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Write, Direct, Repeat: Four Lessons Film Editing Taught Me About Screenwriting

Beginning screenwriters are often wholly focused on launching their careers by selling a spec script to Hollywood. They envision their path to success as: 1) Sell a script; 2) A big-time Hollywood director works their magic; 3) Go dress shopping for the Oscars. That was certainly my dream when I began screenwriting, and what a lovely dream it is…

But quickly I realized that putting all of my eggs into the spec script basket was akin to my other brilliant plan of funding my retirement with lottery winnings.

I decided hoping and praying was good enough for my retirement plan (yes, pity me) but not good enough for my screenwriting career. I decided to get proactive and make films myself. I figured learning first-hand what makes a script work on film had to put me in a better position to write specs that could sell than just guessing how the page translates to the screen.

Justin Lachance script editing

Justin Lachance editing DEAL TRAVIS IN.

Looking back now at the making of my first two shorts, I keep thinking about what I learned from the editing stage on both of those films. Film editing fascinates me because it reminds me very much of writing in terms of story development, structure and pacing.

I work with editor Justin Lachance (who is amazing, by the way) and if you just listened in on our conversations when we’re working on a film, you’d swear you were eavesdropping on two writers hammering away at a story who both have an uncanny sense of visual storytelling.

Why would I get this more with an editor than with my writer friends? It’s because with an editor you’re building a story that left the written page behind and is now in a fully visual medium. If visual storytelling is what screenwriters are looking to achieve, then the lessons we take from film editing might be some of the best we can apply to our writing.

The following are some of the lessons I learned from the editing phase on my first two short films. While we did find work-arounds for many of these in editing (and phew to that!), it’s always better to solve a problem in the script stage to give your film the best shot at being the strongest it can be.

Lesson 1: Build In More Images and Actions

The page is somewhat forgiving of lengthier dialogue blocks but the editing suite sure is not. There’s probably no better way to see how your dialogue plays than to shoot it and edit it.

Most likely, the first thing you’ll uncover is you’re using too much dialogue overall by trying to solve all story problems through dialogue. We’re always told show, don’t tell, but nothing drives that home more like watching the talking heads you’ve created blah, blah, blahing away.

I’ve used dialogue to justify character behavior or story circumstances, but found that once we’re editing the film, those circumstances either hold up, or they don’t, based on everything else I’d built into the film to that point. That wordy justification of the hows and the whys gets tedious and gets quickly cut.

In future script editing, I’ll definitely think more about whether an image or an action can replace that type of dialogue and answer just enough questions to keep the story moving forward without getting bogged down in explanation. I’ll look for character traits that can be translated into a prop or an established behavior. I’ll add telling objects about a character into a scene or have her reveal a skill or a habit.

Working on my second short, I had a character that lived in an unsafe, homeless situation. In brainstorming ideas, I thought about the kind of man he was and his living environment and it didn’t seem unlikely that he’d want to protect himself – so I gave him a bat. Making that one choice opened up ideas for new scenes and for using the bat symbolically in the film. It was a prop the actor could gesture with, making even the smallest moments more visually threatening, and without saying a word, an audience can infer a lot about a man who wields a bat.

Lesson 2: Pick Up the Pace

Easily one of the biggest head-shakers for me in the process of going from script to set to editing is how time seems to slow way down in a scene from one stage to the next. A scene that felt pretty snappy on the page, might start to feel like it’s dragging on set and by the time it’s in editing, you have a snoozer on your hands.

One of the first things I look at when a scene feels really slow is how it begins. In my own writing, I’ve found there’s a warm-up process I go through when I write a new scene. I often over-introduce (in dialogue, of course!) who’s in the scene, how they are related, and why they’re there.

This is fine for first drafts but once I get into re-writing, I need to recognize that these scenes aren’t stand-alone and look at the script as a whole.

Did I find a more compelling way to answer those questions in another scene in the script? If so, I need to cut the weaker version. Would changing the order of two scenes eliminate the need to dutifully introduce characters? Then I need to re-order and cut the fat. Does the scene start with too much “color,” i.e. conversation or action that doesn’t mean anything to the scene but just seems entertaining? Cut it.

Pacing can be improved dramatically in editing, but if the script is paced to move faster from the beginning, then the entire filmmaking process is built upon the strongest story possible.

Lesson 3: Be Careful with a Turn of a Phrase

Dialogue – in terms of how a character speaks, as opposed to the meaning of what they’re saying – is one of those tough areas where you can’t be as sure when you’ve got it right as you can be when you've got it wrong.

Unless you have a character that is known for their verbal acrobatics, most dialogue that differs radically from how an everyday Joe from your character’s world speaks ends up sounding fake and pulls the audience out of the story.

Rules of grammar and polite conversation should be broken when that’s how people actually speak. Go ahead and end your dialogue sentences in prepositions. Feel free to begin mid-thought. Don’t feel compelled to address every question that is posed to a character with a direct answer. And there are just so many metaphors you can shove into a character’s mouth before they sound unhinged.

Beyond the initial stages of writing, I haven’t found reading my dialogue aloud to myself to be especially helpful. I know the intent of every line and naturally build in inflections and emphasis that may not be warranted by the script itself. Once I have a well-crafted draft, I’m a big fan of the table read for listening to your dialogue out loud.

When hearing my dialogue, whether at a table read or at auditions, I worry less about when an actor trips over a word, since the material is new to them this is inevitable, but I’m more interested in phrases that sound out of place or dialogue that rings corny, cringe-worthy or like I’m just trying too hard.

Lesson 4: Stack the Deck in Your Favor

In my first short film, we ended up cutting a scene that we’d spent half a day shooting out of a three-day shoot. It had been the biggest scene in the film in terms of the time it took to setup, the number of actors and extras involved, and the details of set design and props. We cut it because we found in editing that it slowed down the pace of the film at a critical point and, ultimately, it didn’t seem to add anything new to the story. Cutting it was without question the right choice, but still, ouch.

That scene held one bit of information that mattered to me though – a story point that created a realistic portrayal of the main character’s occupation, a little truism that, as a writer, I cared about. But that’s it, a tiny nugget that would only matter to me and to the people who work in that industry, so the scene was of course cut. But I will admit that when I watch the final film now there’s a tiny part of me that wishes I could have found a better way to include that story beat so I’d feel like I got all of my facts in the film just right.

Does your main character have a trait that makes them more personal to you? Pepper it throughout the script and be sure it comes to light in a central scene. Are there a handful of comedic lines in your script that are the best you’ve ever written? Don’t put them in a scene that can be construed as throwaway or they probably won’t end up in the final film.

It’s taken me two shorts to even begin to wrap my head around how much changes when you move from script to set to editing to a finished film. These first-hand experiences that come with producing my own work are without question the most valuable lessons I’ve gathered for myself to date. I’ve seen them in action and the impact of having your writing put through the filmmaking process sinks in much deeper than second-hand knowledge ever could.

Consider taking a scene from your own script and shoot and edit it as a writing exercise. You can adapt this lesson on directing your first scene to work with your own writing as well.

And I’d love to hear in the comments below from those who have experienced having their scripts produced and what lessons they’ve learned from the process.

Our goal as screenwriters is ultimately to have a completed film, not just a completed script. It’s our responsibility to learn how our scripts can help the process go as smoothly as possible so we end up not just with films, but with great films, and maybe even that dress for the Oscars.

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