Writing is revising and revising is writing and so on and so forth until the end of time.
It’s easy to get stuck in the vicious cycle of never-ending revisions, constantly working on the next draft instead of the final one. But if you have a solid plan for revising your screenplay, the process will be smooth and manageable.
Try taking revision passes with one or two of the following questions in mind. Once you’ve made it through the list, it’s probably safe to slap that frightening word “final” in front of “draft” on your title page.
Does the story make sense?
This question’s a bit more vague than some of the others, but arguably the most important. After taking time away from your script, try to read through with fresh eyes. Will the overall story make sense to someone who hasn’t written it? Are there any big jumps in the plot? Anything missing or nonsensical? Flag anything problematic.
Does every scene move the story forward?
Scenes are one of the building blocks of screenwriting, and each and every scene in your script must move the story forward in some way. While some scenes will take big swings, others will only be smaller steps — all are crucial to the story arc.
So, look at each scene in your script with a magnifying glass. What information is conveyed? What is the emotional arc of the scene (positive to negative; negative to positive; etc.)? What change occurs and how does that change impact the larger story? If a scene doesn’t convey information, tap into the emotional arc, or elicit some kind of change for the plot, it needs to go.
Is your inciting incident working?
The inciting incident is a moment, event, or decision that propels your main character into the action of a story. It’s what gets the ball rolling and it’s a critical element in the overall arc of your story. First, pinpoint what your inciting incident is. Then put yourself in your main character’s shoes and ask if there’s any going back to life before the inciting incident. If the answer’s no, your inciting incident is working just fine.
Is the main character’s goal clear?
To finish their novel or get into their dream school, find true love or save the 50 percent of the universe that was turned to dust in the Blip — all main characters want something. Whether it’s a glass of water or the elixir of life, your main character must have a goal. So what does your main character want? Read your script, ask this question, and make sure the answer is clear to the audience (even if it changes along the way!).
Is the primary conflict as strong as possible?
Screenplays depend on conflict. Without conflict, stories collapse, so the main character must be up against something or someone to drive the story arc forward. When revising your script, be sure to identify and question your primary conflict. Could it be stronger? Could the stakes be raised in some way to heighten the drama? If the answer to either question is yes, you have some changes to make.
Do you really need all that dialogue?
Dialogue is tough. We all know that. It can seem impossible to find the perfect balance between colloquial speech and scripted words. But once you’ve found the happy medium and gotten that dialogue on the page, make sure that each line is absolutely necessary.
Interrogate each scene, asking yourself if there’s any gratuitous dialogue. Do the characters always say “hello” and “goodbye” at the beginning and end of each scene? Do they needlessly repeat information the audience already knows? Be ruthless with your dialogue, cutting anything that isn’t absolutely essential.
Are you telling instead of showing?
You know that age-old storytelling adage “show, don’t tell?” Of course you do. It’s a phrase that plagues writers through both the writing and rewriting processes. But it’s important to keep in mind no matter how cliché it may seem. Comb through your script, noting what is revealed about your characters through their actions and keeping a wary eye out for expository dialogue.
What’s not on the page?
Psst… what I’m talking about here is subtext and theme, both of which should be much more subtle in your script than this sentence is proving to be. Subtext and theme are the meaning of your story. They’re what it’s about at the end of the day, the lesson, emotion, or feeling the audience will take home with them when they leave the movie theater.
But your pages shouldn’t be laden with heavy-handed explanations of what the moral of the story is. Instead, aim for subtext and themes that live in the white space, so to speak. What are your characters really saying? What motivations are behind their actions? What will the audience implicitly understand about the human experience by the time the credits roll? If you’re not sure, it’s time to do some rewriting.
What’s on the screen?
Reading a screenplay should be like watching a movie. Go through each scene, paying particular attention to what images are evoked by your writing. If you’re not sure what the audience would be seeing on the screen, you know you have a problem.
Is your script free of all spelling and grammatical errors?
Compared with the other story-centric questions on this list, one about spelling and grammar may seem trivial, but I assure you it isn’t. You’d be surprised what mistakes spell-check won’t catch, and the last thing you want is for a simple typing error to be the reason your script doesn’t sell. Make sure to triple-check your spelling and grammar before you pop the celebratory champagne for another script well-written.
The revision process can be painful, frustrating, and sometimes even heartbreaking. Finessing a script so it’s in tip-top shape and ready to share with the world isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary evil. And we all know there’s no better feeling than typing “final draft” and hitting save on your latest completed screenplay.
Want to see how the pros put these tips into practice in their work? Check out their scripts on the TSL Screenplay Library!