Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
When people ask me how I learned to write screenplays, I tell them about the classes I’ve taken and the helpful books I’ve read. I also tell them about my days as a film editor.
When I was in film school (at NYU), I received training in all of the filmmaking crafts, but the two I liked best were screenwriting and film editing. I took a lot of editing classes and cut a lot of projects — shorts and longer form stuff, both for myself and others — when I was in school and in the years immediately following. Eventually, I decided to focus exclusively on screenwriting, but the lessons I learned assembling raw footage and honing it into coherent narratives served me extremely well when I began creating screen stories from scratch.
Film editing taught me:
- The importance of story structure. You cannot tell a story on film without a solid narrative framework. I had always understood this concept in theory, but the reality of it didn’t really hit home until after college when I was engaged to edit a film made from a script with a thoroughly non-existent structure — it was really just a random collection of scenes and character moments without a narrative throughline. The analogy later I came up with to describe it was that the footage was a collection of Christmas decorations – lots of ornaments (scenes) and lights (the characters) — with no Christmas tree to hang them on. Trying to shape those decorations without a tree was impossible — we moved them around endlessly, but were never able to arrange them in any sort of effective configuration. All we had was a bunch of shiny junk piled up on the floor. After six months of doing this, I finally realized that we were never going to be able to hang those decorations without a tree so, with the director’s consent, I devised and constructed a narrative for the film – an entirely new one that was not present in the original screenplay — using the existing scenes when I could, having the director shoot new scenes when necessary (and possible), and filling in the gaps with voice-overs, title cards, and some narration. The final result wasn’t very good, but at least it told a story with a beginning, middle and end and moved with some sort of dramatic build and narrative momentum. The experience was as much a writing job as it was an editing gig and it had a significant impact on my own screenwriting, which up until that point could generously be described as “character driven” — i.e. a bunch of scenes with little or no story (or storytelling). I actually went back and restudied dramatic structure intently until I had Aristotle’s concepts down pat — concepts that I continue to use and teach today.
- The importance of logic. At its core, film editing — like screenwriting — is about constructing a coherent narrative, something that is only possible if the component elements make sense: if the story unfolds according to the rules the script establishes for the world it takes place in; if the characters’ actions are consistent with who they are and are believable within the context of the script’s central dramatic situation; if the cause-and-effect between the scenes makes sense (if A logically leads to B, B logically leads to C, and so on); and if all of the narrative elements have some clear and demonstrable relationship to the story’s central theme. If the story’s logic isn’t logical, then it becomes difficult and sometimes even impossible to assemble a coherent film. Ideally, all of this logic should be laid out in the screenplay (nowhere is the “screenplay as blueprint” analogy more apt). If it isn’t then the editor has to create it, which is usually a pretty impossible task (it’s pretty hard to build something out of nothing). Knowing this, I now work extremely hard to make sure that my narratives are as logical as they can possibly be.
- The importance of clarity. To assemble a coherent narrative, it is imperative that all of the elements that make up that narrative – the premise, characterizations, motivations, action, and cause-and-effect – be absolutely clear so that the audience will be able to understand them. As with logic, this clarity must be in the script, because if it’s not, then the editor won’t be able to create it.
- That plot is everything. As a young writer, I used to love to pen what I used to call “grace notes” – scenes that did not advance the narrative but that I inserted into the script solely to illuminate character or to provide “atmosphere” (by showing off locations or establish a mood). I loved these scenes – mostly depictions of characters staring wistfully at the stars (to show they had spirit) or playing piano when no one else is around (to show they have soul) or shots of ducks frolicking in ponds or reeds swaying in the breeze or montages of New York City waking up in the morning, and so on — which I felt were clever and oh so “artistic.” What I did not realize at the time was that they were also pointless and boring. I figured this out when I began cutting. As shot, movies are always far too long and must be pared down to a manageable length. To do this, anything that does not advance the narrative must be cut, including all of my grace notes. This taught me to stop writing them, which made me a better writer because if I wanted to illuminate character or enhance mood or atmosphere I learned to do so in the context of scenes that advanced the story rather than outside of them, which is what I should have been doing in the first place.
- The importance of writing cinematically. Many new screenwriters (and I was certainly guilty of this when I was a newbie) write novelistically – using the action lines to write about a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. The problem, of course, is that none of these things can be photographed or recorded. All an editor has to work with are images and sound. In a scene in which a man is walking across a hotel lobby, the writer can go on and on about what the man is thinking or feeling or anticipating or realizing, but all the editor is going to have is a shot of a man walking and the sound of him saying hello to a bellboy. Cutting taught me early on to forgo the internal and focus solely on the external — tell my stories using only images and sound — because that was the only way I was ever going to get my point across on screen.
- The importance of getting to it. Every scene has a dramatic heart – the moment it makes the point it exists to make. Most writers tend to write up to and away from that moment – penning long lead-ins to the heart of the scene and long lead-outs from it. Often this material reads perfectly well in a script, but when I was editing I would almost always find that it was completely unnecessary (the performances, action, and images can usually make the same points on screen that the written material is making on the page in a much more succinct way) and cut it. As a result, in my writing I now try to start all of my scenes as close to the heart of the scene as possible and end them as soon as possible after the point has been made.
- The importance of pacing. It doesn’t matter how good your story is – if it doesn’t hold the audience’s attention, it will fail. So you can’t be boring — it’s important to always keep your story moving. As an editor, I discovered that you do this by keeping scenes short by (as mentioned earlier) getting to the dramatic heart of the scene as quickly as possible and getting out as quickly as possible and by (as also mentioned earlier) cutting away all extraneous material, practices I have adopted in my screenwriting as well.
- The importance of build. Drama is all about build – starting from the inciting incident, a dramatic tale increases in momentum and intensity through the end-of-Act I twist, the Act II complications and rising stakes, the end-of-Act II crash, the beginning-of-Act III rally, and on into the final climax and resolution. As a cutter, I learned to eliminate anything that would interfere with this build so that the movie can work as effectively as possible. This is the main reason why I am not a fan of flashbacks, dream sequences, and non-linear storytelling – because all of these things by their very nature interrupt the story’s natural flow. These devices have their uses of course, but they must be worth the damage such gimmicks do to the narrative build and for me they rarely are. That attitude has been carried over into my screenwriting endeavors as well.
- Keep dialogue to a minimum. No matter how well written they are, scenes in which people talk at length are usually pretty dull – it’s very difficult to make endless shots of people flapping their gums visually interesting and the pacing of such scenes is usually inherently dull. As an editor, I would usually get around this problem by cutting away any dialogue that wasn’t absolutely essential to getting the point of the scene across. Since I know that any excessive talk will be cut, I now make sure to keep my dialogue as tight as possible when I write.
- Not to be precious. Editing is a ruthless process – you have to cut out every scene or line or bit of business that is extraneous or doesn’t work or else the film will not be successful. To do this, you must be able to be completely clear-eyed and honest with yourself about your material – you cannot fool yourself into thinking that extraneous material is necessary or that material is working when it isn’t. The same is true in screenwriting. When I first started, I tended to look at my material through rose-colored glasses and thus retained a lot of stuff that I shouldn’t have. This is no longer a problem – if a scene isn’t necessary or isn’t working, I no longer have any hesitation about getting rid of it. Because if I don’t, someone else will and when it comes to my writing, I’d rather be the one calling the shots.
Editing is frequently referred to as the writing of the script’s final draft. If you can also think of writing as making the first cut of the finished film, then you will be off to a good start.
Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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