The Essential Guide to Rewriting Your Screenplay Like a Pro
This article originally appeared on LA Screenwriter. It is reprinted here with permission.
by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Rewriting your script is always a daunting process. Getting to the end of the first draft is hard enough. Now you’re supposed to go back through it and pick apart all of the beautiful work you just did? The very idea of starting a rewrite can be heartbreaking.
And then there’s the challenge of how to actually go about your rewrite. What’s the best approach? Most people simply start reading on Page One and make changes as they go. This invariably leads to small changes that don’t do much of anything to improve your structure or characters.
The key to an effective script rewrite is to be able to visualize your script as a whole and see it’s overall strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve identified those, you can start getting into the more nitty-gritty changes. But starting with a broad perspective is key.
Here’s how you do it:
STEP 1: Go through your current draft and write a one-sentence description of each story beat.
A “beat” is a story event. Every scene should have at least one beat, and some will have multiple beats. All together, your script could have anywhere from forty to sixty story beats.
The simple way to do this is to open up a Word document and write a sentence for each beat in order. Or, if you’re an index card person, write out each beat on a separate card. If you want to get fancy (or feel productive while avoiding your actual rewrite), use one color index card for your main plot and another for each subplot. You can also include a slugline at the top of each card.
Whatever you do, keep the sentences short and to the point. Put the ACTION of the beat in capital letters so it stands out. Here are a few sample beats from one of my scripts:
Connie BREAKS IN to Rick’s apartment.
Connie SHOOTS Rick with a tranquilizer gun.
Rick WAKES UP in Central Park next to Connie.
Connie EXPLAINS who she is.
If you write your beats in a Word doc, you may want to print them out and cut them into strips when you’re done. Then you can play with them like index cards. Or, if you have a nice big monitor, just view the doc in a way that lets you see all of your beats at once. That’s the first goal of this step — helping you see your whole story.
JUST REMEMBER: Use your current draft to write out your story beats. Don’t rely on your original outline or your memory of your script. Actually read through what you have and write out every single beat. Then you can move onto…
STEP 2: Ask yourself these ten questions.
With your beats as your guide, NOT your actual script, go through these ten questions in order. As you ask yourself each question, start taking notes, shuffling your beats around, and otherwise rewriting your outline. Once you’re done, you should have a clear plan for executing your rewrite on the actual page.
1. Can you identify the CATALYST, FIRST ACT BREAK, MIDPOINT, SECOND ACT BREAK, and CLIMAX?
If you can’t, you probably have a basic structure problem. Or if your midpoint comes on page 30, that indicates a problem, too.
2. Does the main character have a clear ARC?
Looking through your beats, can you see when he or she starts to change? How long does it take? Is the change gradual and consistent, or does it happen all at once?
3. Do the STAKES escalate throughout the script?
In particular, the stakes should probably be raised at the midpoint and again around the end of the second act or the beginning of the third. A ticking time bomb effectively inserted throughout the script can also keep the stakes on the rise.
4. Does almost every beat have CONFLICT?
Are your characters either butting heads with each other or with the obstacles keeping them from their goals? If they have smooth sailing for a big portion of the script, you have to ask how interesting that would be to watch. (The answer is “Not very.”)
5. Are the beats almost all ACTIVE?
Looking back at my sample beats, one is a character explaining something to another character. You’re bound to have a few beats like that, but they should be the exception. Most of your beats should revolve around a photographable action — something we can see happen on screen.
6. Do any beats REPEAT each other?
If you’re making the same point twice, figure out which beat does it better and cut the other one.
7. Are any beats MISSING?
Are you making story leaps that your audience can’t follow? Watch out for holes in your story logic that might need filling in.
8. Can you say BUT or THEREFORE between each beat (rather than AND THEN)?
Literally go beat-by-beat asking yourself this question. If you can’t say “but” or “therefore” between two scenes, they aren’t building on each other.
9. Can any CHARACTERS or PLOTS be cut out or combined?
Be brutally honest. Is that third friend really adding anything to the group? Is that series of scenes at the beach really advancing the story? Efficiency is key to great storytelling.
10. Do the SUBPLOTS connect to the main plot? Is a THEME emerging?
You probably had a general sense of what you wanted your story to be about when you started writing. Now that you’ve finished a draft, the theme should be getting clearer. It may take a few more drafts before you figure out what it’s REALLY about, but in the mean time, you should ask yourself whether your subplots support your big idea, contradict it (either option is valid), and if they are adding weight to your main story.
STEP 3: Lather, rinse, repeat.
This process should get your creative juices flowing and leave you with a solid new beat sheet to guide your next draft. Once you’re done with that draft, write out your beats again and repeat the process. Do this as many times as necessary to get to a point where you really can’t think of any more improvements. Then it’s time to hand your script to a trusted reader. Get feedback from a fellow screenwriter, a mentor, or a consultant. If you’ve been honest and thorough in your screenplay rewrite process, you should be well on your way toward a professional script.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.