So I’ve got this script I’ve been working on with a director and it’s in good shape. Great shape, if I’m honest.
If I were being really honest (as opposed to my normal self-effacing, self-abasement) I’d say it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever written, stopping just shy of calling it ‘the best’ because … well, I don’t tend to think that highly of my own abilities.
But there you go and there it is, my favourite script for a long, long time.* It rockets along at a fair old clip, being simultaneously entertaining and meaningful. It’s a comedy horror with a complex time-travel plot which can be enjoyed at a superficial level but reveals more depth with each subsequent reading.
It’s great†, I love it … except for this one section about the halfway mark. For about ten minutes or so it gets a bit … not so great. Maybe. I don’t know. It seems fine, but then there’s this little voice telling me it’s not.
I find it really difficult to be totally objective with my own scripts. According to others (for I fear to toot my own horn) I’m brutally honest and insightful when I read their scripts. With my own I find it a little trickier. Luckily the director for this project is a writer in his own right and has sensible, insightful suggestions of his own which have really helped lift the script.
Sadly, that still doesn’t help with this section.
He’s just as invested and steeped in the mechanics of the story as I am. We’re both looking down on the maze instead of experiencing it at ground level like a reader does. Even when we put ourselves in the place of the reader, trying to experience the maze from within we still hold an image of it from above. Basically, we know what’s going on so it’s hard to tell if anyone else will find it risibly easy to guess or completely impenetrable.
Which is why having peers external to the project to read the script is invaluable.
This script has been read and dissected by others and some people identified that section as mildly problematic, but didn’t know why. Others didn’t find it a problem at all. It’s a change in pace but maybe that’s fine? Maybe it’ll work better on screen?
Yeah. Maybe. It has to get there first though says the little voice.
And so we’ve begun sending the script to producers, waiting for feedback, waiting to find out if that section is “fine, stop worrying, I didn’t notice anything wrong” or “completely ruins the story”.
The first producer to come back with feedback loved the script … but thought it got a little dull between pages 48 and 60. It lost her a bit.
Bugger. I know that’s just one opinion, but it matches the one I’m hoping to be wrong about. My little voice is now whistling smugly to itself.
So the director and I break it down.
The sequence fulfils a function. It’s introducing characters who become red herrings later on. In fact the script at that points shifts into being a “whowilldoit”^ but that in itself is a red herring because none of these people do it. The script becomes a murder mystery for about 20 pages and then turns into something much more unpleasant. These 12 pages serve an important function, without introducing this small gang of characters and giving them all distinct personalities and a motive for the coming murder then the script is not the murder mystery we’re selling it as.
I mean, it’s not anyway. Well, it kind of is but there’s this twist and … yeah, it’s complicated, shifting genres at least twice.
So yeah, it serves a function.
The characters are interesting, there’s definitely good meat for the actors in these pages. So that’s fine.
The location is … a bit dull. But we’re saving the budget for the ending and, honestly, we can’t think of any other situation in which these characters would be together in one place but able to be split off into individual scenes so the protagonist can investigate them. She has to be free to move around so she can find the red herring clues.
I feel like it’s the location which makes it a bit dull? Maybe? Is that what that little voice is trying to tell me?
Or maybe it’s because the characters aren’t really doing anything other than dropping clues and giving themselves away? Maybe they need to be playing Laser Quest or trying to build a gazebo or something? Maybe we need to add more action to this sequence so that … nah. The script’s 105 pages long. It’s too long for what it is.
So maybe … maybe … hang on …
The function of this sequence is to sow the red herrings which make this seem like the murder mystery we’re selling it as. It’s there so people will begin to try to piece together the clues which won’t amount to anything because the genre is about to shift and it’s going to be a completely different film to the one people were expecting.
Sort of. I mean it’s in the same wheelhouse, enough so that it won’t upset the punters. It’s not like we’re trying to sell a slasher flick to the rom-com crowd~ or anything like that. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a gear change rather than a genre shift?
So actually the red herring is in the marketing of the script/film. We tell people it’s a murder mystery before they read/watch and when we get to that point we can very, very quickly segue into the second part of the film. How many pages do we actually need to fill in order to make this bait and switch land?
1? 2? Certainly not 12.
And suddenly it becomes clear – my little voice is right. The sequence is problematic because it doesn’t need to be there. How much misdirection do we actually need? Just enough to be clear that one of these six people committed the murder, enough time for the audience to begin to form their suspicions and then … we’re off to the races.
I should have spotted this before. Cutting 10 of the 12 pages gives us space to intensify some of the emotions at the beginning and the end. A 105 page script becomes a 98 page script# and it’s a blast from beginning to end.
Why didn’t I spot this redundancy before? Who do I never fully believe that little voice telling me something’s wrong? I’m not nagging myself for no reason for God’s sake.
I guess I did listen to the voice, I just didn’t ask myself the right questions. Or rather, I just didn’t frame the questions in the right way.
Regardless, it’s fixed now. 98 pages of glory. Or, you know, 98 pages of a dosh garn good read.
And with that I think it’s done. It’s ready to be properly sent out into the world and then … we shall see what we shall see.
* Excluding the one I wrote for you, obviously. That one’s both my favourite and my best or I wouldn’t have taken your money.
† Maybe. I mean, it’s not bad. I quite like it. A bit.
^ Time travel. Tenses are tricky.
~ I suspect you can shoehorn a rom-com plot into a slasher flick far easier than a butt-tonne of murders into a rom-com. I mean, I think rom-com fans will come to see a murderous rom-com, but at least some of them wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t know that going in. Whereas as long as the slasher flick delivers the corpses I think horror fans would be only to delighted to realise it’s a secret rom-com.
# If you read a lot of scripts you’ll know how psychologically comforting a sub-100 page script is. A turgid 105 pager goes on forever. 98 pages … eh, even if it’s dross it won’t take up too much of my time. It’s the 99p in the land of the poundshops.