Now that you’ve completed the main rewrite passes of your script and you’re ready to send it out, here are some further techniques to make your movie script truly sparkle. What does holistic mean? Basically, it’s a method of tackling individual issues in your screenplay in reference to it as a whole. Funnily enough, our friend Aristotle also talked about each story element functioning as part of a story whole.
In new age terms, mind, body and soul must peacefully co-exist to access your higher self. In script terms, the whole can be called a throughline (a logical sequence of events). By determining your throughline, you can eliminate extraneous scenes which weigh down your screenplay.
After your key rewrite passes of character, structure, dialogue etc, step back for a period of time and revisit your script holistically. You’ve developed screenwriting myopia and now it’s time to polish your script from a different vantage point; one from a distance.
The three elements of a holistic script pass are connection, balance and focus.
This is the connective tissue that links all the story elements into an overall story. Connection is such a vital story component because humans process and learn information by forming relationships between them. We link images to other images, dialogue to events, locations to time, objects to people, and any permutations of these, to give us a deeper understanding of story. By establishing these connections within your story, you also connect with your audience.
These connections are particularly useful in non-linear narratives, because if the audience can follow them, they aren’t confused by the order in which events are executed.
Create relationships between random characters in terms of their relatives, friends or their world. This is especially important in films with large ensemble casts which illustrate a central theme, but have little else in common. This will greatly tighten your script.
Connect characters around a particular event, such as a natural disaster. Not only are characters forced to interact, they also share a common goal; in this case, survival. Think “Twister” or a heist gone wrong such as “The Panic Room”.
Connect objects to people, such as “The Ring” as in “Lord Of” and “Raiders of The Lost Ark”. These are oftentimes referred to as leitmotifs and symbolize something deep feelings such as love, power, honour and such like. I used a red silk scarf in a noir thriller script I wrote called “Caffeine” which kept recurring throughout. It was a symbol of a philandering man’s fiery struggle to reconnect with his estranged wife. Leitmotifs objects must have emotional significance to the characters.
Connect locations so you establish the world of your story. It gives the audience a sense of place and familiarity. An example of this occurs in “Mr and Mrs Smith”, the 1941 version with Carol Lombard, when they revisit their favourite Italian restaurant from when they were dating. She wore the same blue dress. By now, the restaurant is a hovel and the blue dress doesn’t fit as well; a symbol of their decaying marriage.
Connect time to establish the order of events or a time lock.
The chaos theory doesn’t exist in screenplays. Nothing is random or exists in isolation.
Much like not evenly distributing the tension of your nuts when replacing a tyre, your script can lose balance if it is weighted too heavily in one area such as dialogue, action or one character. A sudden change in genre, tone or character motivation at your midpoint can also derail your script.
Scatter genre moments throughout your script. You can inject a dash of comedy in your horror, or a dose of drama in your comedy. These moments are like tabasco sauce; use sparingly to spice up your script.
Pepper key set pieces throughout your movie script. A set piece is a careful manipulation of your film’s emotional landscape through action that can double as a trailer moment.
Alternate between action and dialogue. Mash it up to keep things interesting and give your audience a break. However, many movies use a potent combination of both to reveal essential, but tedious backstory. Dialogue heavy films must still be a visual medium. Remove most talking heads scenes. Ideally, you should be able to turn down the volume and still follow the story.
Bookend and distribute your narrative devices such as voiceover, flashback, montage and narrative. If you start with a voiceover, end with one. Like soft perfume, they should gently enhance your script, not overpower it. Think “Dexter” who can only express his inner thoughts via voiceover to share his intimate secrets with the audience.
Combine characters to avoid unnecessary ones. Do not abandon established characters mid way through your story. They are probably not required anyway. Try not to introduce new characters after your mid point. The main characters should generally be established in the first act. An exception might be finding a long lost love or a killer in the third act. However, given that they’ve been referenced throughout the film, they aren’t completely new.
Answer the initial central question in the first act by the third act. Stories require a satisfying resolution, or at the very least, a partial answer or guide to one.
Focus means you’ve honed your story and committed to a character, central theme and execution. If too many themes clutter your screenplay, it indicates you haven’t fully found your story.
Ensure your narrative devices don’t clash and are consistent. Decide which are best for telling your story and ensure they don’t battle for screen time and cancel each other out. If you tell a backstory via flashback, stick to it. If you enjoy the intimacy of breaking the fourth wall seen in “High Fidelity”, don’t change it to a voiceover mid way.
Remove the start and the beginning of each scene. Enter late and leave early. Often we waffle at the start of a scene before we get to the point and continue waffling after we’ve made it.
Each scene has a mis en scene; a French term meaning “putting on stage”, or more broadly, what we see and what is the point of the scene. By removing redundant plot static, you distill the purest essence of a scene and raise it’s impact. If a scene doesn’t organically flow from the previous scene, you may have edited too much.
Ruthlessly eliminate any objects, information or character rules that aren’t set up and don’t pay off. Lighten the load.
Ensure consistency of minor characters. Do they support the protagonist in the first act and swap allegiance to the antagonist in the second act and back again? They must always enhance the main character and central plot.
Pare down the choreography of your final showdown and commit to one bold move. Keep this climax clean and undiluted. Never underestimate the power of simplicity.