Thursday, February 17, 2011

K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple, Scriptwriter

I spent some time recently talking with my friend Paul, a scriptwriter and film director. He gave me some feedback on a script I was a little too close to. Then I gave him an opinion on a project he was working on. Then we bounced other pet ideas off of each other.

Throughout our discussion, one theme emerged, time and time again – keep it simple!

We both found areas of weakness in the other’s script where the waters were being muddied by Too Much Stuff. Too many characters… Too many things going on… Too much backstory. Just too much.

As Paul reminded me: you have only 90 minutes in a movie to tell your story. It has to be succinct and to the point. So now, I have two options – find the main story I want to tell in my screenplay, cut everything else, and spend the whole movie developing the single thread, OR keep everything, flesh it all out more, and make the screenplay into a novel.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – short stories translate into great movies (see “The Shawshank Redemption,” for instance).

Novels, however, rarely do. There is too much in a book to condense into two hours. Much must be cut, go by the wayside or be ignored in order to make the movie the right length. Often, that means tampering with a book’s structure and internal construction. Which is why great books often make for inferior movies – their stories require more than two hours to tell.

Once you have a work completed, ask yourself how much time will be allotted to it on the audience’s end. In other words – people can spend hours, if not days, with a book. With a movie, however, they invest 90 to 120 minutes of their time. A TV show needs 30 to 60 minutes of commitment (if you’re really compelling and they don’t have a remote handy). Articles require only 5 to 10 minutes to read.

Armed with that knowledge, edit your piece accordingly:

  • Find the most important part – the thing you most want to say – then focus only on it. 
  • Polish that Thing so it shines for the time allotted according to the medium. 
  • Strip out everything that distracts from the story. 
  • Erase all deviating  plot lines. 
  • Get rid of anything that needs explaining, unless it directly relates to your point. 
  • Axe all periphery characters.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. In doing so, not only will you make your story stronger, but you will also crystallize your point – making your future pitches for the project stronger and more focused.

Have any ideas for simplifying your writing and making your story stronger? I'd love to hear them!


Amanda Bonilla said...

Great post! I find it hard to cut. But you're right, it's better to simplify.

alexia said...

How fun that you have a friend that works in movies! Yes, simple can be better. Good post!

Ami Hendrickson said...

Amanda & Alexia,
Thanks for your comments. Here's to a rich, rewarding future full of strong, simplified stories!