I don’t care how talented a writer you are, how witty your dialog, how ingenious your story weaving- it’s almost guaranteed your scripts are several pages too long. But especially when your story is good and your dialog competent, it can be easy to convince yourself you’ve done enough and you’re ready to shoot. Think again- today we’re talking about killing your darlings.
Defined: a “darling” is an element of your story (usually at a script level, but occasionally is a particular prop or piece of wardrobe) that is disproportionately important to you than the story itself. An example is a three-page witty dialog sequence that you love because it’s funny and clever but doesn’t actually move the story or the characters forward in any way, or a particular poster on a character’s wall that would be expensive or difficult to attain but is an inside joke amongst the cast and crew. Defining and deciding to kill your darlings is an exercise in understanding the purpose of every moment, every character, every word, and every beat in your story, but that can be difficult. Let’s make it simple.
Do A Table Read
Because screenplays are mostly dialog, it can be easy to write off long conversations as too long because the individual lines seem short and “it’ll be faster when the actors talk.” It’s hard to actually make that call without hearing those lines aloud, though- there’s a reason even veteran showrunners still do table reads on major network shows. Even if you don’t have all the parts cast yet, get a group of actors and friends together and hear your work, and pay attention to the moments of waning interest. In theory, a table read is engaging to everyone the whole way through the same way watching a new movie is. But if you look up from the page and pay attention to the readers who aren’t speaking, you’ll notice at which points they start to zone out. The sections with the most glassed-over eyes are the ones you should reconsider.
Furthermore, if your script is comedic and you haven’t heard a chuckle in over a minute, something’s wrong.
Cut transitions, intros, and outros
What is the absolute shortest version of your story where it can still make sense and be impactful? Arthur Vincie, the creator of Three Trembling Cities, suggests you “cut the first 10 pages out and see if the story still makes sense. About 60% of the time it does; the other 40% usually just require some tweaks.” Obviously not every web series has 10 pages to spare (or 10 pages in an episode), but the point stands- introductions are worthy exercises in figuring out your narrative, but they aren’t always the actual best place to start the story.
In a similar sentiment, Tim Manley, writer and co-creator of The Feels, talked about cutting his scripts on our podcast Forget The Box as a reaction to his other co-creator Naje Lataillade explaining the various shots a particular episode will require. Tim recalls that “my brain will trigger- ‘that sounds like a long day.’ And I’ll be like, you know what? The whole scene takes place in one room. And actually I cut the beginning and I cut the end…. But what that actually does is boil it down to the most interesting part anyway. So the constraint, from my point of view, forces us to only do the parts that you really need, and in the end honors viewers time and honors everyone’s time.” And isn’t that how it should be?
Ask yourself: do you need a page of a character leaving one location and arriving at another? Are we learning anything from that, or are you worried people will get confused about where she is? Sometimes, it’s actually better to tell instead of show, if telling takes a single line of dialog and showing is two minutes of screentime.
Combine or cut characters
Alicia Carroll of Fishing explains that her “personal vice is characters. I always have too many. The challenge becomes deciphering which ones are necessary, which ones can composite together, and which ones have to cut.” Especially on a web series, more characters means more people to coordinate schedules with, more pages of dialog leading to longer shoot dates, more bodies to feed and keep comfortable on set, and just generally more variables to account for. And often, that many people aren’t necessary.
Ask yourself- is the purpose of this character to have a world and path of their own, or to move the plot forward in a few key scenes? If it’s the former- great! If it’s the latter- give those key scenes to another character who is fully fleshed out and who is not just a prop in service of your plot- it’ll give more gravity to those moments because the characters are more integrated with the story by nature of the fact that there’s more to them than their main plot significance.
Have someone else do it
Presumably, the reason you’ve been made aware of a “darling” is because you showed your script to a friend or colleague. If you trust them, or have another person you trust, why not give them a go? Give them a new document to cut what they wish, then read over the new version yourself. If you don’t notice something’s gone or it only takes a small rewrite to connect the dots between sections previously separated by darlings, it might be easier to let them go. (shout out to Dana Luery Shaw for suggesting you let someone else do the dirty work)
Save stuff for later
In The Good Place podcast, which I highly recommend, the writers of the show talk about how when a joke gets cut or changed in an episode, it doesn’t get purged from the Earth. Instead, jokes that don’t make it to air end up in the “candy jar,” a document of funnies pitched to dip into when in need of a laugh or some inspiration.
When we talk about “darlings,” we call them that because they’re good, they just might not be good for this particular project or moment. So don’t reject them entirely- protect them and put them in a list of things you want to revisit eventually. That can often help with the sting of killing them- maybe we should rephrase to “gently guiding your darlings to a waiting room because they aren’t needed quite yet.”