Sometimes you have to literally cut a scene

While working on revisions for my play The Supreme Leader I came upon a problem that I think is fairly common amongst my fellow writers: The scene has a lot of expository beats in need of streamlining.  This scene in particular sets the entire story in motion so I had to be careful not to remove any essential information.  Here’s how I tackled this:

  1. On a need to know basis: I first wrote up a short list of the most important items the audience needs to know in this scene. The less the better.  Try to keep it to 1-3 items.  This will serve as a guidepost for the next steps.
  2. Separation anxiety: I got really motivated to start revising but when I started going through the scene in Final Draft, I got the ol’ text block.  That’s when you’re afraid to move any text around because you don’t want to disrupt the original flow of the scene, or the interstitial beats that connect the main beats. So what happens is you have a few interstitial words or lines that end up taking your scene hostage.  Perhaps because they work so well in connecting one beat to the next, you just can’t bear to remove it for fear of permanently screwing up your script.  This is when I decided to get it off my laptop and into something physical…
  3. Print your pages: “Aha!  I’ll print out the scene and lay it out on this long table I have.”  You can also use your kitchen counter or even the floor.  But a table is better because it’s the right height for hovering over it like a five star general plotting for battle.
  4. Beat it!  No one wants to be defeated!: Actors inherently know this as it’s part of their formal training.  They go through a script and identify the beats.  For those who don’t know what a beat is, it’s simply a unit of action.  And whenever there is a change in action, a new beat starts.  So I laid out the printed pages across the table (see photo) and then separated the beats of my scene with a pen.  In retrospect, I suggest using a sharpie because it’s bolder.  And you know that saying “go bold or go home”? Well, this is the time to GO BOLD.
  5. Describe and status your beats: After “beating” out my scene, I went through and wrote very short descriptions of the beats, like “Father’s disappointment” or “calling dad” on the right. On the left, I’d status my beats like this:

    = keep
    ? = any beats I wasn’t sure about or possibly wanted to cut.

    Your pages should resemble this:

    You should also add the page number to each section of your beats to prepare you for the next step…

  6. Cut it up: With a pair of scissors, cut along your beats and place them down on the table in its original order. This is where numbering your beats with page numbers helps you remember it’s position.
  7. Permission to proceed:  This is the most important step.  I gave myself permission to remove all the beats that had question marks.  It was really hard at first, like ripping off a band-aid, but once I did it, it was so liberating.  I highly recommend it.  This is a crucial step, and I don’t suggest proceeding until you’ve done this.
  8. Rearrange the furniture: From time to time we all rearrange our furniture because we yearn for a new look.  This is way easier because you’re rearranging slips of paper which is not nearly has heavy as a couch or coffee table. Next, I read through the scene with the remaining beats, then started to rearrange the beats, playing around with different combinations.  What this did was help me to quickly identify some repetitive beats I had in my scene. This also allowed me to move some beats to other beats that actually strengthened the overall theme of the play.  For the most part, the beats seemed to transition pretty smoothly, and the ones that felt disjointed from a text perspective, it was fairly easy to rewrite/adjust the text.  This method also helped trim my scene immensely.

    Another benefit is because I was standing up looking down at my scene from a birds eye view perspective, it made me move efficiently and I didn’t just sit there stuck.  Physically being up I think makes you want to push forward.  So this was very helpful.  I hope you find it useful.