If other artists continuously tweak and fine tune their product until their exhibition, then we screenwriters do the same via the process of rewriting. A wise man wrote :
“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” –
— Paul Valery
Similarly, a screenplay is never finished, just submitted. I mean it. Write that movie script till the bitter end, no matter how painful. Then go back and rewrite it into a leaner one.
The first step you need to look at once that first draft is complete is does it look like a screenplay? Or is it chunks of prose littered with occasional dialogue? Is it clean with lots of white space on the page. It really is true. Less is more.
Is your script less than 120 pages? Preferably less than 110? This is the first thing a script reader or development executive looks at when confronted with their mountain of spec scripts and need to decide which to read first. Don’t let your film script be downgraded to the bottom of the pile. Your first audience is the script reader.
Are the central premise and genre clear? There are expectations to be met as a writer. Don’t let the reader get lost in your movie script by alternating between too many genres. A musical, horror, drama, sci-fi western suggests that the screenwriter doesn’t really know their genre.
Is a central theme apparent? For instance, the alien screenplay I’m working on has a central premise of “no matter where we’re from, we’re all really not that different”. Does the central theme resonate throughout the script? Every character and scene should serve the central premise. Unless of course you’re talking about the subplot(s). This will help remove “dead” episodic scenes which don’t progress the story, but are simply there because they look good. A great example is that elongated battlefield scene in “Atonement”, which despite it’s technical genius by being shot in a single take, did not enhance the story and was merely an unnecessary distraction.
Also, check for “flat” scenes. These are usually talky, expositional scenes. Ramp them up. Add conflict. Add action. Think visually. Keep your audience titillated. Film is more a visual medium rather than a literal one. Do all the scenes pertain to the main storyline or are they are distraction? It might sound obvious, but check that your story is clear. Many readers complain that stuff happens in a script, but they don’t know what it’s really about.
Are any scenes cliched? Have we seen these dramatic moments in a hundred times. Like a guy asks a girl if he can buy her a drink in a bar? Hmm. How about if he can guess her shoe size he can get her a drink? Much better.
Check your structure. Do the turning points, midpoint and inciting incident happen where they should? Does the screenplay finish at its logical ending?
There is little room for tangents and unnecessary description such as the type of condiments and candles on a restaurant table. A description such as “they sat at a plastic table with a grafittied paper table cloth and a crusty ketchup bottle” says so much more about the restaurant, quickly. “The waitress looked like she just got out of prison for murder” says a lot about the character in one sentence.
I always do a primary pass of a script to check for typos and unclear meaning. Savagely reduce your action. A reader will not be as impressed with use of flowery prose and your mastery of the English language as you think. Be concise. Brevity is paramount. A screenplay is a highly stylized document characterized by its conciseness.
Check scene headings and format. Is a living room called that throughout the script, or does it suddenly change to a lounge room? Whatever you decide, be consistent, so the reader doesn’t think they’re in someone else’s living room. Check for consistency on things like how you write montage scenes, text messages and dual dialogue.
Then I do individual character passes to confirm their goals, conflicts and interactions are clear and consistent. Is there conflict in most scenes? I like to include a few “soft” scenes to give the audience some breathing space before I launch into the next set piece, but they should be kept to a minimum. This process will also shake out unnecessary characters. Every character should serve a dramatic function and may become confusing if you double up.
Do a dialogue pass. Does the baby girl speak like a college professor? Is there on the nose dialogue? If there is a group of football jocks talking, they probably sound the same. Give one of them an identifying characteristic. Perhaps a lisp. La Tourette’s. My main gripe with “Juno” was that all the characters had the same voice, despite the snappy, witty dialogue.
Be wary of the donut effect. Does your script sag in the middle? My first drafts do. That’s why I write the midpoint early on. It holds the tent up. Along with the beginning and the end. Some writers write the end first and work backward. Think about the tone of your script. Is it comedic? Dark? Informational? Be consistent. It’s okay to have the odd comedic moment to break the tension in a thriller, but you can’t confuse the audience.
Think about the modulation and rhythm of your screenplay. The peaks and troughs, the natural rhythms, the flows. After all, a script is visual poetry, so understand what iambic pentameter means.
A rewrite isn’t a polish. Many writers discover their story and central premise after they complete their first draft, or simply decide (or told) to change it. This can mean a major overhaul to the script. A polish is the final preening you give a script before you send it out.
So go forth and write some more!
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