Story Editing Tip January 31, 2014

Usually writers start a new piece by telling ourselves the story as we type. We craft the first lines, the first page, the first scene, considering every word. As we should.

But I discourage writers from getting too attached to their opening, because it almost always needs to be cut.

scissorsIn the manuscript of a novel, I often find the story gets going about 30 pages in. Why 30 pages? Obviously it varies, but I find often it takes writers that long to get up a head of steam, and for the writing to move in every sense. Before that, there’s a lot of quite beautifully-written throat-clearing.

It’s the same in scripts. When does your protagonist do something unexpected? In early drafts, characters often start by sitting around talking, which is seldom riveting cinema.

I recently worked with a writer/director on her short film script, and the story only got interesting in the final, climatic scene. Could she start then? She did, and her script was 1,000 per cent better. Deeper, crazier, far more memorable. She was able to re-use some of the opening material, but cut most of it and didn’t miss a word.

It’s the same with each individual scene. What’s the last moment you can enter a scene? What’s the first moment you can get out?

Moving through a piece of writing step by step is a slog for a reader or viewer. It’s important to ask at every stage what you can leave out. If you choose correctly, whatever is missing will be the part your audience remembers.

And I mean that in a good way.