The reason for this page range is that in a properly formatted screenplay, one page should equal approximately one minute of film time. Movie theaters and distributors want movies to run between ninety minutes and two hours. Yes, you've probably seen plenty of big tent pole films this summer that run well over two hours. But often the length of these films grew as the script was developed and action scenes and special effects were added in preproduction. The rules for spec scripts are different from these final films.
So what do you do when you finish your first draft and discover your script is too long? If it's ten or even twenty pages over the desired length, you probably shouldn't worry yet. Often first drafts are bloated, and as you trim and refine your scenes and dialog, you'll see that page count come down. Also, if you know you need to make major structural changes to fix the story, best to get those things done before worrying about length.
But if the story is working and you're page count is significantly over the norm, what do you do?
There are many possible reasons your script ran long and it can be difficult to diagnose the problem. There is no "right" number of scenes or "correct" scene length. Some scenes will be only a few lines, others will be several pages. Scenes longer than three pages are rare, but not unheard of. Action movies tend to have a lot of scenes, romantic comedies and dramas fewer... but not always.
If it seems like you have too many exceptionally long scenes, or that the pace of your scenes is dragging, perhaps you’re overwriting. The solution will be to tighten your writing (I'll offer some techniques for tightening your writing in a future post).
Or perhaps you are overdeveloping scenes that don't need it. Not every scene has to be long and dramatic with big obstacles and twists. Some can be quick, quarter page scenelets. Save the drama for significant plot points or character moments. Keep in mind, though, you usually shouldn't do more than two or three pages in a row of quick scenes like this.
If, on the other hand, your scenes are good but you just seem to have too many of them, you may have to cut some things out. It might be possible to cut scenes without compromising story. There are two possibilities:
One, you might have redundant scenes – multiple scenes demonstrating the same plot information. As I discussed last post, if you do something right once then you don’t have to repeat yourself. Pick the best scene for the task and cut the others. If the best scene doesn't do the job, make it better.
Two, you might be able to have scenes do double or triple duty. Often in the first draft you’ll have one scene advancing plot and another advancing character. Are there places where you can move the character stuff into a plot scene or vice versa?
If you still have a length problem, it might be an indication that your story is too big. Perhaps you have too many subplots. Most screenplays can sustain about four story lines - one main plot and three major subplots. If it seems like you’re tracking too many different things, rank your storylines in order of importance. Can you cut the ones that are on the bottom of that list?
You also might have too many characters. It is generally advisable to have only as many characters as you need to make the story work. Ask yourself what each character’s role is in the story. See if you can combine some of those functions. Does your rogue cop really need to be chewed out by his Lieutenant, the Captain AND the Mayor? Does he need six drinking buddies? Wouldn’t two suffice? Particularly look for characters who only appear in one or two scenes. Could a more significant character take on that part?
Often this is toughest to do when you are dealing with a true story. You know there were actually three lawyers representing the defendant. Or that the crucial clue came from a random neighbor. This is where you may have to let go of the facts and focus on truth… with fewer characters.
It may be hard to cut scenes and characters that you love, but this is what they mean when they say, “kill your babies” or "kill your darlings." The guiding principal here should be to serve the needs of the story first and foremost. You have to cut the things that don't serve the story... no matter how much you like them. And yes, that can be painful.
Some of you are probably now saying, "That's great, but what if my first draft is too short?" Ah, a perfect topic for my next post!