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Paring Down your Script

By Paul Chitlik

I can absolutely guarantee you, based on more than twenty years experience, that the second thing a reader (be she a script reader, development exec, agent, producer, or studio head) will do when she gets your script, is thumb through to the end to see what the page count is. The first, of course, is to read the title and name, possibly your agent's name and contact info. But the most important issue for her will be the length.

What? Length over quality? You mean to tell me you'll be judged on length? Not exactly. Here's how it works. Readers read two or three scripts a day. A long one makes the day long. It will be read later in the day or put off until tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, it will be read later in the day or put off until the next day. Wouldn't you do that?

Development execs, producers, and studio executives know that audiences will sit for 90 minutes to two hours to watch a film. Distributors and exhibitors like films that length because you can fit more showings in a day than with a three hour film. More showings, more money. So which script would they like to read first, the 100 page script or the 150 page script? Yes, I know, The Green Mile was 185 pages. But you're not Frank Darabont, and neither am I. They're gonna look at the page count.

And that page count will influence their attitude when they begin reading. They can't help it. So, you want to make them eager to read your work, not dreading it. Ideally, then, you want your script to come in under 120 pages, preferably closer to 110. Some genres should even be shorter - I wrote films for children that needed to be in the low 80s. A good comedy might be 95. An epic might be a little longer, but unless you're Oliver Stone, I'd keep it short. If you find yourself edging over 120, it's time to take a serious look at how to lose a little weight. As a matter of fact, I've never read a first draft that wouldn't be improved by taking 10% off of it. Even though you've polished and shaped, and the diamond is clear and all facets are shining, you could still take a little off the top and sides (to mix metaphors).

The First Step to Page Reduction

Cut out all carbohydrates. No, sorry, that's the diet you'll have to go on after you finish this draft because you will have gained so much weight from being cooped up behind your computer for months on end. The first thing you'll need to do is go back to your beatsheet and look over the beats. Does every single one of them move the story forward or reveal something crucial about your protagonist? Preferably, each beat does both. If not, try to combine some scenes. If a scene does neither, cut it. Be ruthless. If you're not sure, take the scene out for a moment, read the scene before and the scene after without the scene in question. Do you lose anything? Does the story still make sense? Then leave it out. If you can get by with just a little additional work in the preceding or following scene, then do that. If there's no way in hell your movie can move forward without that scene, then leave it in.

Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) says, "Cutting is the most powerful tool you have." Use it.

A good place to start would be to cut 10% of the scenes in your movie by combining them, adjusting them, or cutting them altogether.

Cutting Down Scenes

This is getting bloody, but soon it's going to go to the bone, so take a deep breath. Let's say that what remains after the slaughter of the 10% are scenes crucial to the storytelling of your movie. Fine. Now let's cut down each individual scene by 10%. How to do that? When writers talk about scene structure, they usually agree that it's a good idea to enter as late as possible and leave as soon as you've accomplished your goal for the scene. You can enter even later and leave even earlier.

First of all, it's sometimes not necessary to show the ordinary life segment of the scene, especially if we've been in this place or with these people before. We already know what their ordinary life is going to be. So you may, so long as it's not confusing, start with what the Spanish call the detonante of the scene. The detonator. We call it the inciting incident. It's what kicks off the action of the scene and propels it. It's what makes the need of the protagonist of the scene come alive. In some cases, you can start even after that, so long as we understand what that need is and what the protagonist's drive is by inferring something from the previous scene.

In the middle of the scene, you can cut down on description, especially specifics as to the decoration of a room, the foliage of an outdoor place, or whatever gets in the way of the forward action. Certainly take out any camera direction and placement. That's not for you to determine anyway, and it only gets in the way of the reading. Let the director do the job. All you want to do is to enable the reader to visualize the story, not every single shot.

As you approach the end of your scene, try to determine when you've made the point of the scene, and cut out everything that follows that point. That probably will mean you can cut the return to normal life at the end of the scene. You can sometimes even cut the final challenge of the scene if we can predict the outcome from what we've learned about the characters or from what we're about to see in the next scene.

For example, let's say that you've established that the quiet, self-effacing character played by Jackie Chan will do everything in his power not to fight an enemy, unless provoked by a reference to his mother. And let's say the scene leads up to that. Do we really need to see the fight? Well, yes and no. It's a Jackie Chan movie, so, yes, it's all about the fight. However, let's say a not so elegant actor is playing the role and it's not a martial arts movie, then we could cut from the challenge to the next scene where he's walking down the street carrying the pistols the other character brandished. We get the picture.

At this stage, I recommend that you choose a ten page excerpt from your script that you think is pretty tight already. Now, cut a page from it. Use any tricks you can think of, but get it down to nine pages.

You see, it was possible.

Cutting Dialogue

How do you cut dialogue without cutting information that is essential to the story? First of all, you make sure that you must absolutely have to have that information in dialogue. It's probably more effective to see in action. Action is quicker. They're called motion pictures, and if you can move your story forward with moving pictures only, you'll make more of an impression on your audience than if you rely entirely on words (dialogue). If you illuminate your character by a physical attribute or something he does, it's always going to be better than having you tell about it in dialogue.

Then, assuming you've changed any dialogue to action that you could, are all the remaining words necessary? Quite often, you'll find that characters go through a little "throat clearing" at the beginning of their speeches. Sometimes, that can be good as a trait of your character. But mostly it's not. It's a waste of reader's time, just like, "Hello. How are you?" would be. Or even a "Goodbye" on the telephone. If they waste time, if they're not absolutely needed, then they're out.

Then you'll need to make sure each word of dialogue is authentic to that character. Would he really say those lines, those words? Would a street tough call a rival "effete"? While you're doing this, you can make sure the dialogue conveys character. That means we can learn something from the way he says something as much as from what he says. For example, what's the difference between "Busy as hell" and "Busier than a one armed paper hanger"?

One last question. Could another character have said that sentence? If so, then it's probably not in character. That means you'll either have to change the language to suit the character or re-assign the line to another.

Then there's dialogue that's unnecessary because you've already told the reader or the audience that information in another way. Often, you'll have one character tell another character something he doesn't know, but that the reader knows because she's read it earlier. In that case, cut deeper into the scene. Sometimes you'll write something in description that a character then describes in dialogue. Cut one or the other. Preferably the dialogue.

If you follow the steps outlined here, you'll end up with a script that's as fit as a Hollywood trainer. Screenplays are minimalist literature. Make every word count, and you'll improve you chances of getting read and having "recommended" coverage.

Adapted from REWRITE: A Step by Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay

Meet the Author: Paul Chitlik

Screenwriter/producer/director Paul Chitlik has worked on hundreds of hours of television, been nominated for WGA and GLAAD Awards, and won a Genesis award. He’s written for Showtime’s Brothers, network shows Who’s the Boss?, Amen, Perfect Strangers, and Los Beltrán (Telemundo) as well as syndicated shows such as Small Wonder. He's written movies for broadcast and pay cable and consults for government film commissions around the world. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University.