The Short, Sweet Destiny Of A Scene


Whether it’s in my own work or in the scripts of others that I read, there are often characters and scenes that have no reason for being there.

As writers, we may think we need this stuff while we’re doing the first draft or the first scribblings of a project, but there must come a time when we have to realize that something needs to be cut. I’m not referring to the “kill your babies” maxim attributed to William Faulkner. Those are moments, usually lines, that we fall in love with and with great reluctance, must excise.

Instead, I mean the scene or character that literally has no dramatic purpose. In layman’s turns: no reason for being in the script. If something has no dramatic purpose it’s got to go. Why? It either takes the reader/audience out of the story or it brings the forward movement of a story to a crushing halt.

A monologue in a play is acceptable. Plays are about words. They are talkie. Screenplays can’t be. There are exceptions, of course. Quentin Tarantino and a handful of other screenwriters/filmmakers can get away with it.  But most can’t. You can’t. Maybe, near the end of your script, after, hopefully, the reader/audience is emotionally involved with your protagonist, maybe we’ll tolerate a two-page speech.

The plus side of the scenes and characters we eventually have to cut is that in the beginning we do need them because their initial dramatic purpose is to exist so you can get your main character from one place to another.  Or it feels right at the time to have your protagonist talk to someone to give information.  Or one day you’re not feeling it and you start writing a scene just to be writing and it suddenly resonates with you so you keep it.  

If the writing of that scene gets you back on track it has fulfilled it’s destiny. And you can move on.

10 comments:

  1. I totally hear you. Sometimes just writing not only one scene but a whole bunch gets me back in the groove. And sometimes one of those scenes inspires an idea for something I never thought of.

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  2. I once wrote 20 pages thinking that they were the middle of my second act. I woke up the next day and realized I could keep one scene, but it was a good scene that became a pivotal moment in the script. I now know that a lot of what I put in the first draft that may not have a dramatic purpose ultimately might with some distance.

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  3. To be equally short and sweet, if you can't use it, lose it.

    This is something that took me a few scripts to learn. What drove it home for me was when I was rewriting an epic screenplay densely packed with story that was STILL running too long despite what I deemed to be a script that was trimmed to bare bones. I went through it cutting every line and piece of action or moment or scene that didn't count toward the end result, that wasn't needed to move the story along. It might have been great in a book, but not on screen when you want every moment to carry you swiftly into the next.

    And DB was there to help me bury the excess six feet under.

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  4. Often the scene that has to go also has my favorite bit of dialogue unfortunately. But ultimately plot is more important than a good line or joke.

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  5. It's hard when you've written something funny to get rid of it. That being said, how many times do you watch a movie and think what the hell was that for?

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  6. I recently showed a script to a producer who called it wonderful and then told me it was too confined(?) and needed a few more zany complications. I think those are the pointless, what-does-this-have-to-do-with-the-story kind of scenes you talk about. Why can't these people leave well enough alone? Some dogs just have to piss on every bush.

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  7. I agree with climb2nowhere. I write comedies. Cutting funny stuff that has no purpose is the act of a pro.

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  8. Oh yes, nice headshot. Thoughtful with a bit of "you talkin' to me?".

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  9. I thought it was the German guy, Goethe who said kill your babies. Actually, I think he said Kill your darlings. Anyway, he's right, so is Fualkner and so are you.

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