Cutting scenes from your screenplay can be painful, but sometimes you just gotta do it. Filling a page with needless dialogue and exposition will bore your readers. If you’re not pushing the plot forward, try again. Think about the development of your characters, the values at stake, the thematic significance of the scene, and the internal and external goals of your protagonist. They’ll be your candle in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.

Cutting Scenes from your Script

I watched Fargo the other day. There’s a scene that comes out of left field, where Marge has dinner with an old high school friend. Sure, it provided a few laughs, but I kept on thinking, “what the hell does this have to do with her investigation? How is this moving the plot forward?” And then I had a conversation with my buddy Dan over at Act Four. He told me he once felt the same way:

I felt that scene was so quirky and funny and entertaining that it didn’t need to be strongly plugged into the crime thriller throughline. It seemingly stood on its own and fit, purely on the basis of its entertainment value and its odd tone, which was in fitting with the established quirky tone of the film. Maybe it was to illustrate Marge’s increasing frustration with society outside the confines of her small town?
But then I saw a TV special in which Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese pointed out that the scene actually sets up Marge’s realization that she cannot trust anyone, leading her to take action to go back and hunt for Jerry Lundegaard and his tan Cutlass Sierra.
Marge’s Midwestern hospitality and naiveté is replaced by bold action, leading her to capture a killer and solve the case. So that quirky little scene with the strange man does have an important place in Marge’s character and satisfies point A and B, above. 1

I sit corrected…but the lesson still stands.

  1. Calvisi, Daniel P. “The Harsh Truth: Cutting Scenes in Your Screenplay” Act Four Screenplays. 21 July 2010. Web. 13 Aug. 2011.
William Robert Rich
William Robert Rich

William Robert Rich is a story analyst, screenwriter, and co-author of Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan. He's currently based in Austin, Texas.

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