I was talking to writer and screenwriting lecturer Terry Bailey the other day, and mentioned that I was polishing a new pilot episode before sending it to my agent. Which brought up the question of “how much polishing is too much polishing?” and “how do you know when your script is ready to send out?”
And that’s when Terry mentioned the Pareto Principle.
Also known as the 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle states that, in most cases, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the total effort.
Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He later developed the principle by observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. Nowadays, the Pareto Principle is commonly quoted in business; e.g., “80% of your sales by volume are to 20% of your total clients”.
But is this principle of any use to us as screenwriters? I think it is.
Probably 80% of the total impact of your screenplay is going to come from a few scenes, a few character moments, a few twists. They’re the bits the audience will remember and tell their friends about, and they’re the bits you need to really work on. Any additional effort spent polishing those will have a far greater return on investment than a similar amount of time spent on the intervening scenes.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can ignore the rest of your story. In order to have that impact, those character moments and powerful scenes have to be part of a larger narrative. A few minutes footage of a ship blowing up might make you admire the special effects – but in order to feel that moment emotionally, you have to be engaged with the characters on the ship and care about their fate. And that engagement happens not in the moment, but in all the preceeding scenes.
Three or four brilliant scenes won’t sell a badly-written story – but they might sell a screenplay that’s otherwise good-to-average. So, identify the 20% of your screenplay that’s going to have the greatest impact, and make sure you get those scenes absolutely right…