Make your scene hard to cut
I was sad about Carrie Fisher at the end of 2016. Who wouldn’t be? Such a huge part of my life. The night the news hit, I rewatched the first Star Wars movie. Such a fantastic film in so, so many ways. No big surprise that it has endured for so long.
The trash compactor scene? Superfluous. It could be cut or replaced and nobody would ever notice. Nothing builds to it and nothing is affected by it afterwards. It’s just a thing that happens.
Now Star Wars is Star Wars and it’s totally awesome and it gets away with it without a problem. And it’s a good scene, right? If it’s a good scene, we’re going to want to keep it. But we aren’t all as fortunate and excellent as Star Wars and, really, being a good scene or even a great scene isn’t always enough of a reason to keep it. When a scene could be so easily switched out without affecting the story in any way, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we should really have it at all. Wouldn’t it be better to replace it with a scene that actively contributes to where the story is going? That adds a skill or some determination or info that will come into play later? Something that will be paid off? Or something that directly says something important about the characters or the theme?
In screenwriting books, we often read about the need for complications and obstacles and they aren’t wrong. But if they’re JUST obstacles and then they are overcome, you’re just chucking stuff at your characters without really building your story. This is like those old black and white TV serials, which of course Lucas was hugely inspired by. You could miss a bunch of episodes and it won’t matter at all even if what you missed contained fantastic scenes.
But if you can go a step further and add those complications and obstacles in a way that, once they are dealt with, your characters have now progressed clearly in your story, then you’ve got a section that means more. Something that has some real impact. And often the test is: what happens if I cut this? If you have huge holes to patch then you know at least that the section moved the story forward. That doesn’t mean it’s good yet! But at least it progressed the story.
So ideally, there should be two reasons that it’s really hard to cut scenes:
1) It’s an awesome scene.
2) It moves the story forward.
One without the other should be very hard to justify. Fix it or cut it. When someone goes through your story, they shouldn’t want to cut a scene. If someone else suggests it, everyone should be horrified at the thought and instantly shout reasons why it needs to be kept. Make your scenes hard to cut by making them great AND crucial to the story.
Then be prepared to lose them anyway as you refine your story further.