If writing is hard, revision is impossible. But necessary. Oh so so SO necessary.
I’ve talked about killing your babies. I’ve talked about walking away from your drafts. I’ve talked about taking feedback. I’ve talked about proofreading.
But what about before all that? What if your major revision involves cutting for length because your script is woefully too long?
First let’s tackle how long is “too long.” Screenplays should be no longer than 120 pages max. Absolute max. And even shorter for genre or comedy scripts, somewhere in the 90-100 range. Pilots should be 60 pages for hour-long drama, and 30 for sitcoms (you can sometimes stretch this to 70 and 40 respectively). Shorter is usually better, because the first thing a reader will do is flip to the back of your script to see what they’re in for. If it’s longer than these numbers, the reader will automatically assume that you don’t know how to tell a story concisely. They will judge your work as amateur right out of the gate, and though they might continue to read, they will be looking for ways to prove themselves correct. Of course there are stories of success with longer scripts, but honestly, why make if harder for your script to survive? Why weigh it down in the shark-infested waters of the query sea? You have to trim the fat.
“But my script has no fat! It HAS to be 130 pages! There’s nothing I can cut! Can’t I just play with the margins?”
NO!! Every writer can come up with a bazillion reasons why every last letter is absolutely positively vital to their work. Stop making excuses. You can cut, believe me, repeat after me, you can cut. Grab those scissors kids.
Start big. What scenes don’t you need? Go through each scene and writer down what is happening, making sure each scene drives the story forward. If it’s not contributing to the plot, axe it. Even if it’s the best scene you’ve ever written. Cut, paste into a new document and save if for another day.
Then look at the arc of each scene. Yes, each scene needs a beginning, middle and end. Find out where the meat of your scene starts and make sure that is the beginning. Cut character arrivals and departures unless they are necessary to the plot. Start in media res, in the middle. Do you need to show your character walking into the bar, introducing herself to the bartender, ordering a drink, etc etc? Or can you just start with her at the bar with her drink in hand? Begin the scene with action and leave hot. Cut boring entrances and exits.
Look for superfluous characters. Are there minor characters who serve the same function? Combine them into one to save space and reader sanity. Strike character descriptions for unnamed character. We don’t need the full backstory of the waitress taking your protagonist’s burger order or a physical description of the taxi driver with no lines. Obviously this doesn’t fly for your main characters. See my post on character introductions for some quick tips on those crucial words.
Trim the exposition. Make sure any exposition is happening in the scene, not in the description, and don’t overdo it. Too much exposition is clunky and rings false. Try cutting out the set-ups and see if the story still moves forward. If it does, you obviously don’t need it.
After all this, go small. Cut a few seconds here and there, tighten up the dialogue, cut a line or two of action. Find the white space and maximize. A couple 10 second cuts will soon add up to several minutes.
For more info, here’s a great post from the inimitable John August on how to cut for length. Link
PS If you really need to muck with formatting, the only acceptable thing to do is to make sure you only have one space after each sentence. I still can’t remember to do this until the end. Old habits die hard.