Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tinkering: Clip, Cut, Revise!


It startles me how much editing has an impact on how you experience a story.

A clip here, a cut there, small revisions sprinkled throughout can actually make a big difference in how scenes, characters, and the story as a whole is perceived. Who would've thunk it?

Especially because I'm a tinkerer. I'm constantly going back over chapters and "episodes" during the writing process, editing for flow, trying to tighten things up, cutting dialogue, adding dialogue, speeding scenes up and slowing them down. I clip and I cut and I revise on and on!

But it can be difficult, especially after cutting and recutting several versions of a scene, to really gauge the overall difference all those edits made. But they're huge.

Case in point: Oliver Stone's much loved/hated film Alexander.

There are three (3!!!) cuts of the film that have been released, each different in running time, structure, and the richness of their scenes. What amazes me is that the difference between them aren't major. Scenes are lengthened or shortened by just a few seconds, spending an extra moment on someone's reaction or cutting a line of dialogue entirely. Scenes are moved around, but they're the same scenes, only an enormous amount of tinkering has produced different cuts of the film.

But again, that tinkering made a difference!

Take our dear friend Craterus, one of Alexander's most trusted generals.

In the Theatrical Version of a scene taking place on the night before a battle, Craterus is seen camped out around the fire with his soldiers, and it seems like he's spending time with them to keep them in high spirits. They're nervous, and when Alexander tells them not to worry, not to be afraid, one of Craterus' young soldiers makes a joke at his expense, something about sleeping with one eye open so that he can keep an eye on his loot. Everyone laughs, including Craterus, and the tension is relieved. It seems like Craterus is a jolly guy, who can take a joke. I like him.

But in the Final Cut, this scene is extended. The young soldier still tells the same joke, but he adds another line of dialogue that turns a playful jab into a full on stab — he's making direct fun of Craterus' cheapness, in front of the other soldiers and even Alexander! It comes off as impertinent. In this version, Craterus also scolds the young soldier once Alexander is out of earshot. The look on his face changes. He says, "You're in the first row tomorrow, boy!" Which basically means that soldier's going to be on the front lines — first to strike and first to die. The soldier's smile turns to one of fear. It's like a death sentence.

And so Craterus goes from being a jolly old general who has a special relationship with his soldiers, to one who can't take a joke, and who basically sentences his soldier to death for embarrassing him in front of the king. And this is our very first impression of him!

Tinkering makes a difference.

Clipping, cutting, adding small revisions changes the experience. Editing doesn't just cut down words and smooth things out, it changes how we perceive the world and its characters.

So be mindful when you tinker. Ask yourself: is this really better or worse than before, and why? How does it impact our POV of the characters? How does it change our experience of the story overall?

Happy tinkering!

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