Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 238 - Reducing Page Count and Tentpole Scene Placement

Two weeks ago, our 30 Day Screenplay Challenge ended. I decided to work on my demon thriller for the month in question, despite the fact that I went into it with an incompletely revised outline. The end result, though, was a full draft of a script I probably would have still been putting off otherwise, so who can complain with that?

One of the very first things I do after I finish writing a draft is I reread the script from start to finish. Well... first I take a few days to a week off and enjoy being done. Then I print and read through the script. My finished scripts tend to come in somewhere between 95 and 105 pages. Drafts, much like this one did, come in about 10 pages more than that on average. When the Challenge was over, I had a 114 page draft to contend with. The page count didn't matter to me quite as much as the placement of key scenes did. 

For example, of 114 pages, my midpoint came in at 65. Frankly, that's 7 pages too late. A midpoint is often not one specific instant or line in a script, but rather a scene or even sequence that can be drawn out over 5 or more pages. I came to terms with the fact that my "midpoint" would not be an altercation between the antagonist and protagonist, but rather the event that immediately preceded and led to their fight. The fight concluded on page 69; the earlier event on 65. There was no way I could have 65 pages before the midpoint and only 49 after it. That would just be way too unbalanced. Also, the moment of despair (which Blake Snyder likes to say should come around page 75, and I now agree with him) - the low moment when everything that didn't crumble at the midpoint just comes crashing down, leaving the protagonist with little to nothing - hit on 80. My Act Two turn into Act Three was about on target at 92, but considering the fact that the inciting incident was not a traditional one and ran onto page 12, I knew that I needed to get those big beats in place. Standard format dictates the inciting incident should come on 10, Act One should end on 25 or 30, the midpoint should be on 60, the moment of despair is on 75, and the turn into Act Three falls on 90. I had to achieve that, yet I didn't have a lot of wiggle room that I saw in the first half - there weren't many gratuitous scenes at all.

So how to go about shrinking the script and getting the beats to land where I wanted them? First, I went through and took a fine look at the dialogue. I often over write lines, reiterating things to make sure that the point comes across, saying in three lines what I really only need one or two to do. Step one: excise extraneous dialogue. Next, I went through and looked for any hanging words. Basically, those are words that sit on a line of dialogue or description by themselves, especially short words. If I see a "one" or "car" or "her" or "did" or anything of the sort taking up its own line in the script, I do back and find a way to trim a few characters out of the lines above in order to consolidate. There's no reason those should hang alone. And it's pretty amazing what cutting a few of those will do.

I use Movie Magic 2000 when I write, which affords a maximum of 57 lines per page. Depending what comes next after a page break, stripping one line of text from a page can bump up nearly a tenth of a page. For example, if a new scene begins on page 10, the program might cut page 9 off at line 53 in order to preserve the intro to a scene. The software won't allow a slugg line with no text after it on the bottom of a page. I can't ask page 9 to end with INT. BAR - NIGHT and start page 10 with the scene description. Even if it's only one line of action or description after the slugg line, the program is designed to require something immediately following the slugg line. Scenes that open with a lot of description will necessitate more space at the bottom of a page. That's why, of 57 lines, if 4 are free but I need 5 to accommodate the intro to a new scene, I will go back and look for hanging words. 

All in all, merely by consolidating some dialogue and cutting out most hanging words, I was able to drop the script from 114 pages to 106. More than that, my inciting incident came to a close on 10, the midpoint bumped down to 59, the despair point hit perfectly at 75, and Act Three began on 89. This was huge for me and made me much more comfortable with both the presentation and the structure of the script. Though the beats themselves might need work (I'll get the League's feedback in two weeks), at least I know they're where they should be. And that is always good.

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