Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chainsaws and Writing

In my screenwriting class in college, my professor had a favorite saying: “The chainsaw is your friend.” He was making a strong point about the “less is more” principle, but adding some umph and at the same time acknowledging that cutting out material from one’s writing is messy and painful. But oh, so necessary. 




He lead us through an activity where he took a scene from our scripts and then read the scene in front of the class.

Immediately after that, he read a version of the scene that he had edited...but the only thing he had done was cut out material. He created nothing new, he rearranged nothing. He simply deleted superfluous dialogue and action.

And it was magical. We all looked up at him, stunned in disbelief as he turned our clunky dialogue into tight, engaging material. One of my classmates cried out, “You’re such an amazing writer!” to which he replied, “I didn’t write any of this! You guys wrote it. You’re the great writers!”

I’ve never forgotten that moment. To illustrate how amazing this can be, let’s look at a famously clunky and bloated scene...the “breakup” scene from Star Wars: Episode III:

EXT. MUSTAFAR (VOLCANO PLANET) – LANDING PAD - NIGHT

              Padmé
Anakin, I was so worried about you! Obi-Wan told me terrible things! 

              Anakin
What things? 

              Padmé
He said you turned to the Dark Side. That you killed Younglings! 

              Anakin
Obi-Wan is trying to turn you against me. 

              Padmé
He cares about us. 

              Anakin
Us? 

              Padmé
He knows. He wants to help you. Anakin, all I want is your love. 

              Anakin
Love won't save you, Padme. Only my new powers can do that! 

              Padmé
But at what cost? You're a good person, don't do this! 

              Anakin
I won't lose you the way I lost my mother. I am becoming more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed of, and I'm doing it for you. To protect you. 

              Padmé
Come away with me. Help me raise our child far away. Leave everything else behind while we still can! 

              Anakin
No. Don't you see? We don't have to run away anymore! We no longer have to hide our love for each other. I am more powerful than the Chancellor, I... I can overthrow him! And together, you and I can rule the galaxy! We can make things the way we want them to be! 

              Padmé
I don't believe what I'm hearing! Obi-Wan was right; you've changed! You have turned to the dark side! You're not Anakin anymore! 

              Anakin
I don't want to hear any more about Obi-Wan. The Jedi turned against me. Don't you turn against me! 

              Padmé
Anakin, you're breaking my heart! You're going down a path I cannot follow! 

              Anakin
Because of Obi-Wan? 

              Padmé
Because of what you've done, what you plan to do! Stop! Stop now. Come back. I love you! 

Obi-Wan enters the scene from the ship behind Padme.

              Anakin
Liar! You're with him! You brought him here to kill me! 

How a lot of us were feeling while listening to this fool's dialogue. (Image property Lucasfilm/Disney).

This is a really long conversation for a film. That doesn't mean you can't write long conversations for a movie, but here it definitely doesn't seem to be working. 

Now, I will do nothing more than trim it down:


EXT. MUSTAFAR (VOLCANO PLANET) – LANDING PAD - NIGHT

              Padmé
Anakin, I was so worried about you! Obi-Wan--He said you turned to the Dark Side. That you killed Younglings! 

              Anakin
Obi-Wan is trying to turn you against me. 

              Padmé
He cares about us. 

              Anakin
Us? 

              Padmé
He knows. He wants to help you. Come away with me. Help me raise our child far away. Leave everything else behind while we still can! 

              Anakin
No. Don't you see? We don't have to run away anymore! I am more powerful than the Chancellor. You and I can rule the galaxy! We can make things the way we want them to be! 

              Padmé
Anakin, you're going down a path I cannot follow! Stop! Stop now. Come back. I love you! 

Obi-Wan enters the scene from the ship behind Padme.

              Anakin
Liar! You brought him here to kill me! 

I didn’t add anything. I didn’t change anything. I just deleted half the dialogue, and it’s already much stronger. And a lot of these tweaks could have been done in editing (which means that if anyone could get access into the editing room, they could fix a lot of these scenes).

Now, I know that George Lucas claimed he modeled all his story elements and dialogue to try and match the feel of ‘30’s serials, but I’m pretty sure most people would agree that some things are best left in the past. He didn’t film his movie on cellophane. He didn’t record the audio on phonograph drums.

But I digress. My point was to show how much an improvement can be made by trimming down a scene, cutting away things that may seem nice, but aren’t necessary. Almost the same amount of information is communicated in my version, but it flows much more smoothly and feels more realistic.

(Yes, I did remove the exposition about how Anakin thinks he can keep Padme safe because he’s turned to the dark side, but it felt forced in the scene—I feel like Anakin would be more likely to minimize and simply the situation to someone he knows won’t understand, instead of going into a detailed explanation about his hazy fears of her dying).

So, don’t be afraid to cut things away. The chainsaw is your friend.



Post a Comment