Pixar Rules of Story #5 – How do you Cut?
Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
“If a scene or character is not providing new information about or an interesting perspective on something relevant to the theme, plot, or character arc of your story, cut it.”
One of the first things I learnt many years ago in my first ever screenwriting class was, “…if it doesn’t move the story forward, cut it out…”
This is obvious really.
We may end up with a 200 page first draft and we know that it has to be shorter if we want to get industry people read it; we know we have to cut! We can often do this quite easily by condensing dialogue and tightening up action/scene description. However, that may only get you so far. We need to be braver and more aggressive – and this is where the maxim, “…kill your darlings…” comes in. We have to be prepared to cut out the unnecessay, the bloat and the filler. But we may also have to cut scenes and characters that we love and are convinced should stay.
But how do we know what to cut?
Well, as you can see if you read the full text, there is no easy answer. It is going to depend on you, your story, the genre and style but the important thing is to know your story well. This is where having a good idea of theme, character, your story pacing and ending is invaluable in helping you understand what is vital to the story and plot and what just sounded good in your head. It will help you realise that the comedy character who is fun in a couple of scenes, could perhaps be cut without affecting the story. Perhaps you’ll discover that, although your scenes on a speedboat are exciting, they don’t develop your characters or your plot and could come out without affecting the overall story, plot and theme.
For me, this is where thinking about the timing of your rewrites can be crucial. Leaving your story for a week or two after finishing a draft can give you the chance to come back afresh to the work and may help you identify where cuts can be made more easily. If you don’t give yourself the chance to take a step back, you may become so invested in your writing that it becomes harder and harder to cut scenes and characters you have fallen in love with. Everyone is different of course but, if you haven’t tried leaving a script for any length of time before, and struggle with cutting, give it a go and see how you get on.
It isn’t easy and it can be a tricky balancing act. If you go too far and cut too much you can end up with a story that loses focus and, despite being leaner and shorter, is potentially just as boring as a longer, meandering tale. Don’t do it enough, you could end up with a story that is so long, no one will read it.
The main thing to remember is to be strong, don’t be afraid to cut and, above all… serve your story.
How do you decide what to cut from your stories?
And do you find it difficult?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #6 – Conflict and Emotional Arc
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)