Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Parrish

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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