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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Magic Number

This week I've been trying to shrink 30 pages of script to 15 pages, without losing anything and ending on the very same moment, having conveyed ever plot point, character introduction and moment of emotion that I had in the 30 page version. It was a little tricky.

I entered a screenwriting contest, where contestants were asked to write the first 15 pages of a script based on a logline, which was written by famed Hollywood writer Susanah Grant (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes, The Soloist). The logline read: "A New England Matriarch with a week left to live pledges her entire fortune to whoever in her small town fulfills her dying wish."

So that was the first challenge, find a story I wanted to tell based on that logline. It came pretty quick and ran with the first idea I had. I wanted to do a Christmas Carol / It's a Wonderful Life / The Bishops Wife type of story (strangely though, mine's not set at Christmas... and now that I think of it, there's a play mentioned in my script which is also set at Christmas... maybe i need to rethink that?!)

My character Ethel is a rich old recluse who doesn't like her family very much. She finds out she has a week left to live, but has yet to complete her will and doesn't know who to leave her fortune to. A stranger arrives on a bus to help her make up her mind.

The 15 pages I wrote ended up being 30 pages long. I wanted to end on a moment, the moment where she herself realises what she's going to do (we the reader don't know yet, but that'd OK, by page 15 the idea is that we want to find out) Within those 30 page were also all the main characters, the town, the family and lots of little moments I didn't want to lose, little plot points and character development.

So, the editing begins. I start the usual way, trimming the fat. Anything floral, overly descriptive, indulgent. Scripts should only ever be sight and sound, what you see and hear on screen. It's tempting to get into the prose, but pointless. So that pulled it down a couple of pages. Then I restructured a couple of scenes. Trimmed a couple more. That brought it down another 2 pages. But we're still at 26 with 11 more to go... no idea how I'm going to do this.

I stepped away from it for about a week and then came back with the intension of only keeping what was absolutely necessary to the story. By doing that I was able to drop a lot of small scenes, and a lot of dialogue. Show don't tell is another phrase that popped into my mind, and the idea that this is a movie, not television, so it should be more about tone, movement, less dialogue driven scenes, less exposition. By doing that I was able to imagine what was on the screen, not what was coming out of people's mouths, and I realised I could communicate a lot more much more efficiently.

I also discovered I was repeating myself a lot. I had several scenes I liked, interplay between characters, but I realised both scenes were communicating the same message, I had already said this. I decided which scene didn't need to be there, doing that required some restructuring again, but it began to flow at better.

Then I decided to hold off on some revelations, that gave it dramatic impact. So I didn't need the scene of the old woman finding out she was dying, I was able to let the audience find out the same time her family does. So I'm not repeating the same piece of information, and you get the double impact of finding out she's dying and seeing the family reaction. The emotions are concentrated and so more powerful.

I brushed through it again for bad dialogue, more exposition and clichés, of which there were many. I also looked at the page structure, how the words sat on the page, and asked myself if I could end each page on a moment that made the reader want to turn? Could I end the page where a scene ended? More often than not this was possible, it makes for a more enjoyable read and it tightens the screenplay.

So, once all that was done the magic number appeared at the bottom of my screen, 15. And when I looked I found the page ended right at the bottom of 15. I had done it! Nice feeling!

So I'll send it off, no idea how well I'll do, but if you're not in you can't win. And even if I don't place, I've learned a bit and I've kept the cogs oiled, and that's never a bad thing.

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