Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pruning Pains (Editing is not for Sissies)

Editing can be gut-wrenching. As every writer/self-editor knows, whacking your darlings is never easy. You feel wounded with every slash of the red ink; your heart pangs with every press of the delete button. You agonize as you ruthlessly hack and snip and chop words and phrases that you struggled to create in the first place.

And then when you're finished, you're never sure if you've actually improved anything. Maybe you've just shortened the torment.

But then you run across a masterpiece of editing and you understand why it's necessary. Why you must muscle through the painful process in order to birth a living, breathing baby. A perfect living, breathing being.

I was watching the wonderful film, Sabrina, the other night, and one of those editing-masterpiece scenes slapped me across the face. (It wasn't the original with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, but the the remake with Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear as the fabulously wealthy brothers Larraby.)

As the story goes, Sabrina, the Larraby's awkward, frizzy chauffeur's daughter who has grown up on the mammoth Long Island estate completely smitten with David, the dashing, carefree young brother (Greg Kinnear), undergoes a metamorphosis while working abroad. She finds herself in Paris. Or at least a stunningly drop-dead gorgeous version of herself that knocks the socks off hapless David upon her return.

The problem is that David is now engaged to a beautiful physician, the daughter of another mega-wealthy New York business tycoon, and a multi-billion dollar merger between the Larraby Corporation and this gal's daddy is hanging in the balance.

David's older brother Linus (an adorably deadpan, seriously nerdy Harrison Ford), begins to court poor confused Sabrina to sabotage the budding romance between her and David. He will woo her, win, her, and then dump her in Paris in order to save the financial day. But his brilliant plan runs amok when he accidentally truly falls in love with Sabrina and she with him.

And here's where the editing masterpiece scene comes in. 

Linus has just realized he can't follow through with his plan to unceremoniously dump Sabrina in Paris (although he doesn't understand why he suddenly feels this way) and he's spilling the beans to her in his usual hard-nosed, calloused way.

One can imagine the writer scribbling away at the original scene, pouring out all the juicy stuff that is obviously playing through the brain of clueless, never-before-been-in-love Linus. There is so much that could have been said here ... and likely was said in the first draft. And maybe even second draft. But none of it made it through the ruthless editing process. The dialogue is sparse. It's basically barren. But because of Linus's no-nonsense, business-only personality that has already been established by the excellent script, it works. It WORKS. Big time.

So here's what Linus intones in his gravelly monotone voice in response to Sabrina's impassioned, "Why did you lie to me?"

"There was a marriage.
There was a merger.
You got in the way."

That's all. But with all the volumes left unsaid, it was more than enough. More is not better in writing, especially dialogue. And this dozen or so words was beautifully haunting in a lingering-in-your-soul sort of pain.

So what's your favorite example of excellent editing? I'd love to hear it?



Christina Banks said...

That is a fantastic example of great bare-bones editing. That line wouldn't have worked for any other character in the story. I'm in the middle of self-editing my novel, and it is hard sometimes to know what to cut and what to keep. I do a lot of reading out loud, making sure the writing sounds right. Someday it is a long slow process, but so worth the work in the end.

Anonymous said...

I think my favorite editing in a movie was the end of Saving Private Ryan. Few words and so much emotion. After watching that movie which was so intense, it was such a powerful and subtle way to end it. Rick Christensen

Debora M. Coty said...

Thanks so much for your fave editing takes, Christina and Rick. Why are GREAT editing examples so few and far between?