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Weekend Writing Inspiration: 6 Steps to Tackling a Major Script Revision

October 9, 2020
6 min read time

If you’re staring down a major script rewrite it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, particularly when dealing with large-scale structural or character changes—or both!. Even though we know “writing is rewriting,” it can be daunting to face a big overhaul, especially if this isn’t the first major revision you’ve made to this script.

One of the biggest obstacles writers face with a major rewrite is mentally releasing the old version and fully embracing the new one. It can feel like two parallel universes jostling to occupy the same space. Without Cisco Ramon from The Flash to breach us between alternate realities, we have to find our own way to span the chasm between the two. I call this bridging the rewrite gap.

If you’re finding yourself having trouble letting go of the old story (Hint: you’re constantly saying, “Well, in the current draft, x happens…”) these six steps will help you make a smoother transition from old to new, as well as expedite your rewrite along the way.

Step 1: Inventory your existing script

Begin by creating a simple reverse outline of the old script — your last full draft. In a standalone document, list your scene locations with a single sentence synopsis of what occurs. You can include scene titles, too, if you find that orienting.

For example:

  • INT. LIVING ROOM: Molly confronts Tony about his lazy parenting approach and he storms out.
  • EXT. DRIVEWAY: Tony’s son begs him not to leave right before his performance tonight.

Even if you already have the outline you used to write your current draft, in all likelihood, your actual script will have drifted, so this is a valuable inventory of what’s actually on the page. Keep track of anything you notice about the script that needs work as you review what you have, and add it to your to do list in step two.

Step 2: Make a revision “to do” list

Create a revision To Do list of changes to make by combining anything you discovered while creating your reverse outline with any feedback you’ve received and decided to implement. (Hat tip to Rachel Aaron’s book, From 2k to 10k for To Do list inspiration.)

Your To Do list can include anything from small tasks like changing character names to bigger issues like reworking an entire act, combining characters, and more. For now, don’t worry about putting these tasks in any kind of order, just get them down.

Step 3: Review and update your meta story elements

Next, review and update your meta story elements. This might include things like your:

  • Title
  • Logline
  • Plot points and structural beats
  • Character goals, arcs and traits
  • Theme
  • Genre expectations
  • Story timeline
  • Backstory

You’ll review and update any and all aspects of your story to bring them into alignment with the new planned version of your story, solving problems as you go. For example, you might rework your character profiles and their backstories, or redesign your story beats to match the new direction you’re heading.

Where you make adjustments will depend on how different your new script will be from the old one, but the primary intent is to get your new plan down on paper so you can a) let go of the old version of the story, b) make the mental shift into the new version, and c) help yourself stay on track as you rewrite.

Using your list of preferred meta story elements, begin updating each one as needed to align with the new version of the script. You’ll notice that the changes you make will ripple out and affect other story elements, potentially creating new problems and issues to solve as you work. This is good! Making changes at the meta level allows you to solve new problems now, rather than getting lost at the scene level when you’re less likely to have whole-story perspective.

Step 4: Create a new skeletal outline (optional)

Once you have all your meta story elements up-to-date with your planned revision, you may want to create a skeletal outline for your new script.

Whether or not you’ll do this depends primarily on how likely you are to be thrown off by working inside a copy of your existing script or not. Sometimes, the old story overshadows the new version too much and steers the writer in the wrong direction. If that’s the case for you, try a skeletal outline.

Here are three ways to make a new skeletal outline:

  • Option 1: Create a brand new, clean outline that lists out scene titles, locations and a single sentence summary for each new scene drawing on your new meta story elements to do so. This is essentially a Page One rewrite. 

  • Option 2: Make a copy of your existing script and strip out old scenes that no longer belong, leaving behind only scenes you’re keeping or want to rewrite. Fill in between with placeholders for the new scenes. This approach can feel a little less like a Page One rewrite and creates the sense of having “something” to start with.

  • Option 3: Use a combined approach by creating a brand new, clean outline and copying in scenes from your old draft, either up front or as you write. It’s similar to option two, but can feel a little more flexible.

The main idea is to have a new place to create your new draft.

Step 5: Organize your To Do list

Once you’ve got your reverse outline, your To Do list, your updated meta story elements, and your new outline, make one more pass through your To Do list. I suggest putting it in order of most complex to least complex, so you don’t end up making small changes to things you’re going to end up changing massively anyway.

The bonus of using a To Do list is that you can use it to cross items off as you work, which is a satisfying way to see your progress accumulating.

Step 6: Now write!

Now it’s time to start (re)writing! Depending on the scope and depth of your rewrite, you may find that you’re primarily working with your To Do list and making changes to existing scenes, or scrapping most of what you had and starting over. Either way, by this point in time, it should be easier to see both what you had and where you’re going as distinct and separate entities, and to get to work making your rewrite magic happen.


Your Weekend Writer’s Assignment

Are you rewriting a script right now? Stuck in the old story? Consider reviewing where you are in the process and implementing some or all of the tools I’m suggesting to get unstuck. Sometimes, all it takes is a change in perspective to get things moving again. 

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