I came across a quote from an Eastman College student handbook from 1884
that applies to screenwriting too; “You must walk and you must do the work.
Rules are like crutches, and should not be forgotten when you are strong
enough to walk or work without their aid. Think for yourself – and so digest the
elements that enter into the many problems before you. You will then assimilate
and make them your own, and rules will not be needed.”
You’ve learned the rules of screenwriting, you write and rewrite to create unique original
characters for the actors and you create detailed visuals that help the director tell the story
you have envisioned, but what are you writing for the benefit of the editor? As a screenwriter
you are aware of the impact of a timely pause, a beat, a rest, in the rhythm of a character’s
dialogue. You choose to build these moments into your character’s dialogue for specific
effect; moments purposefully placed and used by the writer with studied intention. After
directing my first film and sitting next to my editor, Tony Bennis, for weeks in an edit suite, I
have a renewed respect for the use of the pause in scripted dialogue.
There are other reasons for a writer to place a pause, even a slight one, perhaps just a breath.
In the edit suite there would be moments when I would want to make a clean cut to another
shot, the actor delivered the lines as written, without a pause.
I suddenly realized as the writer that a director (also me in this instance) may have wanted to
cut to a reaction shot, but there was no way to make a clean cut for the other actor’s great
reaction to a critical line, or to another visual that the actor was referring to. I could still make
the cut, just not as clean. The actor could have been directed to take a beat during filming,
but once you’ve moved on to the editing process it’s a little late to give direction to the actor.
However, if the screenwriter had crafted pauses in the dialogue that makes sense to the
speech pattern of that character it works much better and serves the project artistically and
technically. If no cut is made in the edit room, the pause still fits the character’s rhythm, but
the ability to choose to make a clean cut is available to the director/editor.
In the quiet of the writing space, the solitary screenwriter can close their eyes and clearly
see every beat of the film that they have mapped out on the pages of their screenplay.
However, once in production, that solitude and quiet is gone. In the moment, the actors may
not be thinking about the film’s editor. The director should be thinking about the editor, but
may be too busy coordinating the myriad of elements that go into creating the scene. As a
screenwriter, you are not telling the actor, director or the editor how to do their jobs, you are
giving them the blue print that helps make your vision move from the page to the screen,
and be the best truest version of your story. Once you have used all of your writing tools to
create the story, the director will retell that story to an audience using their own set of tools.
So give him or her another tool to use, the pause. Every word you write is a choice, even the
space between those words. So choose to give your actors, your director and your editor the
gift of well-placed moments of silence.
Since finishing the HALF PINT project for OCD Associates I think more about writing (and
rewriting) with the editor in mind. As I sit alone in front of my laptop, I try to anticipate what
some future editor may need as they work for days sitting in front of that edit screen in a
dark room. The better the job that I do on the page will translate through the often chaotic
process of filmmaking and assist the editor who will ultimately, hopefully assemble the many
thousands of captured moments of my story into a completed film.
Duncan Putney is a screenwriter/producer/director. His writing has earned him a Van
Gough Award, a New England Emmy Award, two Gold Screen Awards, a SOLA award and
many screenplay competition honors and he is an “Imaginnaire” recipient. He has several
New England Emmy nominations as a producer of PSAs. Duncan’s debut novella, “Pocket
Change” is now available as an e-book on Kindle and Nook. He is also the co-founder of
Original Concept & Development Associates with Andre Stark (www.ocda.biz).