This is a grab-bag of tricks that didn’t fit neatly anywhere else.
I hope some of what you find here is useful. It’s in no particular order.
This sometimes works wonders.
A film’s mission demands a sense of symmetry and resonance between where you start and where you finish. After all, you set out with a specific goal in mind. The film’s conclusion is where you measure if you succeeded in reaching that goal. (Although, remember: the best conclusions are both satisfying and unexpected.)
Films are all about where you start and where you end up.
Putting the end at the beginning helps define the trajectory the film will take, and implicitly poses the question, How did we arrive at this point? To which the answer is, Settle in and I’ll tell you…
(The flip-side of this is also useful. If you are unsure how to end your film, try putting the beginning at the end.)
Your film’s ending should always echo its beginning
This is true regardless of genre. It’s true in drama, in straight docs, in movies, IMAX films, everything.
Whether you choose to put the film’s ending at the front or not, there should be a sense of symmetry to your story. Its end-point should resonate with its starting-point. This is what gives your story closure.
Factor in your links right from the start of your edit. Make them part of your shooting script, and your very first edit assembly. Why? Because…
links always take up more film-time than you think.
Granted, you can write a link that’s just a sentence or two. But you won’t carry your audience with you.
Turning corners with a full load of viewers on board takes time. If you don’t allow for that time, your film will be jam-packed with content, but it will feel as though it has no coherent argument.
You’ll hear jeopardy touted around as the answer to all sorts of problems. It’s not.
Don’t get me wrong, jeopardy does sometimes work; but at best it’s a partial solution. If your film is sagging and you use jeopardy to fix it, you’ll fail. Why? Because…
The key is not to generate immediate danger,
it’s to work out what’s at stake in the film as a whole.
If you haven’t built your themes, ideas, and characters over the course of the whole film, then an immediate ‘hit’ of danger will only leave the audience feeling frustrated about 2 minutes later.
Never mistake jeopardy for story.
It’s no good being artistic until you’ve nailed your story. First, you have to make everything absolutely clear. Hoping your audience will instinctively know what you mean rarely works.
Spell it out, even if it feels over-literal.
When you’ve got the story absolutely nailed, then go back and rework it into a thing of beauty.
Rewriting is easier than writing.
So, set your story out clearly, slowly, in plod-along fashion, just to get it right. Then rewrite it to make a great story. Meaning comes first, beauty second.
Clarity is always king.
If you have a sequence that bounces between two linked ideas, you’re telling the story wrong.
But it can be hard to spot. Often, you won’t even notice that this is what you’ve done. To see what I mean, try this. If you have a sequence that drags or feels directionless:
Try cutting and pasting sections of it so that each subject or theme in the sequence forms its own separate section.
Don’t worry about the logic, just lump everything together in batches. You’ll almost certainly discover that each of these mini-sequences is internally repetitive.
Now, rewrite each mini-sequence so it stands on its own.
So, now you (hopefully) have two free-standing sequences that each have their own internal narrative.
Now consider intercutting them. You’ll almost certainly see that
They’re better kept apart.
A corollary of this is:
You can’t link two thoughts simply by putting them in a single sentence.
“At only 6 days old, Joe is the first green kitten in the world”. Huh??? Which of those two things is important? Is it significant that he’s the first green kitten, or that he’s 6 days old? Does one thought follow from the other? No. So, split them out. You’ll almost certainly find one of them is in the wrong place.
Here’s an easy way to make sure you do this:
Make the second word in your sentence a verb.
“Joe is only 6 days old. He is the first green kitten in the world.”
See? Two sentences, second word a verb. Instantly better, and less muddled.
If you can’t find a narrative through-line for your film, write a billing to learn how your film should be structured.
Your billing is the spine of your film.
You need to write one anyway for promotional reasons. So write it early and take advantage of the insights it gives you.
If it doesn’t give you any insights… then you need to write a better billing!
Don’t use long, rambling sentences when several shorter sentences would do.
If you use short sentences, you’ll have far more control in your final mix.
You can gap the comm out more effectively, re-jig the sense-order – and even cut whole sentences, all without destroying the flow.
Short sentences give you far more control of pace and content.
They have punch.
They sound better too.
(Spot the “power of three”!)
This is one of those issues that gets harder to rescue as a film gets closer to fine cut and picture lock.
Think about those big conceptual moments in your film. You know, the big corner-turns, the revelations, the shocks, the bits of magic… (You do have those, don’t you?)
If you rely on synch to deliver your big moments, your film will almost certainly fail.
Synch only feels magic, shocking, decisive, surprising, etc, if the idea has been set up in commentary. Don’t reinforce your point in comm after the synch – set it up before. Audiences need a clear signpost that the upcoming synch is significant and will change the way they’ve been thinking.
Without the signpost, the synch won’t work.
Spot this too late, when you are close to picture-lock, and there’s very little you can do about it.
The bottom line is this: if execs are telling you that they’re not sure where they are in the film, or where it’s all going… Don’t just look at your commentary, look at your synch too. Are you asking the synch to do too much? Are you thinking the sequence works because it’s “all there” in what your contributor says? Sorry, but that’s not enough. Remember:
Viewers listen to synch a completely different way from how they listen to comm.
Try to avoid describing what’s happening on screen. If we can see it, we don’t need to be told it.
Instead find something to say that adds another layer of understanding, meaning, or emotion – something that reminds us of the film’s mission, or racks up the tension.
Stating the obvious helps no one (“the bug walks along the leaf”, “the woman drives her car”). It’s a recipe for a saggy, boring film.
If you can remove something from your film without changing the basic flow of your story…
That material doesn’t belong in your story.
GVs are great for some links, but they’re disastrous if you use them all the time.
Even if you have a perfectly good story, it will feel like you don’t.
GVs make the film feel episodic.
They highlight the lack of connection between your sequences (even if those connections are in fact fine).
For more on links, go here. It’s important stuff.
Get the beginning and the end right.
The rest will follow. (Also, even if you run out of time: if your film starts and ends well, you can get away with a few weak points in the middle.)
Rhetorical questions imply that you know what the audience is thinking.
A phrase like, “What caused the disaster?” comes across as, “What caused the disaster, I hear you ask”. It’s patronising, clunky and unconvincing. The clue is in the name: it feels rhetorical.
There are exceptions:
- When the question feels like it’s what a character in the film is thinking. For example: “What caused the disaster? Experts were stumped” is instantly better than “What caused the disaster?”
- American scripts handle rhetorical questions better than British-English scripts. In fact, they like them.
- Rhetorical questions can also work – very occasionally – when a question posed in commentary is immediately answered by a contributor in synch.
I’m not saying don’t use rhetorical questions: they can be very effective. What I’m saying is:
Use rhetorical questions sparingly, and with great care.
We all end up with ‘fossil’ moments in our films – things that made sense in a previous cut but now don’t really belong.
Often they’re the bits we’re most attached to. We really want them to work, so we keep them in, hoping that perhaps, magically, they will make the final cut.
Say a fond farewell, and cut, cut, cut.