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Day 301: Get In Late, Get Out Early

I learned a valuable lesson in screenwriting while working a camera over the weekend, namely, the importance of beginning and ending scenes.

I had volunteered to help a friend and fellow writer, Laura Black, with shooting the season finale of her web series Agnes & Estelle. Now, Laura is an accomplished writer in her own right, with many full-length plays under her belt and a few screenplays to boot. She has also directed for the stage numerous times, but her film direction is, I believe, a little less developed, and this is where we got into some problems.

Writing for the stage tends to be more verbose than writing for the screen. With plays, the action is limited to one or two settings (for the most part) and the actors spend more time telling us about things than showing us. It's simply the nature of the beast. There is an artificiality to the stage that cinema does not as readily afford. Film is far more realistic and much more dynamic by showing us the action of the story rather than telling us the story.

Laura seemed aware of this and went to lengths to show and not tell. As a result, this concept was taken to an extreme wherein we saw every little action from beginning to end. This created problems for us in shooting as web series are typically very short with an episode lasting only 2 - 3 minutes. We spent that much time trying to show one character arriving at another's house, greeting each other, moving to the back of the car, getting the luggage out, walking up the front steps and entering the house where the actual meat of the scene would take place.

After thinking about the number of setups that would be needed to cover everything and the amount of screen time we would eat up, I suggested we do a set up where the characters see each other through the front window of the house and jump to the interior of the car to see the bags being lifted out followed by the hatchback slamming shut. On the slam we would cut to inside the house as the bags were being set down and reveal a path of scattered rose petals leading to the bedroom. What had been a two-minute arrival scene - the length of the entire episode - was truncated to a fifteen second sequence of two characters seeing each other, we know they are happy, and the one helps the other bring her suitcases in the house where a surprise is waiting. We didn't need the extended extras, only the action essentials.

There is an old adage among writers that one should get into a scene late in the action and once the necessary information is communicated, get out of the scene. Get in late, get out early. We don't need to see everything. It's important as a writer to identify what is essential to a scene and play only that. One of the writers at Rewrites Workshop has a nifty little practice of always checking the last line of each scene and seeing if he can cut it. If you cut the last line of each scene, your script could be 1 - 2 pages shorter. Losing a final line can also make the scene more of a cliff hanger rather than giving it an air of finality. Keep you audience on edge instead of allowing them to relax.

Just something to keep in mind with your own writing. Have you overwritten your action? Do you need to show everything or can you truncate it to just what is interesting and important. And finally, do you need every line, especially that last one? Remember, get in late and get out early.

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