learning from deleted scenes

People always say that writers have to be willing to kill their darlings, to delete their favorite scenes if necessary for the good of the whole, but we don't get to see how this is handled in practice. Think of your favorite novels. What did the author take out in order to produce the book you love? Who knows?

But we do get to see deleted scenes from movies on DVDs, sometimes with commentary from the director about why they were deleted, and I think there are lessons to learn there (novels are not the same as movies, obviously, but they are both ways of telling stories).

First, different directors handle this differently. Woody Allen never saves what he removes from films; he tosses everything once he's done. Nowadays I'm sure directors save things (maybe even especially their darlings) just so they can appear on the DVD.

The most common reason I've heard directors cite for removing scenes is pacing. Especially toward the end of a movie, you don't want to lose momentum. If the scene reveals important information, is that information conveyed elsewhere (or can it be inserted somewhere else, or can we do without it)? If no vital information is being conveyed, save it for the DVD.

Pacing is important, but it's not the only consideration. Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has a scene in the middle where John Kelso, the main character, goes to a very fancy cotillion which is disrupted by The Lady Chablis (who had been very disappointed that Kelso wouldn't take her as his date). This has nothing to do with the plot, and contains no vital information (the relationship between Kelso and Chablis is pretty thoroughly illustrated elsewhere), but it's funny as hell and Eastwood obviously decided to leave it in.

Pacing is important, as I say, but it isn't everything. Some artistic decisions can't be made by following the rule book.

Ben Affleck did an alternate ending scene for Gone Baby Gone, where a voiceover referred back to the film's opening to summarize the point of the film. Fortunately, he had the good judgment to remove it and let the audience think it through for themselves.

By the way, Robert Altman's most common reason for removing scenes was "too sentimental," which says a lot about his films. I will also mention that one of my favorite scenes in Gosford Park was not in the finished film. It was removed because it tied into a subplot that was removed, but it is a great scene and tells a lot about two of the characters. In my mental version of the film, it is there, where it belongs. 🙂

Sometimes scenes have to be removed because the plot shifts and they simply aren't possible. There was a really nice scene in A Sane Woman that I had to remove because it was a conversation that Jan and Marshall would never have had except in private, and at that point in the book the resolution was in motion and they would never have left the suspects alone even for a minute. I should locate that and post it here.

I have posted some deleted scenes here, and this is my favorite. It didn't fit in the book because the plot shifted, or it would be there. Oh, well.

(Of course, I'm sure some movie scenes are removed simply because they sucked, but those aren't likely to show up on DVDs. 🙂 )


For a very different, and more extensive, post on what writers can learn from other media, check out the post "Sleep No More: Novel Writing" post at the blog 80,000 Words.

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7 Responses to learning from deleted scenes

  1. sonje says:

    With the one exception I wrote about last week, when I’ve deleted scenes, they’re just gone. The reason is almost always that the tone of the scene got away from me. Despite the advice I seem to be reading everywhere to always “raise the stakes” and “amp things up,” I usually delete (really, re-write) scenes because the emotional tone has gotten too intense and I need to bring it down. I like the idea of having deleted scenes on my website as bonus features, but at the same time, it is hard for me ego to show the scenes that “failed.”

  2. I think we’ve talked about “raise the stakes” and “amp it up” before, but that’s like telling a band “play every song as fast and loud as you can.” No good band has ever done that (not even the Ramones — they varied tempos, at least, and they were sort of a special case).

    I save my deleted scenes by my usual combination of obsessiveness and inefficiency. I save every draft of everything. So, I’ve got everything, but where would I find the specfic deleted scene I’m interested in? Usually there’s no hope. But I have it!

    Somewhere.

  3. tpaulin says:

    I read a quote a while back that really struck me. I’m paraphrasing: Who wants to read something with all the darlings killed out of it?

    Sure, cut it if nobody else but you likes it, but chances are the people who will love your work will enjoy the parts you love.

  4. Tamara, that’s going to be my new mantra (now I’m trying to remember what my old mantra was…).

  5. Thanks for sharing your vast movie knowledge to illuminate this topic, Anthony. Killing your darlings so often refers to a specific sentence or beloved phrase, but as novelists it’s so important to look at the overall picture. What belongs? What doesn’t? There’s a lot to be said for leaving in a delightful scene, like your Clint Eastwood example, but leaving in a string of them, where the action doesn’t move forward and nothing gets resolved, would create a giant lag in the plot.

    As far as line by line edits, I really like Tamara’s answer and agree to a point. But I still believe that some darlings must get axed in favor of the greater story. A novel full of darlings could get too precious, anyway…

    • There’s a word for people who have too many darlings. 🙂

      (I was thinking of “fickle,” by the way, not one of the harsher words.)

      I learned by negative example from my father, who could never bear to cut a line he thought would get a laugh, even if it was completely wrong for the scene or the character. I had a funny line that I had to cut once because the character would never have said it. I saved it, and another character said it three chapters later. But I only used t there because it really fit.

  6. Pingback: Guest Post: Anthony Lee Collins on the Art of Serial Fiction | Laura Stanfill

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