Imagine watching this year’s Life Of Pi and after the storm hits and the ship sinks, we cut immediately to Pi (Suraj Sharma) and the tiger sitting on the lifeboat. No discovery as Pi deals with his first moments on the boat and the other animals. No terrific shock as the tiger leaps from underneath the awning. Just Pi and the tiger, on the boat. Sitting.
Or perhaps Silver Linings Playbook. Pat (Bradley Cooper) has been invited to his friend Ronnie’s house for dinner. He leaves his own house and we cut immediately to Pat, Ronnie, Veronica (Ronnie’s wife) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) sitting at the table, skipping the moment where Tiffany enters the house and she and Pat first meet. And Pat falls in love.
It’s hard to imagine people making such choices after the fact but time and again I will be reading a screenplay and the best moments either happen off screen or fly by in a line or two with no import given to them. (We’ll deal with the latter in an upcoming rule, Spend time on the right things.) As you rewrite, think deeply about the journey on which you want to bring the audience and imagine being in the theatre yourself, watching the screen. This is how I tend to write: I imagine myself in the theatre, watching my story play out before me. What do you want to see? What are the great moments in your story that the audience wants to experience and remember? It amazes me how often writers can miss the most important moments in their stories.
One of my best students, who is working on a terrific comedy, did this recently. She threw two of her main characters into a situation ripe with comic possibilities, two teens handed an ominous package to deliver, but then skipped the delivery all together. The next time we saw them was in their apartment, talking about the event. If you’ve ever watched a movie and been excited for something to happen, then thought, ‘Hey! Wait a minute!” when said event never happened, you know what I’m talking about.
My favorite was a TV show for which I cut promos, 7th Heaven. 7th Heaven was a TV show that ran for years with a well deserved following, less because it was a great show but because the cast/family (The Camdens) were an enjoyable bunch of people the audience enjoyed spending time with. The writing would drive us crazy, however, because most of the show took place in the kitchen and all the good stuff happened off screen. We might get exited about the promotion possibilities reading the synopsis of an upcoming show: A bomb explodes down the street from the Camdens! Martians land in Glen Oak! Well, on the show someone would run into the kitchen and exclaim “A bomb went off” or “Martians landed” and everyone would run out, then we would cut later to everyone coming back in the kitchen and talking about it. Obviously I am being a bit facetious here with the plot lines but this was how stories were told on the show. Mostly the characters talked about “the good stuff”, good stuff that inevitably happened off screen.
As always there are seeming exceptions to this rule, if done well. One of my favorites was on the brilliant TV series Rome, which skipped Mark Antony’s “Friends, romans, countrymen” speech to show only the aftermath. It was very clever and very enjoyable. But this isn’t even the best example because, of course, that speech is so ingrained in our psyches that it was possible for the writers to play on our expectations and skip it, because we know it so well. Additionally, the depiction of the aftermath was terrific and made up for us missing the speech. I guess there might even be a clever way to tell the story ofTitanic and miss the sinking of the ship. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But there needs to be a specific reason behind it, it has to be part of your storytelling device.
Best example? Reservoir Dogs, a heist movie without a heist. But that’s part of the point of Tarantino’s genius first film and it works, ultimately, because the story is about something completely different than the heist, which becomes completely superfluous to the story.Reservoir Dogs was designed that way from the beginning and had a very specific reason to skip the heist. In the screenplays I read, very important moments are left out, not for a specific reason but because they might be too difficult to deal with or the writer simply doesn’t realize the import and wonder of the moment.
Discover your best moments and don’t skip them. Craft them beautifully, have fun with them! Keep the audience in mind and let “the good stuff” happen on screen.