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The secret to storytelling is in the editing

Cutting_edgePresentation lessons abound in the cinematic arts. Many producers and directors will tell you that what can really make or break a film is the editing. You have probably never heard the names of even some of the most prominent Hollywood editors, even though their work is absolutely crucial to the success of your favorite films. This week I took some time to watch (twice) a documentary called The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Making. Although it is a film about the role of editing in filmmaking, the lessons and principles are applicable to other creative work such as writing, and storytelling of all kinds, including presentations.(Watch a short clip from The Cutting Edge below.)

"Murder your darlings"
Arthur Quiller-Couch's famous advice that we should murder our darlings suggests that we be very careful examining those bits of our story that we love the most. Our attachment to a line or a scene or a clever visual treatment may blind us to the fact that its inclusion, no matter how cool or impressive it may be, does not help the overall message. Objectivity is key, and this is why it is useful to remind ourselves to think like an editor. Because a film editor is not usually involved in all the things that lead up to finally getting the footage in the can (casting, storyboards, weeks/months of shooting, etc.) she maintains the most objectivity and can focus on making the story flow and use her gut too to manipulate shots for emotional effects.

"You don't need what you don't need"
Akira_kurosawa_amazonIn his autobiography, Something Like An Autobiography, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa spoke briefly on the editing process and the lessons from his mentor Kajirō Yamamoto. "Yama-san in the editing room," Kurosawa wrote, "was a bona-fide mass murderer." It's difficult for us to dispose of pieces that we worked so hard on, but the value of a bit's worth—whether it's in film or literature or multimedia presentations, or even writing software for that matter—should not be measured merely in terms of the labor we put into it. The only question in measuring its value is: from the point of view of the audience, does it work in support of the story? Below is an excerpt from Kurosawa's autobiography on the difficulty of cutting what you worked so hard to create:

"I even thought on occasion if we were going to cut so much, why did we have to shoot it all in the first place? I, too, had labored painfully to shoot the film, so it was hard for me to scrap my own work." Kurokawa goes on to say, "When you are shooting, of course, you film only what you believe is necessary. But very often you realize only after having shot it that you didn’t need it after all. You don’t need what you don’t need. Yet human nature wants to place value on things in direct proportion to the amount of labor that went into making them. In film editing, this natural inclination is the most dangerous of all attitudes. The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time. The most important requirement for editing is objectivity. No matter how much difficulty you had in obtaining a particular shot, the audience will never know. If it is not interesting, it simply isn’t interesting. You may have been full of enthusiasm during the filming of a particular shot, but if that enthusiasm doesn’t show on the screen, you must be objective enough to cut it."

It's about the story
"At the end of the day," says Hollywood film editor Zach Staenberg, "all this stuff [filmmaking process/editing] has to work to tell a story. If you're not telling a story, it doesn't matter how much razzle dazzle there is. It's not about the tools, it's about the story." Every frame matters and the inclusion or exclusion of the little things makes a difference. "The difference between a few frames was a scary shark and a big floating turd," says Steven Spielberg in The Cutting Edge documentary. Spielberg also admitted that it was very hard for him to let go of as many frames of the mechanical shark in the final cut of Jaws as he ultimately did because he had worked so hard to get the shots. Thankfully he listened to his editor Verna Fields. Editors are the unsung heros of film, but if we take a closer look even those of us outside of film can learn valuable lessons from their creative work. Whatever the medium, the key in storytelling is cutting the extraneous and the superfluous, keeping in only what helps tell your story.




Wonderful post.

Most often in our presentations or reports, we always add excess data than required to make our point to our audience, which sometimes becomes excess noise.

Often it is editing and reviewing makes it easier.



Editing in films is like getting your story back to the core. The most time I spend in getting my act together is cutting away all the clutter and getting to the real story I want to tell. It's the same for making my presentations as with creating new products or websites.

Lori Buff

I've found this to be true with blogs especially, if we put too much information into an article readers simply skim the article rather than fully read it. I try to skim it for them.

Pat Smith

When I was a child, my older sister presented me with a dictionary. She'd inscribed it with this message: if you want to be a better writer, get a bigger wastebasket. In that vein, I feel that part of the editing process in writing, for me, involves taming my ego, which manifests itself in my prideful delight in a clever but ultimately useless or divergent turn of phrase. I can only imagine how much harder it is to cut film footage than a few words. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Garr.

Jim Dickeson

I always "overproduce" during development, then trim it down. Then rather than fill up with mediocrity to "just enough", I can edit out the mediocrity, leaving the best parts. An analogy is a cook rendering down a sauce.

Social Bullets

They will discuss in detail their preparation before editing, and the principles and criteria they used for their editing decisions.


Great DVD, can't resist to order it. It is another great source in teaching myself a storytelling technique.

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