Get out of your head! Hire yourself as your own script editor.
You’ve just typed these two magical words at the end of your screenplay weeks, months, even years after starting. Your first draft is ready but, as all writers know, this is just the first hurdle. Next comes the more complicated and refined challenge of editing, tweaking and polishing, and probably even some rewriting, before your script is finally ready for the big wide world.
There are many script consultants out there with a lot of invaluable expertise and advice. They will always give you a more objective, more thorough review of your work, and are worth seeking out if you’re serious about making it.
But if you don’t want to take that route, maybe because you’re ☐shy ☐a tight-ass ☐think you know better (select all that apply), then fear not. Let’s think like a script editor.
Step 1: Space
Take a break from your script. Do not look or even think about your screenplay for at least a week. Start a second script if needs be. Catch up on Netflix, or go on a digital detox in Bali if you have to. You need your eyes and mind to be as fresh as possible.
Step 2: Mindset
When you sit down to edit, pretend this is not your script. You owe it to yourself to be as honest with your own work as you would a friend’s. This means pointing out the weaker points, but it also means being constructive with your criticism. You wouldn’t tell a friend their work deserved to be burned, its ashes flushed down the toilet. You’d say it’s a good start but has room (lots of room) for improvement. (Right?)
Step 3: First reactions
Read the script and mark anything that jumps out to you as good, funny, scary, or dramatic. Likewise, circle anything that doesn’t make sense, typos, moments your attention wavers, or dialogue that sounds weird. Don’t think too hard or analyze at this point – just react.
Step 4: Plot summary
When you’ve finished reading, create a new document for editing notes. Sum up the script’s plot in one sentence (a logline). If you can’t do this easily and quickly, is the script’s plot too complicated? If you can, does it sound like a cool film you’d want to watch? Ask yourself: is this logline a true reflection of the script you just read?
Step 5: Positives
Write down five things you liked about your script. No cheating on this one – you must find at least five. If it’s hard, DO NOT throw your script in the trash (yet).
Step 6: Negatives
You guessed it – write down five things you did not like about the script. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t worry if you can’t think of any negatives at this stage.
Step 7: Plot questions
Answer these questions in your document:
- What is the inciting incident (the moment the hero’s situation changes and the main plot arc begins)? If this point isn’t clear, is it exciting enough?
- Does the protagonist achieve his or her goal? If not, why not?
- Do you have any questions lingering at the end? Are these questions related to plot holes?
Step 8: Protagonist questions
- Do you have strong feelings about the protagonist? You don’t need to like them, but you should feel something for them.
- What is the protagonist’s goal? If you don’t know, your audience definitely won’t.
- What actions does your protagonist take to achieve this goal? If the answer is “none”, your protagonist is not proactive enough.
- What is your protagonist’s flaw? This needs to be believable.
- What has your protagonist learnt about him/herself by the end of the script? If nothing, your protagonist has insufficient arc.
Step 9: Second read
Re-read your script from the beginning.
- After each scene, ask yourself: has the scene advanced the plot or at least developed a key character? If not, you should probably cut that scene.
- Which is your favorite scene? Is it because you utilized an excellent metaphor in the stage direction, or is it because the scene is genuinely exciting or represents your theme?
- Which is your least favorite scene? Is it because the action is boring?
Step 10: Dialogue test
As you re-read your script a third time, speak the dialogue aloud.
- Do the characters each have a distinct voice and/or way of speaking?
- Does the dialogue sound natural? Can you develop more natural phrasing through verbalizing it?
- Is the dialogue full of clunky exposition? Remove any excess words.
Step 11: Starting draft two
With the answers to all the questions above, you should be able to see your script’s weaker points. If you have a lot of changes to make, don’t be disheartened. Every subsequent draft is a huge improvement from the first.
The worse thing you can do is give up on your work now. So get your head down, write draft two – then go through all the steps yet again. Repeat this process until you are 100% happy with the end result.