Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘All the King’s Men

Ten ways of looking at cutting

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Akira Kurosawa

I’ve said many times that you should strive to cut the first draft of any story by at least ten percent, but where do you begin? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see…Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Start with activity. Conclude with something strong…Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

David Morrell

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Andrew Bujalski

On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than ten or fifteen percent of the story. So if it’s a hundred-inch story, I always cut out ten or fifteen inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.

Tom Hallman

David Mamet

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit. Any time any character is saying to another “As you know,” that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit. Do not write a crock of shit.

David Mamet

Please flip to page 73. If you had to cut this scene, would the entire movie fall apart? No. You’d write around it. So cut it and deal with the absence. Repeat as needed.

John August

Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action…Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place.

Jack Woodford

Umberto Eco

Well, there is a criterion for deciding whether a film is pornographic or not, and it is based on the calculation of wasted time…Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan…I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

Umberto Eco, “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”

In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

Charles Koppelman, Behind the Seen

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

Robert Rossen, director of All the King’s Men

And finally, a reminder from Elie Wiesel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Mailer’s cask of brandy, or the pitfalls of craft

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Frequent readers of this blog will know that one of my ongoing obsessions is the idea of craft, even if I’ve never really bothered to define it before. Craft, if I had to pin it down, encompasses everything in a writer’s life aside from inspiration: it includes a vast range of skills, tricks, and habits, from the simple discipline of writing for hours each day to the nuts and bolts of grammar and style to larger issues of structure and organization. More than anything else, it’s the set of tools that turns those who want to write into those who do write, and those who write occasionally into those who write for a living. Craft is clearly a precious thing, acquired piecemeal over time, and it’s something that no writer can do without.

It can also become a trap. The trouble with craft, once a writer has it, is that it can be used as a substitute for things like intellectual honesty, emotion, and engagement with the real world—and the stronger the craft, the easier these evasions become. Good writing, as we all know, can disguise bad thinking, for author and audience alike. More insidiously, craft can be used to circumvent problems that otherwise could only be addressed by agonizing or uncertain introspection. Craft keeps a writer from having to depend on inspiration all the time, which is great—otherwise many novels would be started, but few finished—but it can also lead to an avoidance of risk in favor of facile solutions. Norman Mailer puts it beautifully in The Spooky Art:

Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.

These are harsh words, but coming from Mailer, who had both plenty of craft and the intellectual courage to pursue his obsessions, it’s necessary to take them seriously. Mailer points to Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men, as an example of an author whose craft kept him from confronting the full implications of his material: “As it was, he knew enough about craft to use it as an escape hatch.” And I think we’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another. Once you’ve learned the basics of narrative, you can easily nudge a story into a dramatically satisfying shape that avoids the problems you’ve set for yourself. And yet the unmediated confrontation of these problems, without a safety net, is what results in great art.

So where does this leave us? Not with abandoning craft altogether, of course. Without craft, there would be no writers at all, and it’s hard to ask any artist to give up the tools that took so much time and effort to develop. And confronting the world’s problems without craft, as many well-meaning writers have done, is like going unarmed into battle. Still, it’s important to recognize its limitations. Craft is a snug little house that a writer builds for himself, but which he has to leave from time to time to get a sense of the snowy world outside. When he does, he’ll usually find that his craft isn’t sufficient, but he needs to push forward, knowing that otherwise he’ll only limit himself to an increasingly circumscribed range. And in the end, his house becomes larger—at least until his next excursion. Because the final secret of craft, it seems, is to know when to leave it behind.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2011 at 10:01 am

A few truncated thoughts on cutting

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Now that I’ve reached the home stretch on the sequel to The Icon Thief, I’ll need to turn my attention shortly to the next stage in the process: cutting the manuscript. I’m contracted to deliver a novel in the neighborhood of 100,000 words or so, which means that at the moment, my first draft is at least twenty percent too long. This is mostly on purpose—there’s nothing wrong with having some extra material at the beginning, as long as you’re planning to fulfill Stephen King’s dictum—but in practice, getting a draft down to that desired length can be a bit of a challenge. With that in mind, I thought I’d pull together some of my favorite maxims on cutting, more for my own reference than anything else:

1. Burn the first reel. This is one of David Mamet’s favorite principles, but it goes back at least as far as Frank Capra’s memoir The Name Above the Title, in which he recounts how he saved Lost Horizon by burning the first two reels. (Capra wasn’t kidding, either. He writes: “I ran up to the cutting rooms, took those blasted first two reels in my hot little hands, ran to the ever-burning big black incinerator—and threw them into the fire.”) Whatever the source, the advice remains sound: in a first draft, writers and directors tend to spend a lot of time easing into the story, when audiences benefit most from being thrown right into the action. The moral? Cut exposition and open with your most dramatic scene.

2. Jump from middle to middle. This takes the previous maxim, which governs the structure of the story as a whole, and applies it to the level of individual scenes or chapters. Early on, writers often take their time building to the heart of a scene, then backing out again, which tends to kill the momentum. Instead of a neat beginning, middle, and end for each chapter, just write the middle. And as I’ve said before, if a sequence of episodes is dragging, try cutting the first and last paragraphs of each scene. In terms of its immediate, often startling effectiveness, this may be the single most useful writing trick I know. (For extra credit, check out Robert Parrish’s wonderful account, courtesy of Walter Murch, of how a similar trick was used to save the original film version of All the King’s Men.)

3. When in doubt, cut it out. If you don’t think you need a chapter, a scene, or a line, you’re almost certainly right. For The Icon Thief, I had to cut like a maniac—the original draft was over 180,000 words long, and when you factor in incidental material and subsequent chapters that were written and discarded, I cut close to an entire page for every one I kept. When I look back at it now, though, I can’t remember any of the cuts I made. A cut may seem painful at the time, but it’s surprising how quickly nonessential material disappears down the memory hole. If, months later, you find that you remember and miss it, it may be necessary to restore the missing paragraphs, but this almost never happens. And it’s far more likely, when you finally see your work in print, that you’ll regret the cuts you should have made.

Written by nevalalee

June 22, 2011 at 9:37 am

Writing the Middle: The Story of All the King’s Men

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My recent discussion of writing the middle reminds me of one of my favorite Hollywood war stories, which I owe to the great Walter Murch, frequent collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, director of Return to Oz, and dean of American film editors. I first came across this anecdote in the book Behind the Seen, which lovingly details Murch’s use of Final Cut Pro to edit Cold Mountain—not a great movie, to be sure, but a fascinating case study, resulting in the best available book on what a modern film editor does. I expect to be talking a lot more about Murch, and this book, in the future, but for now, I want to share just one story, which involves the making of the classic film All the King’s Men. (The 1949 original, mind you, not the terrible remake.)

Murch relates a story from the autobiography of Robert Parrish, the editor of All the King’s Men, who says that the first cut of the film was a disaster—it was three hours long, boring, and made no sense. Subsequent cuts only made things worse. Finally, after six months and seven disastrous preview screenings, the movie’s director, Robert Rossen, came up with a desperate idea. According to Parrish, Rossen said:

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

The result, amazingly, worked: it got the movie down to ninety minutes and, according to Parrish, “it all made sense in an exciting, slightly confusing, montagey sort of way.” After screening it for an enthusiastic test audience, they cut a final print with all the imperfections and jump cuts intact. The result won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

As I see it, there are two lessons here:

1) The opening and closing beats of a scene are usually unnecessary. The middle is what counts. Write, or film, the middle. And if a sequence isn’t working, try cutting the first and last paragraphs—which is essentially what Rossen and Parrish did. (If Steven Zaillian, the director of the remake, had tried the same thing, he might have ended up with a salvageable movie, rather than a notorious bore.)

2) Audiences and readers are pretty smart. If they’re plunged into the middle of a scene—or story—it won’t take them long to figure out what’s happening. And if you pay them the compliment of assuming that they’ll be able to follow you, who knows? They may even like it.

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