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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Page Count Clinic

Good morning, Wavers! I inexplicably slept for 10 hours last night. I have no idea why so I just count my blessings that my lifestyle gives me the latitude to do that and get on with my day.

Ahem. Onward.

A commenter on yesterday's post wondered why BENJAMIN BUTTON appears to have a very loose structure and, I assume, intimated that we should not be as concerned with getting structure right when there are (truly) so many exceptions. Yes, there are many exceptions to the rule. But until or unless you have made it - are repped, are pitching, are sold or selling - you MUST understand exactly how structure works and you must demonstrate this in your writing. Exceptions are no excuse not to know exactly what you're doing in the now. Aspiring screenwriters are like nascent cooks - you must stick to the recipe in order to learn. Once you've made it over the moat that separates aspiring writers from paid ones - then and only then can you begin to put the recipe book down and vary from it when it comes to things like structure. Yesterday's discussion of structure was a rudimentary one - of course there are all sorts of jumping off points.

Additionally, before we get to today's topic, one cannot know what went on in the production of a major motion picture unless one was there. The script may have been tightly structured but somewhere in development, decisions were made to add more and bigger set pieces that plumped the structure up until it is what it currently is - pretty free form. Or not. We have no way of knowing unless we can ask that question directly of the writer. One can spend all day every day finding exceptions. Aspiring screenwriters trying to break in don't have the luxury of stepping off with new and wacky structural techniques. You need to show a rep or producer that you have basic screenwriting craft down cold before you start popping wheelies.

So on to the topic of the day: The Page Count Clinic

Another commenter said: Do you have any suggestions for reining in runaway page count, other than the obvious of scene chopping solution?

Yeah, no, I dunno. Good luck with that.

Wait, I'm getting too cavalier lately. Forgive my insouciance. Yes, there are a few things you can do to cut down on page count. When I write, I never, ever worry about page count in the early stages. I don't care if my whole script, from fade in to fade out has 72 pages. That gives me room to expand and add more set pieces and more character development. I don't worry if my script has 132 pages either - that's an opportunity to take what I have and distill it into sharper, more powerful pages.

So when you have too many pages that's the opportunity begging to be had. Distilling 10 okay pages into five GREAT pages.

There are two fundamental ways to approach reducing your page count - reviewing each SCENE for relevance and then reviewing each and every PAGE to see where you can cut a line of dialogue, two lines of action, etc.

When it comes to each scene, do the scene test: Does this scene contain a relevant beat? Does this scene concurrently develop character? Does this scene contain the thematic undertones of your premise? Does this scene, in other words, absolutely carry its weight and earn its spot in the script? Think of yourself as the captain of a ship loading up to head out to sea - is this scene necessary? Does it earn the spot on the ship? Or is it ballast that can be tossed because it will only weigh the ship down?

Once you're confident that every scene is absolutely necessary, go over every single page and look for ANY opportunity to reduce your action lines from three lines to two. Are there entire action lines that break up dialogue between characters? Are you over-directing the characters, in other words? Is there another way your character can express his or her thoughts in half the dialogue? Is your character actually repeating him or herself? In the same way that grapes are stomped down into a pulp which will ferment into wine, pages can be s-q-u-e-e-z-e-d down into more powerful stuff too.

Something I like to do which seems a bit arbitrary is to say to a writer - okay lose 10 pages off this script. I don't care where, I don't care how, just do it. And to a one, the writer comes back aglow with accomplishment and sleeker, faster, more powerful pages.

Just given that marching order with no parameters is empowering because when it comes right down to it, it's not rocket science to look at your pages and see where the fat is.

So you may want to try that first - just take 10 pages out of your script. Open that sucker up and go. If that feels daunting or directionless, try reducing pages using the following steps:

Do a structure check: Are your act breaks falling on or about pages 10, 25, 50 and 75? How far off are they? Remember, this is a ratio based on the Golden 100 Page Script. Is the ratio about right? If there are 50 pages between act breaks, you have now pinpointed where the problem is in your script. So focus on that section.

Do a scene review: go through each and every scene and ask it these questions: What's your name and where are you from? Well, no, maybe like: What is the BEAT in this scene? Is there one? Does this scene absolutely and without question move the story forward? Does it develop and reveal more about your character? And ideally - does it do both? Does this scene jump in late and get out early? Could the scene move a long even a little faster?

Do a global page reduction: Go through every single page and find any and all lines that can be cut. Anything. Dialogue, action lines - nothing is safe. Go pithier. Use more powerful, evocative words. The sun shines down on this suburban neighborhood. Dogs bark, children play and the mailman makes his rounds - which is not bad - might then become: Another sunny day in this family neighborhood; kids play, dogs bark. - We lost seven words in the second example. Maybe we don't need the mailman. Or do we? Go through every single action and ask - what is really important to point out here? Is the word 'suburban' really critical? Or does 'family' do the job? That's your call. But I guarantee that you will find TONS of things you can reduce just slightly. Writers tend to overwrite and over direct scenes. Strip each scene down to the bare bones using words that deliver the feeling and imagery important to the scene but that literally take up less space.

Depending on where you are as a writer - the global page reduction method is probably the best way to cut down on pages. You'd be surprised - even the most advanced writer can always find extraneous stuff on his or her pages. Newer writers are more likely to have scenes that are not necessary at all. If you're not sure where to begin, I'd follow the steps above in that order without worrying about what your total page count should then be. Just follow the steps and then check in again. Did you lose 10 pages or so?

If you have to lose more than 10 pages you either have a problem with the structure full stop or you have a major issue with overwriting pages.

If you have 10 pages or less to lose, you probably just need to trim action and dialogue on your pages.

Writing IS rewriting. I love trimming pages because it's not a punishment, it's a challenge. How can I make what's here work BETTER than ever before? It's like chipping away at the marble to reveal a finer, more beautiful image. It is making wine from grapes, it is squeezing the - okay I've run out of weird metaphors but you get it.

In general, as a rule of thumb*, I always like to shoot for the Golden 100 Page Script. If you're writing comedy, romcom, thriller or horror, this page count is actually pretty sweet. If you're writing scifi, fantasy or drama, you might wind up with 110 pages. If your script has over 115 pages, you need to pull the car over and see what's going on. It might be fine but it also might be your clarion call to write sleeker, more powerful pages. No matter what your page count, you can always produce better pages than the ones you currently have. I guarantee that. In fact, that's a whole other blog post - when to STOP tweaking!

*stuff it, Anonymous.*

*This seems like a good time to explain my "stuff it, Anonymous" disclaimers. A couple or three times a week I get comments or emails from disgruntled Have-to-be-Righters who tell me how WRONG I am. Everything on the Rouge Wave is from MY perspective and MY experience. Anyone who takes what I say as gospel should have his head examined. These are all suggestions and advice. Do what you will. Do what works for you.

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Nicholas said...

Thank you for answering my question. Your suggestions were really helpful.

For now I guess I will stop worrying about my page count and just finish the darn draft, and THEN I will go back in and start the chipping. Worrying too much now is only distracting me from getting it done (which, something we don't want).

Roger S. said...

Unrelated to page count (hey, see Screenwriter's new function which automatically will offer single word suggestions for radical domino-like page reduction), who do you think is the protagonist of DOUBT, and why?



Buck said...

Julie, thanks for another helpful blog post.

BTW--I would never suggest writing a screenplay without adhering to structure. My posting was a question, wondering if there was indeed a classic structure in TCCOBB, but I was missing it?

I found that the movie was actually difficult to watch with respect to its rhythm. I've been programmed as a viewer to take in the three- or four-act story, and since the visual FX were so arresting, it felt like trying to dance to a foreign time signature while walking through an art museum.

Still, big props to Fincher et al.

JPS said...

I recently was given my marching orders by my agent to reduce my 694-page novel to something more economically feasible, so that we wouldn't be tipping into the $35-book category: in this economy the kiss of death. That meant bringing it down to less than 600 pages, and preferably somewhere around 500.

He also felt it would be a better book by being tighter and leaner. So...what to do? What I did do first was a screenwriter's rewrite (something Julie knows all too well). I went through the thing and cut anything that was repeated for no good reason--that included narration as well as dialogue.

Did I really need all those subplots? Well, nah... So I lost one and discovered the other plots didn't miss it at all. Neither, in the end, did I.

After three weeks of editing, I ended up with a mean, lean 440 pages, and a very happy agent.

William Faulkner once famously wrote, à propos of writing: "One must kill our darlings", meaning we must cut the stuff we think is most brilliant.

A good writer--a seasoned writer--a writer who wants to be a professional--can always cut. Just as a seasoned writer, when space needs filling, can always come up with that brilliant, undiscovered beat or setpiece.

Julie Gray said...

@Nicholas - oh yes, if you are in the early stages - don't even think about page count. I mean, some kind of internal alarm should go off if you're typing away and you're at page 145, lol, but really, for now, just write.

@Buck - gotcha. No, I don't know what happened to the structure in BUTTON. I loved it anyway but I know what you are referring to. THE CHANGELING also had a super weird, flowing (bad) structure, imo.

@Roger S. - WOW that's a cool feature!

@JPS - well, I'm prejudiced but I know you're one lean, mean writing machine :)

Third World Girl said...

Thanks Julie. This is very helpful.

I did a couple of rewrites recently that's given me "bloated script." Every pass, aimed at fixing something or the other, seems to add a page so now I really need to go back and trim.

Eagerly awaiting the post on when to stop tweaking, BTW...

Joe Public said...

The final page count topic is an issue that irks my gourde.

Maybe years ago, before great special effects, 110 or 120 was a realistic page count; however, it seems to me bigger, better, longer lasting special effects crowd out character development, and those films which are willing to go the extra minutes for whizz bang special effects and full character development are the films that do pretty well. My favorites: Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, and the recent Batman flicks, I think, illustrate my point.

And I am not suggesting for one second that extending the page length is an excuse for not exercising strict discipline...but to me it seems better special effects AND full character development naturally take up a little more room.

Julie Gray said...

@Joe Public - I'm right there with ya, Joe. It irks me too. But it's very useful for very new screenwriters to have some kind of limitation in mind. The Rouge Wave is read by a very wide variety of screenwriters - everyone from the very, very tender newbies to the much more experienced, sold or repped screenwriter. The more experienced you are, the more you can play with limitations and expectations.

Joe Public said...

@ Julie Gray

I know. My post is just a case of wishful bitching. For now, those are the rules, and hopefully, someday, I'll earn some leverage with regard to extending the story.