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KAPOW!  Cutting Scenes Like a Superhero

Incredible Bokeh by JD Hancock [1]
Incredible Bokeh by JD Hancock

There’s a scene in my novel-in-progress that I absolutely love. It has magic, romance, and the flavor of a fairy tale — everything I’ve tried to accomplish in this book. When I reread it, I don’t get that ‘Oh good God, who am I kidding” feeling that comes from most of my draft work.  I’ve lovingly polished this scene until every single word shines, and the beta readers I’ve shown it to agree — it’s pretty awesome.

And next week, when I start revising my novel, I’m planning to kill the whole chapter.

Blame The Incredibles and Brad Bird.

The Incredibles, for those of you not graced with nine-year-old boys, is the Pixar movie that on the surface is about a family of superheroes forced by social circumstances to live undercover and hide their gifts.  But it’s also the story of a marriage that may be in trouble, of dreams deferred, of the sacrifices you make as an adult for family and what happens when you get a chance to take those dreams out to play again.  We watch it ALL THE TIME at my house, and all of us, not just the nine-year-old, can quote it. (You should hear me deliver the lines “Greater good? I’m the greatest *good* you are ever gonna get!”) 

But somehow I’d never managed to watch the extras included with the DVD until last month.

Last family movie night, the kids were angling to stay up later, as kids do, and after the movie we popped in the extras DVD, cruised through the shorts and were about to declare bedtime when my son punched the deleted scenes arrow.  Suddenly, producer Brad Bird was talking about why these scenes didn’t make the cut.

Bird and his team eliminated scenes for all kinds of reasons — to cut screen time, to amp up tension, to give other characters more impact.  Every single one of those deleted scenes was a tiny jewel, and it’s obvious it pained Bird to cut them.  In one take, you can hear the wistfulness in his voice. “When we lost it, we lost one of my favorite scenes in the movie. .. In my ideal version, I would have that scene back.”

But wait, you say!  Bird is the director!  And the writer!  Surely, if it is his favorite scene, it should make the cut, right?!  He’s the boss, and he carried the story in his head for at least 10 years before starting work on it. And cutting isn’t a decision he takes lightly:

[pullquote]“In the editing room, when you want something but know you’ve got no leg to stand on, it’s the worst.  Like expelling a kidney stone emotionally.”[/pullquote]

“In the editing room, when you want something but know you’ve got no leg to stand on, it’s the worst.  Like expelling a kidney stone emotionally.”

So why, if it is so painful, the scene is his favorite AND Bird has the power NOT to cut it, would he do so?

Because it makes the story better.

In another section of the bonus DVD, Bird’s employees talk about how one of the great things about working with him is that he’s open to new ideas.  And then Bird says my favorite line of the interview (almost as good as “Woman, where is my super suit?”):  “Make it okay to challenge an idea or two.  Good ideas can withstand it, and the weaker ideas fall away to make room for something else. …. Some of the pet things you had the idea to do don’t actually work….if you are willing to lose this one thing that originally was such a big part of your pitch…all these (other) things click together.”

It takes guts to cut a manuscript when you’ve spent months or years working on it.  It hurts, and it’s frustrating and it makes you doubt every single word you’ve ever written.  But, if you can do it, it has the power to transform your story.

So as I start revising my beast of a manuscript, I’m going to pretend I have the Pixar brain trust [2] on hand to challenge me.  I’m going to push myself to review each chapter as if it were a novel in itself and make sure that:

I have enough micro-tension [3] to keep readers turning pages.

Every single character is integral to the story in terms of plot — if they aren’t carrying their weight, they’re gone.

Each scene is unique in terms of the emotional and plot load it is carrying — if I say the same thing somewhere else, one of the scenes is redundant and stealing page time.

When possible, every scene will do more than one thing.

Last on my list is something Bird said that particularly resonated with me: Dream scenes are the Ibuprofen of writing — one of the first things we reach for to make a story work.  But lots of times there’s a better, more engaging way to tell the story. The dream scenes I’ve included in this manuscript are going to have to work extra hard or they go kaput.

So, always watch the extras, peeps.  You never know what you’ll learn.  I’ll leave you with one last quote from The Incredibles, spoken by Edna Mode:

“Go! Confront the problem! Fight! Win!”

Happy revising.

Your turn — what have you learned about writing from watching the movies?  (And any favorite Pixar quotes you want to share?)

About Liz Michalski [4]

Liz Michalski's (she/her) first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.