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How to Rewrite Your Screenplay

December 3, 2015
5 min read time


“Writing is rewriting” the old adage goes and all experienced writers know this to be true. Amateurs look at a first draft as the end of their efforts, while veterans know that it is simply the beginning – the creation of the ball of clay that now must be shaped into a work of art. Here are some tips to help you make the most of this crucial part of the creative process.

Put it away: One of the most important things required to do a good rewrite is perspective – you need to be able to see your work clearly for what it is, rather than for what you were hoping it would be, and that is almost impossible to do when you are caught up in the creative process. So, once you have finished your first draft, walk away from it for a bit – a week, a fortnight, a month. This break will allow you to review the piece with fresh, objective eyes.


As you review your draft, ask yourself the following questions:

Is the premise of the piece clear and established early on? The premise is the seed from which the rest of the narrative grows and must be clearly set up in the opening pages of the script. If you have reached page 15 or 20 and you are still not sure what the story is about, then you have some work to do.
Does the narrative flow smoothly and logically? Is the story easy to comprehend? In other words: Can you tell what’s going on? If you can’t, then it’s time to revise with an eye toward clarity and comprehensible cause-and-effect.
Does the script tell the story that you intended to tell? During the actual writing process, it’s easy for a writer to get carried away by subplots, go off on tangents, become enamored by one segment at the expense of the whole. If that happens, use the rewrite to get your tale back on track.
Is the theme of the piece clearly expressed by the events of the narrative? If your theme is “friendship is forever” and your story chronicles the ups and downs of two buddies from the day they meet in kindergarten to the day they become roomies at an old-age home, then you’re in good shape. If your theme is “friendship is forever” and your story is about a werewolf seeking to revenge himself on the Gypsy who bit him, then you have some realigning to do.
Are there any extraneous elements in the script that do not directly support the central theme or narrative? If they don’t, then they need to be removed.
Is the protagonist’s primary goal clear and does his pursuit of that goal drive the narrative? In dramatic storytelling, the protagonist has a strong goal that he/she sets out to achieve. All of the choices the character makes, the actions he takes, and the obstacles he encounters and overcomes should bring him closer to accomplishing that goal. If your character isn’t constantly working toward something or is behaving in a willy-nilly manner, then it's time to rethink.
Is the protagonist’s arc logically brought about by the events of the story? If your story is about a liar who learns to tell the truth, then the events of the story should show how lying initially benefits the protagonist, eventually causes him big trouble, and how he eventually comes to see the error of his ways. If, however, the narrative has him showing courage in the face of overwhelming odds but the lesson he learns is not to lie, then a visit to the narrative chiropractor is in order.
Is your antagonist too dominant? Especially when writing action films or horror movies, it is easy to give too much attention to a colorful bad guy. It’s okay to do this in a first draft, but it is crucial that you rein in these rogue baddies in subsequent editions lest they steal the film from your hero.
Have I failed to dramatize all of my story elements? Beginning writers are notorious for inserting important story points (a character’s thoughts and feelings, vital backstory, info important to the understanding of a scene or setting) into a script’s descriptive passages, but failing to properly dramatize those elements in ways (through action, images, and/or dialogue) that will communicate that information to the audience.
Does my story fulfill its genre expectations? In other words, if it’s a comedy, is it funny? If it’s a horror film, is it scary? And so on.


Once you have addressed matters of substance, you then need to address matters of form, so keep an eye out for the following:

Big blocks of type: The presence of large blocks of description usually indicates that you have gotten bogged down writing way too much minute detail. Remember, scripts are not novels – you don’t have to describe every little aspect of every little thing. The descriptive passages in screenplays should be brisk and evocative, using as few words as possible to effectively describe an action, a character, or a place before moving on as fast as possible to the next bit.
Endless pages of dialogue: This symptom usually means that you are telling your story through dialogue, as is done on the stage, rather through the combination of images, action and dialogue that is the hallmark of effective cinematic storytelling.
An overabundance of shots, camera movements, sets, costumes, or music and editing cues: As a screenwriter, your job is to structure and tell a story, not to direct the film, design the sets and costumes, or cut and score the picture. Stick to what you’re supposed to do and let the directors, designers, and cutters do what they’re supposed to do.
An overabundance of storytelling gimmicks: If your script is filled with flashbacks, narration, and dream sequences, it probably means that the central narrative isn’t strong enough to stand on its own, in which case, you need to beef it up.
Scenes or sequences that go on and on: In movies, pacing is paramount. Ideally, you should begin all of your scenes as close to the dramatic heart of the scene as possible and you should end them as soon as its dramatic point has been made. Any excess should be trimmed away.
A high page count: A script should never be longer than 120 pages. Ever.


Get Feedback. Once you have completed a draft to your satisfaction, give it to people to read and comment on. Choose folks who can read and analyze your piece with an objective eye and who will give you honest and constructive criticism. For this reason, I recommend that you seek out fellow writers and industry colleagues rather than friends and family members who probably don’t have a solid grasp of the three-act structure, character arcs, or visual expository techniques and won’t tell you if there are things they don’t like in your work because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Another good option is to submit your piece to a professional script analyst or coverage service (like ScriptXpert offered by Final Draft, Inc.) to get an industry-level assessment of your piece. Once your analysts have responded, analyze their analysis. If one person has a problem with some aspect of your script, then it could just be that person’s individual issue. However, if a number of people have the same problem, then it’s likely that the fault lies with the script and will need to be addressed.


Proofread. It’s important to make a good and professional first impression so before submitting your work to the marketplace, go over it with a fine-tooth comb and correct all mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation, screenplay formatting, and screenplay terminology. Don’t be afraid to use professional proofreading and formatting services if you need to.



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