While we are all busy BLOGGING, instead of writing what we’re supposed to, I want to steal a concept from Hollywood (thanks, sis!) that all writers can use: Screen Time.
This works for any bit of writing, whether it’s an oped in a paper of news, a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the three-toed sloths of Costa Rica or an epic doorstop of a novel clocking in at 984 pages entitled ELVES WITH LIGHTSABERS RIDING DRAGONS AND THE VAMPIRE WITCHES WHO LOVE THEM. (Note: Don’t speak of this, because it tempts me, and I may write the first chapter of that book, then email it around until we actually hold in our evil little hands 984 pages that eviscerates Game of Thrones, Twilight, the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.)
So, back to the point: Screen Time is an essential test for any piece of writing.
I could put a gun to your head and ask, “What’s this novel / screenplay / letter to the editor really about?” and you might answer, “a time-traveling World War II nurse and the men in kilts who love her / waiting for some dude who never shows up / why the federal government is building secret tunnels underneath Wal-Marts in Texas to stage an invasion in cahoots with ISIS cells hiding in Mexico.”
And you might INTEND that to be the point of what you wrote.
The Screen Time Test will say if you’re a lying liar or not.
Movies are the easiest, so let’s go with AVENGERS: JAMES SPADER IS A SHINY ROBOT WHO HATES HUMANS. You take the heroes, sidekicks, villains, minions and nameless civilians in the film and add up the the number of minutes (or seconds) they actually show up on film. If you’re feeling insanely generous, add up minutes where other characters talk about them, too, though we may call you Cheaty McCheatypants.
Who’s the hero of AVENGERS? It should be the hero with the most screen time. Good luck figuring that out. I’ll send you an Excel spreadsheet and a stopwatch.
Who’s the villain in AVENGERS? Supposedly, James Spader the Shiny Robot, but I don’t honestly know. Haven’t watched it yet. Have no idea how many bad guys suck up the screen time, or if Samuel L. Jackson in an eye patch gets more time because his salary is bigger.
But you get the idea.
Time on the screen, or the page, tells the audience what to care about. Period.
Even if you intend for some other idea or character to be most important, your audience will automatically care the most about whoever gets the most time and attention.
So it’s dangerous, even for somebody as talented as Joss the Whedon, to throw a half-dozen heroes on the big screen along with Ultron and Thanos, Hydra villains with German accents plus the standard horde of faceless minions who naturally get tons of screen time because the heroes have to smash them for at least half the movie.
The more characters or ideas you add, the more confused your audience gets.
I have a feeling Joss the Whedon did just fine, and I’ll happily shell out $70 for 3-D glasses, popcorn and IMAX tickets to his moving picture. Soon.
But it’s not hard to see examples where people do this wrong.
THE EXPENDABLES has so many geriatric action stars on each movie poster in the series, I have have to squint to figure out if the dude in black commando gear and a black beret is Jason Statham or Chuck Norris or some other 75-year-old star from the ’80s that they busted out of Hollywood Hills Senior Center.
Every LORD OF THE RINGS and HOBBIT movie featured a zillion hobbits and dwarves, plus human heroes and orcs and wizards and armies of bad guys. I have friends who are Lord of the Ring nuts and they have heated arguments about who the real hero of the first trilogy is (Sam! Frodo! Viggo! Magneto!). It’s a hot mess.
When you go in the other direction, with fewer characters and ideas, it focuses your audience.
BREAKING BAD had the same hero and villain: Walter White, a tragic hero who causes his own downfall. Hubris FTW! It didn’t matter what was happening in an episode, the action centered around Walt, every time. That kept the series on track, which is hard to do with so many great actors on a show like that. You’re tempted to give them all their own guitar solos and such. No. Bad idea. Stick with Heisenberg.
So take whatever you write and give it the Screen Time Test.
Figure out how much time different characters and idea munch from the total. Is it right, or out of line? If you killed off a given character, would the story die, or could another character take their lines?
Think about all those dwarves in the Hobbit movies. I mean, seriously. How many could you lose without killing the story? We could go down from 12 to about three without a single problem. If you want to get serious, send the hobbit out with the mad dwarf king, just the two of them. That wizard costs millions in salary anyway, and using magic to save hobbits and dwarves all the time is a huge plot cheat.
TL;DR: I belong to the Kill ‘Em All School of Thought, where you axe every possible character, idea and subplot until only the most essential survive. It’s a tough school, kinda like Cobra Kai. Sweep the leg. No mercy. But it’s an honest school, without frills and nonsense and dwarves who fall in love with girl elves for 30 minutes of a movie for some reason. It’s also a school where Sylvester Stallone has to fight another over-the-hill action star all by himself. Just the two of them.