By Ken Levine
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.