Monday, 16 January 2012

How do I Make My Screenplay Shorter?

You’ve written a great screenplay in the hope of getting commissioned by a production company or shortlisted for a screenwriting competition only to find it is too long. How can you shorten the screenplay without ruining the story?

The Best Screenplay Format

One page of film script (not TV script) equals one minute of screen time; it stands to reason the ideal screenplay should be between 80 to 120 minutes long (the average length of a feature film). Screenplay competitions guidelines are pretty strict on how long a screenplay should be; if it is too long (or too short for that matter), it will stand no chance of winning the competition or of being taken on.

Length of Screenplay Guide

The first draft of a screenplay is often an organic process and the writer has little idea of how long it will be before typing ‘FADE OUT’. If it runs over the 120 page mark, the screenplay most likely contains superfluous prose or redundant scenes. Regardless of how precious you may feel about these elements, cutting will often improve the screenplay. Never feel tempted to tamper about with the screenplay format, for instance if you are using Movie Magic, ScriptSmart or Final Draft. The fonts and line-spacings are there to ensure one page does equal one minute of screen time and no more.

What to Cut from a Script

Remember, screenwriting is a show only medium. Do not include back-story, what the characters are thinking or reams of descriptions. If it ain’t on the screen, it should not be on the screenplay. Also, film makers loathe to see writer’s suggestions on what camera angles or music to use in a particular scene. Now with that out of the way, what else can you cut?

The perfect screenplay should contain lots of white spaces smattered with dialogue and short action descriptions. If a paragraph of scene description is in excess of 5 lines, cut to around 2 – 3 lines long. This may entail cutting adjectives and adverbs (description words) or reiterations.

Tips for Script Cutting

Look out for dialogue that meanders. Who needs smalltalk about the weather? Begin a scene late and show by subtext (body language) what the characters are thinking rather than use dialogue to inform the audience on what is going on.

Look out for scenes that serve no purpose or do not move the story forward. Consider also of combining two minor characters into one, or even of cutting them out altogether. The most efficient way of saving page count is to cut dialogue, as dialogue takes up more lines per word than action descriptions.

Fitting the Script Format

I recently cut one of my screenplays from 100 words to an hour-long 60 page drama, which was a pretty brutal process. But after several drafts, I was able to hone my page count by the following means:

  • Replace short scenes that follow consecutively by placing them into a montage or series of shots. This will save on sluglines, (scene headers).
  • Substitute long words for short ones. This can save on lines if these long words cause sentences to run into a new line. A thesaurus will prove invaluable for this purpose.
  • Cutting dialogue can save more space than scene descriptions, as dialogue uses more lines per word. Look for ways of showing what the characters are thinking rather than putting it in dialogue. When it comes to dialogue, less is really more.
  • Shorten sluglines if they are more than one line long. An example might be INT. SAM PETERSON’S LIVING ROOM – EVENING. Substituting ‘living room’ for ‘lounge’ could shorten a two-lined slugline into a single line – useful if this slugline is used repeatedly throughout the script.

The Art of Cutting a Screenplay

A screenplay that runs over 120 pages is likely to contain flabby elements that need cutting. Page count in a script can also be crucial when entering a screenwriting competition or looking for a film agent. Look for superfluous characters, wordy descriptions and too many scenes. Use shorter words, cut dialogue, characters and scenes that serve no purpose in the story. Substitute lots of short scenes for a montage or series of shots for a punchy feel. Cutting is a brutal process, but could result in a streamlined screenplay that will keep the story moving forward and the reader engaged.

Helpful Tips for Screenwriters

Writing dramatic scenes
The midpoint of the screenplay
Guide to editing a screenplay
The transformational arc of a movie script
Tips on writing a screenplay short
Platform for screenwriters


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