Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

What To Keep and What To Cut

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 3, 2010

[First, huge thanks to everybody who wrote in in response to last week’s When It Works. Wonderful stuff, from the heart. It’s tremendously gratifying to me, I must say, to see this site evolving into a real peer-to-peer meeting ground–and I include myself as one of those peers.

Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now"

Robert Duvall as Col. Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now"

I picked four “winners” instead of three, but could easily have chosen ten or more. Congrats to Anjanette, Stef, David Layton and Dana. I’ll get your signed War of Arts out right away. Thanks to everybody! Now to this Wednesday’s post … ]

Have you seen the director’s cut of Apocalypse Now? Remember the French Plantation sequence? It’s a long, really interesting section, on the boat trip upriver,  where Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) and the crew stop over for the night with a French colonial family, who are clinging to their rubber plantation as their world is crashing around them. The family invites Sheen and his guys to dinner, during which a lot of interesting conversation takes place (and Sheen enjoys a romantic interlude), which helps to set the U.S. experience in Vietnam within a greater historical context.

But the director, Francis Ford Coppola, had to cut it.

And he was right.

Why? Because the sequence wasn’t on-theme. It clashed with the rest of the movie, whose theme is American-madness-in-Vietnam. That’s why the Playboy bunny scene works and the Charlie Don’t Surf scene, aka “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Those scenes are uniquely American and uniquely American-crazy. That was Coppola’s theme. The French Plantation scene adds a flavor, and it’s wonderful in its own way. But it slowed the movie down. So Coppola cut it. When you watch it in the director’s cut, you feel it sapping the story’s momentum, and momentum is everything in a movie.

William Goldman famously said, “Screenplays are structure.” What he meant was that, since a movie is experienced in one start-to-finish sweep over a period of ninety minutes to two or three hours, it has to have a drive and a momentum that carries the audience and holds their interest all the way. A movie is like sex. It has to build to a climax and that climax has to justify all the acrobatics that went before it. Hence structure. Hence unity of theme. Hence no time for detours, no matter how enchanting or diverting.

This next story comes from Robert McKee. When he was a young writer-director in New York, he got a chance to interview Paddy Chayefsky, the only writer ever to win three solo Academy Awards (for Marty, Network and The Hospital).  Here’s the gem of the interview, pardon my paraphrasing:

Paddy Chayefsky

Paddy Chayefsky won Oscars for "Marty," "Network" and "The Hospital"

“As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in a single sentence and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter.  After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t on-theme.”

I love that. It’s the answer, for screenwriters and playwrights, of what to keep and what to cut. But it works just as well for choreographers, for painters or photographers organizing shows, even for entrepreneurs launching new businesses or philanthropic ventures. If it’s not on-theme, it’s on the cutting-room floor.

For novelists, the game is different. A novel (or any long-form work) is not inhaled by the reader in one non-stop glump. He may read a novel for weeks. If he loves it, he doesn’t want it to end. A novel can bear digressions (see the trout-fishing sequence in The Sun Also Rises). The reader will be patient.

Herodotus, who wrote The Histories, was the all-time champ of narrative side-trips, but his digressions were so entertaining that his readers (including me) only wanted more.

In fact, here’s a digression right now: the part I love best about Paddy Chayefsky’s quote is “As soon as I figure out the theme … ” In other words, even the great Mr. C. didn’t necessarily know his theme when he started. That makes me feel better, because I almost never know mine. I’m flying by the seat of my pants for 300 pages. Many times I’ll finish the entire book and still won’t know what the theme is, even though I’ve spent hours along the way trying to dope it out.

[Again, thanks to everybody who wrote in last week. We’ll do it again as soon as something properly “on-theme” pops up.]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

10 Responses to “What To Keep and What To Cut”

  1. November 3, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Another must-read post. I’m revising my book right now and facing all those dilemmas about what to cut and what to keep, so this is perfectly-timed advice. Thank you!!

  2. November 3, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Man, how I look forward to these posts on Wednesdays. A guy who’s been there, reporting back to us guys about to leap out of the trench toward the unknown.

  3. November 3, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    I intend to share this with the writer’s workshop group that meets at my place Wed. eves. They are mostly novice novel writers and I know they will enjoy this post as much as I did.

  4. November 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I love the concept of a theme. Sometimes I have difficulty staying on theme -or message, with a 30 second commercial. Kudos to the talent that keeps an audience engrossed for 90 minutes.

  5. November 4, 2010 at 5:56 am

    I just got done cutting a screenplay from 134 pages to 100, and I’m glad this great post didn’t come before the task. I may not have heard the truth in it.

    The Chayefsky quote is fantastic, and I will be sticking themes in front of my face from now on — right next to the sheet that says “Contempt for Failure” (thanks for that one too).

  6. November 5, 2010 at 7:00 am

    What a great way to start the day. I often see the new post and wait a day or two until I can sit with it and let it seep in.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I think about that all the time.

    If you haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay series, the first two books at least give strong examples of staying on theme, so much so that it’s difficult NOT to swallow them whole in one sitting. Thank you again, Mr. Pressfield.

  7. November 10, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I have been pondering on a very similar subject. Glad to know that I’m not the only one who feels lost until the theme makes itself apparent! I’m wondering if generally people are confused about the difference between subject matter and theme? What do others think?

  8. December 3, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    i disagree to a certain extent… i like the longer version of Apocalypse Now… i like the digression… it’s feels more real… it feels more surreal actually… And it’s that surreality that adds adds to the film…

    i do agree that the film on a certain level is about the American insanity of the Vietnam War but the plantation scene is no more absurd than the Playboy bunnies scene… But Apocalypse Now is about more than American absurdity of the Vietnam War it’s also is a film about the absurdity of imperialism and this is where the French plantation scene is so key to the film… The French plantation scene highlights the absurdity of current American imperialism with the the absurdity of the French imperialism of the past…

    The longer version of Apocalypse Now is less a movie and more an epic poem… i understand your point with being lean and mean and staying on point and on theme but wIth some films the structure needs to be broken out and elaborated on like Olivier Assayas’s latest film Carlos that clocked in at 5 and a 1/2 hours (divided into 3 films but meant to be seen together with one intermission)… Steven Soderbergh’s Che which clocked in at 4 and a 1/2 hours (two films The Argentine and Guerrilla with one intermission) also meant to be seen in one sitting… There are some films that transcend their medium and illuminate the possibilities of what could be in a film while destroying the confines what was…

    For most films the advice you offer of staying on theme is key… Most films do have a hard time with this and could be thinned out by a few scenes and could do a better job of staying focused on point… However i don’t think that Apocalypse Now is a good example of one of those films… Apocalypse Now moves beyond the conventional confines of most films because it’s trying to be more than that… It’s trying to be epic… and in my own humble opinion it succeeds…

  9. December 6, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Wait… he can narrow it down to just one theme? Jesus.

  10. December 7, 2010 at 6:22 am

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