Make Your Script Shorter – Without Ruining Your Story
by Tim Schildberger, Head Judge
If your script is closing in on – or has passed – 120 pages and your last name isn’t “Scorsese,” it’s too long.
When a reader for a rep, a production company, or even some script competitions sees a page count that large, your script is instantly struggling to survive. Exercising self-discipline and tight control of your story and structure matters, and nowadays a long script risks a reader thinking you’re not in full command of your craft.
Fear not! Here are some simple things you can do/look at to trim your script without throwing away your favorite bits.
Things to Cut that Won’t Hurt Your Story:
Writing “lifelike” dialogue is awesome, but sometimes we humans are awfully repetitive. So if you have a scene like this: “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Really?” “I’m absolutely certain.” “I can’t believe it.” “It’s true.”
Then you can trim that.
I know that sounds obvious, but I promise if you look at your script right now, you’ll find at least one scene where the dialogue delivers the same information more than once.
Again – humans waste words in normal life, but we shouldn’t do that in scripts. The easy one is people never saying “Goodbye” when ending a phone call on screen. It’s a waste of time. Another easy one is when one character asks another character a question. You don’t need the “yes” or “no” which precedes a more thorough answer. Example: “Did you bring the ketchup?” “No. I was being chased by a water buffalo so I didn’t have time.”
You don’t need the “No.” I know it’s only one word, but it slows down the rhythm of dialogue in scenes, and it takes up space. I bet there are at least 20 of these in your pages you can cut right now.
The Dreaded “ING”
In scene description, avoid using words ending in “ING” like your life depended on it. “Tim is sitting at the table writing this article,” should become “Tim sits at the table and writes the article.” Two reasons. One – it saves a ton of space, even though it may not save words.
Two, it makes the scene description feel more present, concise, and easier to read. You want your script to be as easy to read as possible. Be disciplined with this. If you think you can slip in a few and no-one will notice – you’re wrong. So resist the urge to be lazy, and re-work that sentence. Details matter.
I’m talking here about set dressing and production design. It’s great that in your sci-fi script you know what color the spacecraft control panel buttons are. Don’t put it in the script. It’s great that you see your character wearing red shoes by a specific designer, but unless that tells us something specific we don’t already know about the character, don’t waste time describing them. That’s the costume department’s job. When we read, we don’t care about exact details. We care about what characters feel and what story you’re telling.
This is the big one. Audiences are clever. You only need to tell us something once in a feature film. Every scene in your movie should either reveal something NEW about a character or move the story. That’s all they need to do.
Let’s say you have a character with anger management issues. We only need to see him/her blow up once. Any future blow up needs to be for a different and specific reason, not simply to remind us he/she has that issue.
Same with plot – show us the journey, or what needs to happen ONCE. We don’t need a reminder for reminder’s sake. Look at each of your scenes. Maybe write them down as headings. Ask yourself what each scene is contributing to the story or revealing about a character. If that scene isn’t adding anything new, cut it and save space. Your script is precious, why fill it with stuff we already know? If there’s a killer line of dialogue/joke you can’t live without – work it in somewhere else. That is NOT a reason to keep a scene in a script already too long.
If you apply all of these tips to your script, you’ll knock pages off quickly, you haven’t messed with any of the important bits, and you’ll be making a reader’s life FAR more enjoyable.