January 15, 2010


I feel like a cheater.  I decided to cut this (first draft) from my book proposal on scene writing.  But if you live an intertwined multi-media life, a column becomes a book proposal whose "killed darling" becomes a blog.  Welcome to my world....



Jim Mercurio

Imagine two scripts on an executive's desk. Each of these scripts has two hours worth of story in it. They both have cool concepts and are in the same genre.

The one on the left is the script the writer wrote before he or she read this book.

It has 3 brads.

The title page has the WGA number, copyright number and the Midwestern Address of the writer. And the email.

It’s 118 pages. It has some funny jokes but a few of them are buried in the clutter of unfunny lines or a few extra words here or there.

It has some funny scenes, but a few go on too long and there are a few extra pages of unnecessary exposition. A few times, the subtext of a character’s line is absolutely clear but this draft has an extra line that states the obvious intent of the line.

The main character is likable but unfortunately has a lot of flat and boring lines that no A-list Actor would ever say.

A lot of the scenes are static and talky, so the reader will have to envision that a good director will bring them to life to make it a real movie.

There are no typos and it’s an okay read and the writer comes off as close to professional.

Now, let’s consider the script on the right that was written after the writer read this book.

It has 2 brads. Why? Because the story starts here. There isn’t going to be a wasted anything. If it's not needed, it's not in it or ON IT.

Title page has an LA phone number or only email as the contact. No chance for the reader to get distracted or biased from an area code or address. There is already 1/2 as few words as the other one.

This script has just as much story as the first script but it’s nine pages shorter. Six of the pages are gone because of the tighter scenes and dialogue. There are more jokes, more tightly executed and less filler in between. A few are little more audacious than anything else he or she has read today. In fact, he or she "cuts and pastes" one and emails it to a CE at another company.

Just like the extra brad and the contact information. Everything not necessary is jettisoned. Explosition, gone. Explaining, gone. Characters telling characters what they already know, gone.

The main character has the best lines. They are all active, strong, full of subtext. He never has to say anything that any other character could say.  No yes or no questions answered with, well, yes or no.

Scenes use location, lighting, blocking, props, body movement and sound to tell the story. Several scenes that were all talk are either gone or rethought. The reader can see that there is a movie on the page. The script "directs" itself.

This is the tightest script that the reader read today. It took him or her 14 minutes less to read this script compared to the other one. The one or two cheats and embellishments contributed to the read, and the reader is relieved that he or can can pass the script on to his or her bosses. Even if it’s not the next reader’s cup of tea, there is not doubt this is a good script.

Which script do you want to be yours?


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    DETECTIVE BOBBY GONZALEZ (38) stands to one side of the crime scene, takes notes on a WORN NOTE PAD. His dark complexion and athletic figure echoes that of an Aztec warrior, but one still not yet fully comfortable with being a full-blown Detective.

    Slumped over an ancient sparsely-adorned massive oak desk rests RAPHAEL PENDRIUS (55), dead as a door-nail.

    DETECTIVE MIKAEL STRONG (43), ruggedly handsome, middle-aged, graying, ex-marathon runner and veteran cop, wearing a suit that might have been fashionable 12 years ago, ducks under the crime-scene tape. He quickly and expertly takes in the scene with just one glance.

    So, whadya got… Detective Gonzales… or do you prefer Roberto… Bobby?

    (ignores slight)
    Raphael Pendrius, owner of the firm. Secretary found him this morning collapsed at his desk… Detective Strong… or after two years as a Detective, can I finally call you Mikael?

    (ignores comeback)
    Could just be a case of over-work… or bad coffee. What else is new?

    The phone was off the hook. No caller-id though.

    Strong walks behind the desk. Centered on the large ink blotter, a rather worn MANILLA FILE FOLDER, with the name "BELLE" neatly printed on it.

    Strong picks it up, opens it, starts reading.

    Gee, looks like what in detective-school they call “a clue”. So, whadya think… Bobby?

    Gut feeling… Mike? Pendrius died of old age.

    Sure, right. Brilliant detective work, so far.

    Strong looks up from the file, nods his head towards the O.S. SOUNDS of a SOBBING WOMAN.

    Whaddabout the…
    (takes a guess)

    A certain Mary Zowkowicz. Been with the firm day-one.
    Never missed a day of work.

    No one likes work that much, unless there’s a reason to. Anyone else?

    Only two other secretaries worked this floor. Never dealt with
    Pendrius directly.

    Yeah, what… Roberto?

    They both were of one mind that the recently deceased Mr. P and the hysterical Ms. Z were bumping sheets, if you know what I mean… Mikael.

    Gonzalez gestures towards a sobbing MARY ZOWKOWICZ (42), a trashy, but nonetheless efficient-looking woman.

    From the way she's carrying on, they probably were.

    Then it’s case closed, eh? Nah, let’s put her on the griddle and see what was cookin’ between the two of them... Roberto.

    The name is Bobby.

    Yeah, I know… Roberto.