The Harsh Truth: Cutting Scenes in your Screenplay

Dear Screenwriter,

you gotta be willing to kill your puppies.

Here’s a quick rule that is deceptively simple, very powerful and utterly crucial. This is a rule none of us can escape. This applies to every scene in your script:

If a SCENE does not:

a) Advance the story


b) Reveal crucial character

then CUT IT!

Now, perhaps, and that’s a very strong perhaps, if a scene is absolutely unique in its style or use of dialogue and it beautifully communicates the controlling theme of the story, then it can stay. But the chances of that happening while not satisfying either a or b above are slim. And you better have amazing dialogue, we’re talking Tarantino or Mamet here, not just a cute regional dialect.

I used to think an exception was that scene in Fargo with Mike Yanagita, the Asian-American school friend of Marge. Out of the blue this strange guy calls her up and asks to meet her and catch up on old times. She meets him and he breaks down and tells her an emotional, personal story that later she learns was all a lie.

I felt that scene was so quirky and funny and entertaining that it didn’t need to be strongly plugged into the crime thriller throughline. It seemingly stood on its own and fit, purely on the basis of its entertainment value and its odd tone, which was in fitting with the established quirky tone of the film. Maybe it was to illustrate Marge’s increasing frustration with society outside the confines of her small town?

But then I saw a TV special in which Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese pointed out that the scene actually sets up Marge’s realization that she cannot trust anyone, leading her to take action to go back and hunt for Jerry Lundegaard and his tan Cutlass Sierra.

Marge’s Midwestern hospitality and naiveté is replaced by bold action, leading her to capture a killer and solve the case. So that quirky little scene with the strange man does have an important place in Marge’s character and satisfies point A and B, above.

So, trust me, that scene of yours you know deep down has to go? Listen to your instinct. If that fails you, check it against the above criteria; if it doesn’t pass that test, then cut it. Sorry, but you gotta kill those puppies. They’re cute, they’re fuzzy, they’re your old friends. But they don’t fit.

That’s the harsh truth.

-Daniel Calvisi

Where are you at in the screenwriting process?

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Good luck and happy writing!


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  1. […] And then I had a conversation with my buddy Dan over at Act Four. He told me he once felt the same way: I felt that scene was so quirky and funny and entertaining that it didn’t need to be strongly […]

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