantasy, or event; a flashpresent, he remarked, is anything that illuminates a character’s point of view.
Awesome art is “Gloomy Sunday” by Gerard Demetz