02 February 2011

Your script’s perfect length

Odds are your script's too long. You can always tighten some more, but at some point you need to get that story of yours into the hands of others. So face it, it’ll never be the perfect length (same as it’ll never be the best it could possibly be).

Don't try to get this through the door as a novice.
The right length for a Hollywood script is below 100 pages. Lower than 95 and higher than 110 smacks of amateur. We can argue the numbers but it's in that ballpark. It's not fair, sure - but get over it. Your script will make its way into a reader’s hands who’ll start by looking at the number on the last page (plus formatting and spelling errors).  If you’re new to the game, get those right. You want the reader to read your story, right? If you disregard the above, chances are he/she will toss your script – they have better things to do than wasting their time on what they'll perceive to be an amateur.

Now in a perfect world those readers would be benevolent angels with unlimited time on their hands and they’d read everything regardless of pesky little length/format/spelling issues. They would focus solely on your story and would surely discover the amazing tale you’ve woven in your 120 page script. But that’s just not the way it works. There are barriers, filters, hurdles, doors – when starting out, you need to do everything in your power to get past those barriers to qualify for even the smallest hint of a chance.

So how then do you cut a great script down to size? Unfortunately, it'll probably entail some of that dreadful “killing your darlings” bit. But wait! Before you do that ... when I read scripts I often find that I can easily cut up to 10 pages by simply applying the crisp screenwriting style we should all live and breathe. Easy examples are: 
  • cut everything that won’t be seen or heard on the screen – how often do you read stuff like “Joe, the long-lost brother of …” Cut it, you’ll reveal that in the story.
  • slash everything that  smacks of exposition – show, don’t tell.
  • and slice everything that can be condensed – things like “The night is dark, the fog creeps in eerily, the tall willows sway ominously in the wind. Joe looks around nervously…” instead try “Blackest night, it couldn’t be creepier... “ 
More often than not we write too much - because we’re an insecure bunch. We’re afraid that the reader won’t get it, won’t see the moment, won’t understand our passion - unless we really hammer it all home with extra lines. But that’s just it – it’s our own insecurity and it’s up to us to deal with it. Trust me – readers CAN read – they’ll instantly spot and appreciate crisp writing and yes, they WILL get it if you’ve done your homework.

I love cutting. I love the challenge of condensing a two para line into a high-impact five word sentence. If you do that – if you go over your script with that cutting drive, you’ll be surprised just how many pages you’ll be able to shave off your script. Well then – if you’re at 120 – try the above "easy ways" before cutting story elements – you may just find that you won’t have to kill all of your darlings.

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