COLUMN: TALES FROM THE SCRIPT by Lance Thompson

Director John Ford was not known for his cordial relations with producers and studio executives. When Ford was making Mogambo, he was visited on set by the film’s producer, Sam Zimbalist.  Zimbalist pointed out to Ford that the complex production was three days behind schedule.  Ford picked up his script, tore out three pages, and said, “Now we’re back on schedule.”

Ford never felt constrained by words on the page, and frequently cut out scenes or pages or entire storylines when he felt it was necessary.  Though the Mogambo story is a colorful example of Ford’s tempestuous behavior, it also contains a valuable lesson for screenwriters.

Many scripts start too early and end too late.  Writers may feel that characters and stories need a prologue or setup to familiarize the audience with the situation.  Likewise, writers think that their stories need elaborate explanations after the climax to tie up loose ends and let the audience know what becomes of all the characters.

Usually, that is unnecessary.  Audiences are quick to catch on to the action and don’t need to have every detail explained to them.  Audiences are sophisticated enough to be dropped into the middle of the tale and figure out the story on the fly.  A story is more engaging if the audience is required to work a little bit to figure out what’s going on.

A good example of this is the film Source Code (2011) written by Ben Ripley.

It is a science fiction story about a character who must relive the same day over and over in order to stop a terrorist attack.  The mechanics of the plot are complex, but they are revealed gradually as the movie progresses, not all at once in a clumsy introductory exposition.  The movie begins with the plot already in motion and proceeds at a breathless pace.  It is an effective sci-fi thriller that respects the audience’s ability to follow a complicated plot without unnecessary explanation that slows down the action.

It’s okay to require the audience to devote some effort to follow the story.  Trust them to pay attention and figure things out for themselves.  Respect the audience.  Don’t waste their time.  And when in doubt, tear out a few pages.

You can read the full script HERE.

Lance Thompson is a screenwriter, script doctor, and ghostwriter.
He can be reached by email at scriptdoc88@gmail.com.