Editing For Story

For Class #5

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com

Mark Goldblatt has made a career out of editing movies which are strongly dependent on story, including many of Jim Cameron's films, like TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2. In this interview, he talks about how to continually work on a cut of a film and maintain sight of the storyline and the things that will make the movie experience a success for the viewer. As usual, I've highlighted in yellow, those areas that reflect on what we are talking about in class.

Note that Mark discusses a classic script structure where certain events and turning points happen at certain points. Basically, I don't buy this philosophy. It's too rigid and doesn't allow for much difference in structure. Still, there is much to be learned from an examination of it, since most of the elements he talks about are essential to good storytelling, even if they don't need to come exactly when noted here.

Editing For Story

by Stacey Webber

Courtesy of IFILM

"Cinema is action; drama is action," says veteran film editor Mark Goldblatt ("Armageddon," "True Lies") in an instructional CD-ROM for advanced Avid Media Composer students. "It's always moving somewhere." Hence, the challenge of editing a film for story is to make sure that every scene serves to propel it forward, either in terms of character development and action, while staying true to the overall premise of the film.

When editing, keep your story flowing, and find a balance between action and "color"--the look, feel, emotional state and tone of the piece. A story with no color is cold and meaningless; a story with no action is stagnant and tedious.

Hopefully, your movie was well-conceived and shot in the first place, so editing will just be a matter of staying on the path and figuring out how much material you need to make your point.

To make sure your story's action is on track, it's crucial to study classic screenplay story structure. While not every film adheres to this format exactly, most traditional movies stick pretty close to it. But even if your goal is to become the next Jean-Luc Godard, it's important to know the rules, if only so you can bend or break them intentionally.

The following is a basic overview of story structure which combines elements from three excellent resources: Viki King's "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days," "Creating Short Fiction" by Damon Knight and "Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434." (Each page in screenplay format runs about a minute in screen time. For shorter stories adjust the timing proportionally.)

Page 1: Opening metaphor or premise is revealed, and/or a believable and sympathetic central character is introduced.

Page 3: Central question is posed, i.e., "Can men and women be friends?" "What would happen if a kid woke up one morning and he was big?"

Page 10: Central character, his/her environment, what he/she wants and his/her urgent and difficult problem are set up.

Page 30 (one-third of the way into the story): First turning point or plot point: A major, life-changing event occurs.

Page 45: Growth metaphor--a small scene with symbolic overtones shows the character's growth and gives us a clue to the resolution.

Page 60: Midpoint--attempts to resolve the problem fail and make his/her situation more desperate.

Page 75: All looks lost, character's low point.

Page 90: (two-thirds of the way into the story): Second turning point, the crisis, his/her last chance to win. The hero may be getting something more or different from what he/she set out to get, but has learned something and is changed by it.

Page 120: Conclusion--the successful resolution, brought about by means of the central character's own courage, ingenuity, persistence, etc.


If it takes you much longer than two minutes to set up the "who" of your story, ask yourself if you're being consistent with the character. It confuses the audience to show 12 different aspects of John Doe's personality. Always remember to reveal your hero by showing, not telling about them. For instance, in the opening segment of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" we see Whoopi Goldberg, dressed in baggy, funky clothing and bright yellow sneakers, sliding down the staircase banister to her toy-covered computer terminal. Just that moment tells us that she is playful, offbeat and gregarious.

"The heart of all good stories is relationships; the audience needs a chance to develop an attachment to the people in your story. If your movie has an awesome car chase scene, but we don't love or hate the characters, no one will care. Even an action movie such as "Armageddon" devoted quite a bit of screen time to the relationship between the macho Bruce Willis character and his daughter (Liv Tyler).

Once the scene is set, take your character on a journey of change--physical, emotional, lyrical, whatever--that doesn't let up until the end of the film.

All movies have a natural rhythm dictated by the material. Use music to help you find the beat, but don't get attached to the work of big-name talent to which you'll never get the rights. Lawsuits are never pretty. When working with actors, pick the strongest emotional performances and work around them. Living with a movie from concept to completion can numb you a bit to the intense emotional moments. When you first view the dailies, or video footage, make notes about what was funny, sad, sexy, horrifying or scary. You want to emphasize and showcase those emotional moments. Go ahead and throw everything together. The first cut will most likely be way too long--Goldblatt says that the first cut of "Armageddon" was more than three hours long. The power of editing is in trimming the movie down to the bone.

In all likelihood, especially if you are the writer-director, you will tend to let your scenes run too long. Don't get attached to the shots! Repeat this handy mantra over and over: "Less is more. Less is more."

Watch the whole movie to keep it all in context, noticing tangential moments with no character-building payoff, or scenes that drag. You will also have to kill at least one of your favorite scenes, which you'll probably want to cling to like a beloved child. You can save it for the cast-party outtakes reel, but if it doesn't move the story along, it's got to go.

Gaining Perspective

Periodically test-screen your work-in-progress with assistants, friends and supportive family for reactions. Take their feedback into account (especially if 15 people tell you that the same scene is confusing) but trust your gut instincts about story and pacing, always keeping the arc of the entire movie in mind. Hopefully you're working with a nonlinear editing system, so that you can easily revise. Always keep the earlier versions of your edit for reference.

If every rendition of your movie leaves you flat, and you start to wonder what kind of weird life crisis led you to moviemaking in the first place, then you either need a break or you need someone to work with. Collaborating with an editor you respect will dramatically improve your film. An editor's fresh eyes will help you see where the story is sluggish or where it can be improved in unexpected ways. Unlike the director, the editor didn't run up his or her credit cards for film stock. He or she missed the 14-hour day in the rain coaxing a performance out of a recalcitrant terrier. An editor sees all the footage from the audience's perspective, which is something the director can't do after living with it so intimately for so long.

All this trimming is bound to mess up your original carefully storyboarded plan. You might not have all the coverage you wish you had to shorten or eliminate a sequence that isn't working. At times like this, remember the sage advice of Los Angeles-based film and television editor Cindy Mollo: "It's better to make a bad cut than to leave in a bad sequence."

Give your audience a likable, realistic central character; keep the story in constant motion and emphasize emotional changes; and perhaps most importantly, always remember: "Citizen Kane" and "Grand Illusion" clocked in at under two hours.


Stacey Webber is a San Francisco-based video and film editor and freelance writer. She can be reached at sawebber@pacbell.net


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Last Modified - September 30, 2008