Like Life with the Boring Parts Cut Out

A presenter at a business lecture I recently attended wore a T-Shirt which read, “The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.” That can be easier said than done, but it’s a reminder worth its weight in more than T-shirts.

I’ve been reading pages from a novel adapted into a screenplay. And resonating in my head is a comment I saw on a board yesterday, about the millionth time I’ve seen a similar comment, or at least it feels like it. And the script I’m reviewing now, and that comment, remind me of one of the first things I read when I started trying to learn the craft of screenwriting. As UCLA Screenwriting Prof. Richard Walter wrote in Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing, that the three most important things to know about screenwriting are “structure, structure, and structure.”

In the adapted script I’m reading, it’s pretty clear that not all of the literature was scraped off the descriptive sequences in the transition from manuscript to screenplay. That’s a pretty hard bridge to cross, actually, and if you ever adapt your own prose into a script, do get the eyes of someone else on it who knows how a script should read. The “literature,” which will appear here and there, will need to go.

For example, one passage described an orchestra playing three styles of music at a banquet. But the scene is devoid of dramatic thrust, it’s an overall description of the evening of those attending the banquet. No movie is going to cover all that for its own sake. Stuff does happen, all around that section of action description. But that section is useless in a script and needs to go. Shortly thereafter, a Very Important Person in the writer’s fictional world arrives at the home of another significant character and after some expository dialogue about the house next door, which may or may not foreshadow something or somehow provide some essential backstory, but that’s not yet clear; they proceed to the sunroom to join another character, who is described as staring out the window silently, and in the absence of any dialogue or action from the other two, before deciding to move across the room and join the other two. Then, there’s more expository dialogue so we’ll know they’ve been doing this get-together for seven years. Not that we need to know that, as far as I can tell. The important things in a movie are: what are we seeing? What are we hearing? And how does what we see and here advance the story? They clasp hands and pray, and then — I think — start getting into whatever the scene’s going to be about.

“Enter late, leave early” is not a prescription for rudeness in screenwriting. Quite the contrary, it’s the way to handle your scenes. After we see the arrival of the VIP, we should cut to a close-up of the women’s clasped hands in the sunroom as the prayer is concluding, then  the three characters in their meeting say or do something that’s going to tell us something about them we didn’t already know that is going to move the story along. Since we can’t actually be there in the sunroom, basking in the rays, we need a revelation.

“Movies move,” another adage goes. Those dead seconds, devoid of drama, add up in a screenplay. Even those rare, slowly-paced movies that hang on long pauses, such as Alien, Lost Highway, or Eyes Wide Shut, crackle with tension in the quiet moments. That’s because the pauses have been charged by the creation of anticipation, created by something that’s just happened or just been said, some setup that makes the audience wonder if the character will really do a certain thing next, and where it will lead. I’ve seen those movies several times, and I could stand to see them several more times, even though I know all about their plots and there are really no surprises left. For anyone who can tolerate the pacing (not everyone can, in this freneticized day and time), the immediacy created, second-by-second, in movies like those bears its own grip on our attentions.

Now, as to that tiresome board comment I mentioned, it was found in an endless thread I didn’t know how to stop from treacling into my email inbox for a while, in which an endless list of participants seemed proud of using a certain “industry standard” software whose title may have misled them into thinking they had completed “industry standard” screenplays. Most of the messages seemed intent on announcing that the posters were in that user club, but among the exceptions was one I’ve found to be an irksome refrain on various boards I’ve participated in over the years. It was a gripe that the software most under discussion somehow wanted him to structure a screen play in three acts, which he resented. So, it went like this: ‘I’ve never seen a movie in three acts. Forget all the advice. Only one thing counts. Write a good story.’

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Oh, dear. I’m embarrassed for the guy. If you and I are ever sipping mint julips on the veranda together, please take my sensitive disposition into account and don’t say anything like that. I’ll be forced to conclude that you have never seen a movie or that you are insensitive to dramatic flow. If you ask me to read your script, I’ll become full of excuses and tell you how busy life is these days for me (which won’t be a lie, but despite the busy-ness, I do still read some scripts and try to dispense helpful advice to the writers).

In fact, this script I’m reading right now is a “good story.” I like the premise and the main character who is emerging from the pages. So, the novel’s probably pretty good as a story, and the descriptive flourishes which surface here and there in the script are, I’m sure, an asset to the manuscript. But, the devil’s always in the details, and reading a book and watching a movie (even if by proxy, as in reading a screenplay) are different experiences. In a screenplay, those flourishes are a liability. We don’t have time for an evening of orchestral stylings or characters staring out the window for their own sake in a movie. What we do have time for is suspense and a sense of development.

We meet a person in a particular world. That person’s life is disrupted. That person tries to restore the way things were. In so doing, they develop a worse resistance that increases the person’s commitment until they do something they never could have dreamed before and enter the next stage of life at the end. If your movie goes anywhere, it has a beginning, middle, and end. Like life. But, like life with all the boring parts cut out. And, guess what, I basically just described the three-act structure. Beginning, middle, end. Personally, I think movies take place in “four acts,” and intriguing arguments are put forth that those parts consist of eight sequences or twenty-two story steps, etc. We know that some clever writers can get away with messing with the order of the main sequences, too. But Aristotle’s description of “three acts” is the minimal, standard and traditional way to describe a story.

So leave the parts that add suspense and a sense of development, and — quite ruthlessly — cut all the rest. Fortunately, it is very easy to use the Delete key, and almost as easy to use the copy and paste function on a computer. It’s easier for us to put our scripts on a diet than to stick to one ourselves. In fact, we have it rather easy all around, compared to the pioneers in the field of dramatics. They had to figure it out. We just have to learn from the classics they worked so hard to achieve, and let our “industry standard” software take care of the formatting. Just add professional dramatic thinking.

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