May 5th 2016
Day 2 – The Anatomy of Editing
Editing is like surgery, anatomy to be more specific. Before you laugh, just hear me out. When you cut a line or two, it may seem like nothing… but then when you realise, that one line actually carried a really important part of the plot… it’s time to dig out the magnifying glass because it’s going to be one hell of a search! Here we go, hunting through the script, trying to see if that one damned line is referenced anywhere else. It’s like the butterfly effect. One change. And the whole story is potentially wrecked. Literally cutting a long story short – editing is a bitch!
On a sunny May morning, bright and early, Tonje, Sam and I met in our favourite office – the National Theatre, up on the Southbank, and we spent a few intense hours pouring over the script. The second Act to be more specific. There was a particular scene, Act 2 Scene 1, which read too long and too tedious in the read through and we needed to give it a good haircut. But where do we start?
Well, The Beach House is a thriller. Meaning that the pace and suspense needs to be ticking on through the piece and a great majority of the dialogue in Act 2, Scene 1 threw up a massive road block for that suspense. So we needed to pinpoint the exact moments when the audience would give up and fall asleep.
When I overwrite too much dialogue, mostly, it’s for my own head. I need to understand why the characters do what they do and for me to achieve that, it has to be in the conversation. Walk the walk, talk the talk and all that jazz. Act 2, Scene 1 is a scene where the characters really need to get something out of their conversation. I was trying in vain to find out for myself, what is it that they want? To do that I had to test out the conversation between the characters.
Without giving too much away, the scene is a two hander involving a shift in the dynamic between the characters of Danny and Shaun. Shaun lives in the beach house with his sister Ellie. Danny is a stranger who has been taken in by them due to a drastic change in the weather. It’s a power shift that creates a lot of tension between them. But like I said already, I dragged a lot of the dialogue out, with the intention that their newfound dynamic, should pay off in the final scene of the play. However, it just went on too long and we needed to cut it out! Literally!
But lines don’t just get cut for the hell of it. There has to be a reason. First we read out the scene and then analysed the characters. What do they want in that moment? Why is Danny behaving the way he is? Why isn’t Shaun doing this or that? Questions, questions, questions. We asked and answered.Like sucking out useless pieces of fat, we scooped out the lines that were repetitive, uncharacteristic or misunderstood. We also found ourselves asking, ‘Is this important to the story?’ ‘How relevant is this line?’ Let’s cut it!
The most dramatic scene, in Act 2, Scene 3 was the biggest chunk we cut out. There’s a big reveal at the end, which answers the massive question that had been lingering throughout the play. When writing it, there was a sense of, okay so this is the moment the audience has been waiting for – let’s go all out! But what looks good on paper (and in your head) doesn’t fit the stage. The original scene had one epic ‘moment’ where the audience are holding their breath and then they’re given a minute to breathe, before wrapping everything up. Well… that was my intention anyway! What worked best for this scene (and many others) is the mantra I’ll keep referring to ‘it’s what’s not being said that works.’ All you need to do as a writer is plant implications of what ‘might’ have happened and then the audience can garner their own response to that. That is essentially what theatre is. I’ve realised, there is no right or wrong answer. People can take whatever they want from it and good on them!
We also cut a large portion of Act 1, Scene 2. Originally, I had the siblings find Danny on the beach and then they bring him into the house. But the scene change was too much, so we decided to cut that out all together. Now, when we first meet Danny, it’s in the house, with the Campbell siblings bringing him into safety.
So the lines have been cut. Great… but now we’re left with a broken scene. So how do we go about fixing it? It all comes down to the characters. You don’t really need a ton of dialogue to create your characters. You really don’t. There’s a point in Act 2, Scene 1 where I re -worked Danny’s character through physicality only. In the first draft, I tried to show that he was angry, through some cutting comments he made. But you don’t need dialogue to show anger. You can do that by simple body language, referenced in the stage directions. Done. And it’s so much more effective too. Show not tell. That damn phrase that haunts us writers everywhere, and probably will follow us to the grave!
There were a lot of scene changes which needed to be narrowed down. Originally, the set consisted of – the kitchen, the beach, the living room and the guest room. But it just became too many. We needed to keep it simple. So now the set only consists of the kitchen and the living room. That is The Beach House. The rest is up to the audience’s imagination.
So the scenes have been changed to just two settings. I now had the unenviable task of re-reading the entire script and linking all the changes together so it made sense. Where I referenced the guest room – it now needed to be living room. If there’s a perfectly nice guest room, then why is Danny found sleeping on the couch in Act 1, Scene 5? He has to have a room of his own because he goes off to bed in the end of Scene 4, leaving the Campbell siblings alone in the living room, watching TV. So I had to make up a random excuse which throws him onto the couch in the middle of the night!
When you stitch the script back together, this is where you really feel the butterfly effect kick in. I picked out my fine tooth comb and scoured every inch, every word, every line, tweaking and mending certain words, which make all the difference now.
In a nutshell, editing is like anatomy. Cutting up dialogue and then sewing it all together so it flows naturally. Who else can do it but the one who started it all? You. The writer. So next time someone says that writing isn’t brain surgery… respond calmly with ‘No. But editing is worse. Much worse.’