Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Cutting The Picture [Part 3]

November 18th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: Cutting The Picture [P.81]:

Another factor in cutting is “tempo.” The author should decide the relative length of scenes. Where you are leading up to an exciting climax, action should be fast and scenes short. When you have reached your crisis, scenes should lengthen to let the dramatic values take hold of the audience–just as most music grows louder and slower in the grand finale. Similarly, where you are endeavoring to portray physical action alone–as in a fight or in the approach of two trains for a head on collision–scenes must be short and in rapid succession But where you are emphasizing mental stress, as the silent agony of the husband deserted by his wife, make your scenes long with slow but forceful action, such as change of facial expression or a despairing gesture.

As these comments indicate, when a writer crafts a scene, we are in fact using our editorial instincts. You’ve heard the observation by William Goldman, “Enter a scene as late as possible”? That reflects editing sensibilities.

There are different types of scenes at different times in the narrative with different functions, each of them requiring an awareness of pace and timing. So when we write, we need to look at our scenes through the lens of editing.

I have written on this before, perhaps most specifically with this post which refers to one of the best ‘screenwriting’ books I have read, actually about editing: “In the Blink of an Eye” by Walter Murch. A great way to enhance your awareness of editing while you write.

Next week: More insight about the craft of screenwriting from 90 years ago.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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