5 Tips To Revising an Old Screenplay
March 20, 2023
Whether you’re an aspiring or professional screenwriter, chances are you might have more than one underproduced script in your arsenal. Although it’s good to be looking forward and to keep generating new concepts for new screenplays, sometimes an older script of yours might be worth revisiting. Maybe you never submitted a particular script to management companies and screenwriting contests like Final Draft’s Big Break (now open for entries) and have decided to finally give it a shot. Or perhaps you did in the past, but nothing happened because it wasn’t the right time and now it is; the screenplay marketplace keeps changing, and a script that went against the grain a few years ago, may find champions today.
Because of this, a screenwriter should go through their old screenplays and decide if any of them are worth dusting off: there’s a good chance one might be. But if you wrote it awhile back, there’s also a good chance it needs a rewrite. As I wrote in my article There Isn’t a Perfect Screenplay, a screenwriter shouldn’t think of their script as a finished thing but as “a fluid document.”
With this mindset, below are 5 tips to revising an old screenplay:
Rewrite What You No Longer Like
Depending on how long ago you wrote this screenplay, your opinion of your writing might vary. Like anything in life, the longer you do something, the better you get at it. You might think the script still has possibilities, but some of your younger self’s writing makes you cringe. At very least, you might think your present-day self can do better, and chances are: you’re right.
Rewrite what you no longer like — until you like it. This can be anything from clunky or try-hard dialogue to certain story beats that strike you as contrived. Maybe there are some plot holes that didn’t bother you before, but they bother you now; if you’re aware of them, others might be as well, especially industry professionals. Make the script represent who you are as a writer today.
Modernize If Necessary
Again, depending on how long ago you wrote the script, the basic concept might still work, but there are certain elements that now seem out-of-date. For example, it might be an Action-Comedy you wrote ten years ago and some of the humor is outdated or tonally more absurd than most contemporary films. Tone is one of the elements that changes the most over time, but fortunately, it’s one of the easier elements to revise; it can often be accomplished via a dialogue pass or maybe changing a line of description here or there.
Not only is the screenwriting marketplace in a constant state of flux, the world itself is always changing: the political and cultural environment; technology; slang; pop-culture references; etc. Because of this your joke about MySpace might be dated or readers might think it’s odd your protagonist is using a BlackBerry. Like tonal changes, this is another easy thing to revise: comb through your script and modernize whatever needs modernizing.
Be Open To Big Changes
Sometimes when revisiting an old screenplay, you’ll discover that some things still work while other things don’t. It’s important to keep an open mind and be prepared to make some major changes if necessary. Perhaps there’s a subplot or supporting character you decided doesn’t add much to the overall script; you might have to cut things for the greater good. Maybe the script’s ending isn’t working for you anymore; well, endings get rewritten all the time during film production (and sometimes post production if it didn’t go over well at a test screening). An important skillset of a screenwriter is to be flexible and always be willing to revise material when needed.
In some cases, screenwriters have reimagined and reworked their feature screenplays into television pilots. Succession creator Jesse Armstrong had originally written a biopic about the Murdoch family before revising the script to be a pilot with fictional characters. Likewise Danny McBride and Jody Hill had originally written Vice Principals as a feature script before turning it into a pilot. In both cases, these old projects were picked up by HBO and turned into series.
Most cable and streaming series don’t require different formatting, so you can simply revise and trim the document. However, if you’re turning an old screenplay into a network pilot, you’ll have to change the formatting. In Final Draft you can do this easily by going to Format > Elements > Apply a Template. From there you’ll be taken to a list of different templates, which are documents formatted specifically to industry standards. For example, if you click Single-Cam Teleplay and Apply, it’ll automatically reformat your document.
Bring on a Collaborator
Maybe you’ve read an old script and think it still has potential, but it needs work and you’re not feeling as inspired as you did when you first wrote it. Or maybe after re-reading an old script, you decided that certain aspects aren’t working as well as others. For example, maybe you’re great at writing characters and dialogue, but you’re not so great at writing action sequences.
In the above scenarios, it might be time to bring on a collaborator. Another writer can sometimes breathe fresh life into a script and possibly enhance any aspects that are lacking. Generally speaking, your collaborator should bring something new and different to the table. Everyone will have their own method of collaborating, but Final Draft does have a collaboration feature that makes it easy to bring another writer into your screenwriting process.
Update the Formatting
After you’ve followed some of the above tips and have revised your old screenplay, the final thing to do is make sure your script looks as current as possible. In my article Making Your Screenplay Look Professional, I wrote about keeping up with the formatting changes in the industry; every few years there are new trends in screenwriting and screenplays continue to look different as a result. For example, these days many screenwriters space out their action and bolden their scene headings. If you want your old screenplay to look like a new screenplay, it’s important to revise your script accordingly.
In fact, you shouldn’t even think of your script as an “old script.”
If you put in the work and revised it for today’s marketplace, it’s once again a new script.
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.
- Big Break