Pursued By A Bear: “How do I cut down an overcomplicated script?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.   

“Are there any techniques to pare down a script when it is feeling too complicated/heavy?  Thx”

I’m sure we’ve all been there; a story that just gains momentum until it seems like it will never come to a close. That one act play you started six months ago has become an epic, convoluted, infinite mess; like Eastenders for the stage.

Hopefully with better dialogue.

But still, not what you wanted to create.

What can you do in this situation?

This is where you’ll often hear that time-worn piece of incredibly non-specific advice “Kill your darlings,” but what does that actually mean?

For years I mistakenly believed people were telling me to simply cut all my favourite bits. As if, somehow, all the bits I liked were holding the play back.

But surely I can’t always be so far off the mark about my own work? Surely all the parts I think are fantastic, that I’m most proud of, aren’t the bits that will incite gaping yawns in the audience?

Until one day I finally realised what it all meant.

These sage individuals weren’t telling me to cut out all my favourite parts. They just meant I had to be prepared to cut absolutely any part of the play that doesn’t serve the plot.

Often, the parts you need to cut aren’t that great, and if you’re honest with yourself, somewhere deep down inside the murky depths of your dysfunctional mind, you were already thinking “That part should probably go.”

But sometimes you’ve written something incredible, a line of dialogue, a conversation, even a particularly memorable character, which just isn’t essential to the story. And in this case, even though you might love it, you have to cut it.

Paring down a script is about being ruthless.

You have to be prepared to chop out everything that isn’t vital to your play.

I know it sounds horrific, and it can be, but it’s the only way. So how do you do it?

First, you need a bit of distance. Think of the script like a new girlfriend/boyfriend. Writing is like the initial high you get at the beginning of the relationship. It’s very difficult to break it off when it’s all sex and dinners out. You’re stupid at that point, you can only see the good stuff.

You need to wait until the relationship’s been stable for a while. You’re comfortable, you’re starting to see the flaws and the deal-breakers; he keeps his socks on in bed, she wakes up at the crack of dawn every day, he sweats too much in social situations, everything she cooks tastes of cheese.

Whatever it might be, it’s now beginning to bug the shit out of you.

The initial magic has worn off and you’re seeing things objectively.

For this to happen with a script, for me personally, it takes a minimum of three weeks. I’ve heard other writers say they need to hide a script in a drawer for six months, without peeking, to lose the sentimental attachment.

I have a terrible memory, if I leave something in a drawer for six months chances are it’s never coming out. I’ll forget I ever wrote the damn thing in the first place. I’m always stumbling over short plays on my hard drive and I’m like “Did I write this?” I start asking my wife if she’s been on my computer knocking out scripts before I wake up.

How do you gauge the amount of time you need away from a script? My test is to leave it until I can think about it without any particular line of dialogue springing to mind.

For example, I watched Anchorman 2 exactly two weeks ago, and thinking about it now the lines; “I can always guess how many jelly beans are in a jelly bean jar, even if I’m wrong,” and “Who the hell is Julius Caesar, you know I don’t follow the NBA,” are still in my head. Give it another week and I’ll have forgotten those.

If it takes you longer (good for you, you must have a functioning memory) I strongly recommend you be patient. You want to be able to treat the script like someone else’s work. If you remember it too well you’ll still be sentimental.

So, you’ve put your script aside for a month or six months or fifteen years, how do you now proceed to trim it down?

At this stage I like to give the whole thing a once over. This is to remind myself what it’s all about, and to see if any obvious cuts present themselves right away. This is the time to look for the big stuff. Is there a scene you don’t really need? Does that character really serve a necessary function?

Don’t pay too much attention to individual words or even lines of dialogue at this point. There’s no point painstakingly cutting twenty lines from a scene if you then get to the end of the play and realise you need to cut the entire scene anyway.

Imagine you’re a doctor treating someone who’s barely survived a horrific luge accident. You don’t start with the cosmetic stuff. Yeah, that gash on his third toe might look painful at first glance, but it’s not likely to bother him if you don’t get his heart beating again.

Deal with the big stuff first. Then you can trim and tweak and fiddle with the rest to your heart’s content.

Don’t be too gung-ho about it though. Imagine the toe gash has developed gangrene. Okay, now it’s probably more important to deal with it before that spreads. Don’t be the doctor who panics and amputates the whole leg, only to find out later that leg was vital to the stability of the whole thing.

Always try to make necessary cuts, not just cuts that will make the play shorter.

If you think something needs to go, but you’re not sure, consider how it fits into the whole play. Does it move the story forward? Will the play make sense without it? Does it add to your character development in an important way?

Once you’ve made all the big cuts, it’s time to start on the small stuff. Give the play another read through with a red pen at hand. Look out for repetition, unnecessary explanation, long-winded speeches and superfluous words.

If someone asks me what the weather’s like outside and I reply;

“Well, an area of high pressure in the north is sweeping down a swathe of cumulo nimbus clouds which are then condensing due to slightly warmer temperatures and causing heavy precipitation,”

That person would be forgiven for punching me in the face immediately.

Because I could have simply said; “Take an umbrella.”

Apologies to any meteorological enthusiasts out there for my appalling understanding of the way weather systems work.

Don’t be devastated when you have to cut an amazing piece of dialogue or a wonderful character. The fact you feel so gutted about having to cut it means you’ve probably written something great, and just because it doesn’t fit into this play doesn’t mean it has to die.

Maybe that piece of dialogue fits into another play. Maybe that lost character has her own fascinating tale which will become a short story or a film script somewhere down the line.

If you’re conflicted about cutting something, always save it for later. Then, when you sit down to start something new and your mind draws a blank, simply dig into your archive of discarded snippets and pull out something inspiring.

Another practical tip; when making significant cuts, always save a new draft. This way if you suddenly feel you’ve cut too much and lost your way, you can load the previous draft and have another go. This is the beauty of technology.

The main thing to remember when cutting is to be ruthless where necessary. By removing everything that’s not needed you’ll make the important stuff more prominent. The plot will become clearer and the play will feel more coherent. If you leave the gangrenous toe intact, its foulness will spread to the rest of the body and eventually kill the whole thing. Cut it off, and our luge enthusiast will ultimately fare a lot better.

So don’t dwell too much over the pain of eviscerating a script you’ve spent weeks/months/years writing, cutting is never pleasant, but by making careful cuts you’ll maximise the impact of your work. The fact you’ve identified the play is too heavy means you’re already on the right track.

Keep going, and be fearless.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

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1 thought on “Pursued By A Bear: “How do I cut down an overcomplicated script?””

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