Too Long? What to Cut?Complications Ensue
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Q. I have solid pilot. It has good dialogue, fleshed out characters, fun action, solid structure, etc etc... basically people like it. Quite a bit actually. Unfortunately, it's now hitting 75 pages. You've talked about how page count varies wildly based on writer's voice and style. I think that's a large part of this, but it's still one of the longest pilot I have ever seen.

Maybe there's a scene or two that can be cut without major loss, but that's only going to give back, max, three pages. Cutting into most scenes, I fear, will compromise how the script presents to the reader and how the dialogue flows, which is working really well right now.

Do you have any advice? Perhaps I can leave it as is? (Fingers crossed) Or is there a particular strategy that you use when a script runs over and serious cutting needs to take place.
75 is way, way, way long, unless you are Amy Sherman-Palladino. In other words if your characters all talk like they're in HIS GIRL FRIDAY you're okay, but they probably don't. Even Aaron Sorkin's scripts are in the 60's, and they do go on.

An hour drama script should be about 52 pages.

Here are a few ideas how to fix it:

a. Start later. Could some of the story be backstory? Are you spending time setting things up that we could probably figure out without the setup? Could your Act One out be your Teaser out?
b. End earlier. You're writing a series. You want to end on a great cliffhanger so people will stick around for ep. 2. What if you end the episode sooner?
c. Cut a subplot. Odds are you have multiple subplots. Kill one. Save it for a later episode.
d. Jump the plot forward faster. Assume the audience is intelligent and sophisticated. Say you have a cop finding the murder weapon. Then they examine it. Then they argue about what it means. Cut the examination. We'll learn everything we need to know about the weapon from the argument.
e. Are your scenes too long? My scenes run one to one and a half pages. I might have a few two page scenes. A three page scene is a looong scene on TV. Can you get into your scenes later and get out of them sooner?
f. Kill your darlings. There are a couple of scenes that are in there because you just love them so. You know you don't strictly need them for the episode, but they're the reason you wrote the show. Cut them.

The key question is: these people who are liking it, are they professionals? There is such a thing as a salable 75 page script. But it's a fast-moving, talky episode. If professional screenwriters are liking it, you might be able to get away with it. But if your friends who are liking it aren't pros, then you may have trouble with your pilot.

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What about the Split? Couldn't you cut half way and let it stand on it's own, with the foreknowledge that there's 'more where that came from'? I mean, I think the first KillBill did pretty good on it's own. With a series isn't this sort of expected?

By Blogger Lokier, at 8:57 PM  

I wrote a spec pilot earlier this year, knowing full well that it would have to be a two-hour pilot given all that must happen in it to set up the story, and knowing that none of that setup could be used for backstory. In the end is was a whopping 135 pages. Needless to say, I tried to cut it down, hoping I could maybe make 100 pages. I have ended up shelving the project until I am older and wiser, because it was just too much to handle. I do hope to see that pilot made eventually, but I know that cannot happen until I have firmly become planted in Hollywood and have the capacity to be a showrunner.

By Blogger Nicholas, at 10:43 PM  

Specifically on letter "a", about backstory--that's the real challenge of pilot writing, 'laying the pipe' as they say. It's hard hard hard sometimes to 'explain' by showing, which is to say situationally, rather than having to spell things out explicitly. You might want to look at how economically you've done that. Sometimes you've got to explain the 'world of the show', but often not as much as you think you do.
The 'cutting' advice in 'e' is also almost always available, at least in my limited experience. One of the most consistent pieces of advice I've read or hear is 'get in late and out early'. There again, in a pilot, one feels the need to set the world in the reader's head very specifically. I try my best to suppress as much of that urge as possible.
I'm with Alex about 'killing your babies', except I keep them in a little orphanage (a notebook file) in the hope that I may find a loving home for them in a future script. It makes it easier to cut them if you don't think you've lost them forever.
Also, how much direction are you giving, like camera angles and actor's instructions? I try and use those very, very sparingly.

By Blogger OutOfContext, at 1:14 PM  

Maybe you could think about extending it into the length of a TV movie.

I've just written a spec pilot, and it came to a standard 55 pages. If you outline your spec well enough, you really shouldn't be going 5 pages over, let alone 20. Spend more time on the outline than the spec itself, in my view.

By Blogger Will, at 5:01 PM  

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