As a parent, one of the many pleasures that I enjoy is sharing movies with my children that were formative building blocks in my own childhood. Recently, I decided to introduce them to Bedknobs and Broomsticks from 1971, a magic-infused musical film attempting to rediscover the perfect formula that gave the world Mary Poppins seven years earlier. My nostalgia quivered as the introductory music played and I settled in for a welcome trip down memory lane. Imagine my surprise when I started seeing scene after scene that I had no memory of. Not only that, but these scenes weren’t just unfamiliar. They were bad.
I soon learned what had happened. In 1996, the film was ‘restored’ from the 117 minutes that I was familiar with to a bloated 139 minutes, reinserting over twenty minutes that had been cut from the film before its premiere. However, none of these added scenes are improvements. From adding superfluous characters to introducing some truly cringe-worthy performances, each new scene and extended musical number only served to hurt the movie’s pacing, flow, and tone.
Of course, I also learned that these deleted scenes were originally removed against the wishes of the filmmakers, but that wasn’t a surprise to me. As a freelance editor, I’ve worked with my share of writers who worry that cutting anything from their story would ruin its integrity. I suspect that this is because it’s just as hard to come up with a bad idea as a good one, and as a result it’s often hard to tell them apart.
Does that sound odd? It shouldn’t. Think of all the time you’ve spent on a complex, creative project only to step back and realize that, looking at it as a whole, it just doesn’t work. From writing a story to decorating a room, sometimes you don’t know if the individual parts work or not until you can see all of it at once. The danger for creatives is when they either throw up their hands and say “good enough” or worse, convince themselves that the sum of its parts is somehow more than the finished piece.
Of course, there are examples (particularly in movies) where the original creator’s vision was compromised, only to be improved by introducing a definitive version later on. The Snyder Cut of The Justice League may be the most familiar example to contemporary audiences.
But the truth is that these transformed flops are the exception, not the rule. It’s not big news when a studio steps in and hires a script doctor or a second director to punch up a flagging project. That’s just business as usual. And if a movie becomes a classic, then trying to add more to it after the fact is just going to feel like painful overstuffing (I’m looking directly at you and your extended original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas).
So what’s the takeaway for authors?
Don’t be afraid to edit, and don’t be afraid to cut. Even if a specific element is fantastic on its own, if it can’t be made to work with the story, then it has to go. No scene, subplot, or character is so good that it can’t be cut for the sake of the story as a whole.
Also, the importance of flow and tone cannot be overstated. If your story doesn’t have a nice through-line—that consistent conflict/resolution pattern that pulls the reader through the plot—you’re going to lose them. And as for tone, while there may be some slight variation within a piece, the overall emotional message of the piece needs to be consistent. Remember, a single book is just one of the shades in the rainbow that fills up your bookshelf. It can’t (and shouldn’t try to) be all the colors at once. That just makes a mess.
Luckily, I was able to find a copy of Bedknobs and Broomsticks that had the original, theatrical-release cut. And you know what? My girls sat in rapt attention throughout the whole thing. So did I.
A big shout-out to the wonderful members of my Writers Community:
Christine Herbert, Michele Cacano, Jessica Mormann, Naltath, and Jo Sal.
If you’d like to learn more about my Writers Community, check out the following link: