If It Doesn’t Buy You Something, Take It Out

The more I write and the more I read, I find I return to this mantra again and again: If it doesn’t buy you something, take it out.

Screenplay beats to me are a commodity. You have to buy the beats in the beginning of your story to cash them in later on in the story. You’re investing in the beginning of your story – in a way, buying up assets that will pay off later on. If you haven’t invested in the right beats in the beginning, then you won’t be getting any return on your investment later on. There is no pagecount in a screenplay for wasted beats. So, every beat is precious and has to specifically buy you something later on in the script. If you have a beat that you’re not going to be cashing in later on a larger element, it’s not buying you anything down the road. It’s a lost opportunity.

Screenwriting is about simplifying, streamlining, clarity. Any extra element that doesn’t specifically enhance your story – or buy you something in the mind of the reader – shouldn’t be there. Take it out.

What do I mean by this? Write to the beats of the scene. Do not add in extra elements that do not serve a specific element within your screenplay. That will confuse the read. Localize every component of your script to serve the elements.

That’s why I say screenwriting is about streamlining. As a reader, I work on a need to know basis: if I don’t need to know it, then don’t put it in there, because it will clutter up the page and confuse me.

Let’s look at this concept as applied to characters and introductions. Many writers choose to dump characters. Don’t introduce four characters at one time when one or two is enough to hit the beat. Don’t introduce your protagonist in a lump sum of six characters when that will simply distract and confuse me. Your protagonist should be introduced alone and using an anecdote wherein I will get a clear understanding of who that individual is. Introducing your protagonist in a group of six people doesn’t specifically buy you anything.

Another example of this would be introducing a Southern character living in Detroit. This is not a natural pairing. Unless these two elements are absolutely essential to your story, then just make your protagonist a Southerner living in the South.

One time I worked with a young writer on a sci-fi script and the writer was dead-set on opening the world with a 500 year-old space war. However, a 500 year-old ongoing war didn’t buy him anything in terms of the inciting incident. That backstory only served to pose more questions in the mind of the reader than it answered – because then, what the writer was trying to sell was that all of a sudden, after 500 years, one team of space men would work toward peace. I wanted to know specifically what circumstance had created this particular team to incite peace within the galaxy after all these 500 years of war, but he couldn’t answer that. He demanded that it didn’t matter, but actually this was the basis for his whole story and it did matter. To my mind, the whole 500 year war premise just was confusing. The beat was that there was conflict and this team was going to restore peace to the galaxy. It was irrelevant for how long there had been war. It didn’t buy the writer anything in the reader’s mind, so I recommended he rework that element so that it helped the inciting incident instead of hindered it.

In film school, Mike Ellis was one of our teachers, and he said that when he and Pam Falk wrote The Wedding Planner, they wrote that about an Armenian woman and there was a ton of very detailed character information and backstory. He said that in drafts, almost all of it got taken out. Mike said not to waste our time on that level of detail because in a script, we don’t really need it. But, the key elements remained where it was a critical story and character beat – the immigrant parents and Scrabble element, for example.

I’m actually a believer that it’s better to have more nuance in there and then write it out later on in subsequent drafts. It’s hard to get something on the page later on once it hasn’t been written rather than just editing something out.

That said, be thoughtful and considerate with how you spend your currency in terms of buying up beats in the beginning. Are you making the best possible investment with your page count?

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2 Responses to If It Doesn’t Buy You Something, Take It Out

  1. kateh February 4, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    Hi,

    “Your protagonist should be introduced alone and using an anecdote wherein I will get a clear understanding of who that individual is.”

    What do you mean by using an anecdote?

    kate

  2. Monica February 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Hi, Kate, take a look at the post I wrote on how to introduce your characters to the reader, and then 2 examples of this with the protagonist for Hurt Locker and Erin Brockovich.

    As you will note in the comments, everyone has a different preference in how much or what kind of information is best. However, if you look at Oscar screenplay material (and I would argue any well-written script), generally this follows the trend that when the characters hit the page, we meet them in a situation (anecdote) that communicates a ton of information about who they are as a person. It should be active and accurately capture something about the essence of that being.

    What should be avoided in any case is unclear or generic information about a character so that it takes 10 pages to get a sense of who that character is. In both Hurt Locker and Erin Brockovich, from the minute these characters are on the page, we KNOW who these people are. We have a deep feeling for them. It is evocative. That is the goal.