Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 248 - Concerns About Page Count

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the term "page count" became a part of my - and the other Leaguers' - lexicon. Much like the tools and knowledge that any craftsman wields in his labor, so is assessing the length of a script a key skill for a screenwriter. (I'm sure there are people who will disagree with me on this, but the fact of it is, people will always read the shorter script first when given material that they feel equally curious about. I know this, because that's what I did when I was a reader, it's what all readers I talk to do, and it's what my manager and producers have confirmed.)

These days, when I begin writing a screenplay, I usually have a pretty solid idea of my target page count. "This shouldn't be any more than 105, tops," I'll tell the League. And, more often than not, the finished drat will clock in at 105 on the dot - maybe a page or two shy of that, but rarely longer. Keeping track of the length of the script is closely related (in my mind) to paying attention to your outline as you write. With the outline, you know what's coming in the next scene, you know how you got there, and you know where you and your characters and story have to end up. Page count is an excellent barometer for all of this. If you look at your outline - as I did for my sci-fi thriller - and you think to yourself that a particular section seems undeniably longer than all the other parts, then there's a damn good chance that the pages will vindicate you. 

For example, in my 16 page outline, the first half of Act Two wound up coming in at about 6 full pages. That's nearly a third of the outline. Granted, some beats are overwritten in there, and many in other sections were underwritten, but my gut was telling me it was going to be a very heavily weighted section. Forget about how many outline pages it consumed for a moment; I counted the number of beats, and that quarter of the script contained far more than the other acts (or half act). With much trepidation, I set out writing the pages. Sure enough, I saw that my hunch was right before I had gotten very far. This morning, I completed my 29th page in Act Two; the script is currently 64 pages long, and the "midpoint" is at least a good 5 to 7 pages away. The next quarters of the script are a bit thinner, but I know I'm coming in at way over target. (A 35 page first act is partially responsible for that, too).

Now, if you're balking at what I'm saying, I'll give you a free shot. You're totally right in thinking a) it's only a first draft and b) scripts can be longer than 120 pages and c) who really cares? The fact is, a lot of readers still turn to pages 30, 60, and 90 to make sure you have a solid grasp of structure, so I want to make sure that I at least nail the end of act one, page 30 beat. The rest will fluctuate depending on ultimate page count. My charge now is to write the draft and then worry about how long the script is, but I don't quite want to show such a long piece to the director I'm working with on it - even if he knows it's going to be a length fist showing. 

This makes me sound like an even bigger dork than I am, if that's even possible, but I actually love line editing my scripts for page count. If I see a single word or even a couple short words hanging by themselves, taking up a whole line in the script, I will try to figure out how to say what I want more concisely. This generally results in cutting the words "just" or "seemingly" - two words I use a lot that probably shouldn't be there to begin with. So, that's a great editing and skill builder. Also, with Movie Magic, I know that I get 57 lines to a page. The software will enter a page break starting on line 53 if the next scene opens with a long descriptor paragraph or if there aren't any convenient breaks in a length bit of dialogue. Part of my editing process involves finding these reduced pages and figuring out how I can make use of those additional few lines by editing above and bumping the material that begins on the next page to the bottom of the one preceding it. I can often slice off 6 pages or more just by doing those trims - and they are almost always cosmetic only, a few words removed here or there, but no elimination of scenes or dialogue. And lastly, there are the bigger edits. This scene doesn't work, or this dialogue could be summed up or cut entirely, or that is redundant or unnecessary. 

All in all, I hope to cut about 10 pages from what i have so far. I'm not sure that will all happen before I send it to my collaborator, but that's the target when all is said and done. In the meantime, I'll keep writing with an eye on my page count.