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ServiceScape Incorporated

Top 5 Script Editing Tips From a Screenwriter's Perspective

THE END. Those two words, full of the promise of a nearly completed project, can be some of the most attractive words on the page for a screenwriter. You take a breath and close your laptop (or turn off your typewriter) and inhale a sigh of relief. The work you've been laboring over is finally finished. Now what?

Let's look at what needs to happen after the first draft is completed in the screenplay editing process.

Photo by Pereanu Sebastian on Unsplash

1. Take a break between writing and editing

Writing and editing are two different processes. Writing is an act of creation, imagination, and artistic endeavor, using predominantly right-brain activity. Editing is an act of sequencing, culling, logic, and grammar correction, using predominantly left-brain activity. In that sense, it is nearly impossible to do both at once.

This is why you should take a break between writing your screenplay and editing it. Once written, allow your screenplay to sit for awhile while you take a break. Allow your mind to reset itself from the right-brain activity that was required during the script writing phase before you endeavor to edit the screenplay in primarily left-brain mode.

Another thing that happens over the course of a break like this is you are able to revisit your screenplay with a fresh perspective. After taking a short break, you'll likely see things that you missed while writing the screenplay, or holes in the story that need to be filled with an additional scene or more dialog. And it's not just screenwriters who are encouraged to take a break like this between the writing and editing processes—all writers should do it. The time in between will give your mind the mental break needed for the extreme focus needed during the editing phase.

2. Replace unnecessary dialog with visual storytelling

Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright and short-story writer, said it best when he wrote, Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. American journalist, novelist, and short-story writer Ernest Hemingway corroborated Chekov's advice when he wrote, Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.

One common mistake that new screenwriters (and writers, in general) make is to tell rather than show. In doing so, they might use dialogue to explain moments in the plot that would be more powerful when seen rather than when heard (or described by one of the characters).

If your screenplay is dialogue heavy as a stylistic choice, that's one thing. However, allowing this indulgence in conversation can drag a script down into a talkative, boring mess if you aren't careful.

The natural inclination among many new and aspiring screenwriters is to let their characters talk and talk as much as they want. This stems from the fact that when you watch a movie it can seem like this is all it is: characters talking. Moving a plot forward through dialogue is simply unrealistic—that's not how life happens.

This is especially true in film, which is a visual medium. Understanding this, as you edit your screenplay, look for instances in which dialogue is used to advance the narrative when something visual would do a better job.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

3. Know the universal format and use it faithfully

If you use screenplay writing software such as Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Movie Outline or Montage, you won't need to worry about the formatting required for your screenplay. In fact, it is highly recommended that you use one of these programs instead of attempting to format your script on Microsoft Word.

However, if you don't have access to any of these programs, you'll need to ensure that your screenplay is formatted correctly before submitting it to production companies, contests, or other agencies.

Here are the basic requirements, as discussed on Screenwriting.io. Your screenplay should have:

  • 12-point Courier font
  • 1.5-inch left margin
  • 1-inch right margin (between .5 inches and 1.25 inches), ragged
  • 1-inch top and bottom margins
  • Approximately 55 lines per page, regardless of paper size (top and bottom margins adjusted accordingly). This does not include the page number, or spaces after it.
  • Dialogue speaker names (in all caps) 3.7 inches from left side of page (2.2 inches from margin)
  • Actor parentheticals 3.1 inches from left side of page (1.6 inches from margin)
  • Dialogue 2.5 inches from left side of page (1.5 inches from margin)
  • Pages should be numbered in the top right corner, flush to the right margin, a half-inch from the top of the page. Numbers should be followed by a period. The first page is not numbered. The title page is neither numbered nor does it count as page one, so the first page to have a number is the second page of the screenplay (third sheet of paper, including the title page), which is numbered 2.

Examples of properly formatted screenplays can be found in the johnaugust.com library.

4. Make sure it follows the Blake Snyder beat sheet

While this is something that should be done in your initial screenplay outline before you begin writing, you can use it to rearrange scenes in the editing process once your first draft has been completed. Rearranging is not only useful in the script editing phase—it can be highly effective in turning your screenplay into the success you want it to be.

Blake Snyder, the bestselling author of the Save The Cat! series, was an American screenwriter, consultant, author and educator who became one of the most popular writing mentors in the film industry. He led international seminars and workshops for writers across various genres and was hired as a consultant for many of Hollywood's biggest studios.

In his screenplay writing and consulting career, and after viewing thousands of screenplays that were made into blockbuster movies, he came up with a "beat sheet" comprised of 15 "beats" that should be in every screenplay. From his book Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, here's the list:

  1. Opening Image – The scene in the screenplay that sets up the tone, type, and initial salvo of a film. It is the opposite of the Final Image.
  2. Theme Stated – Usually spoken to the min character, often without knowing what is said will be vital to his surviving the tale. Basically, what your screenplay is "about."
  3. Set-up – The first 10 pages of the script that not only grab the audience's interest, but introduce or hint at introducing the characters of the A story.
  4. Catalyst – Something that is done to the hero to shake him. Consider it the movie's first "whammy" (the letter with important news, the knock at the door, etc.)
  5. Debate – The section of the script, be it a scene or a series of scenes, when the hero doubts the journey he must take.
  6. Break into Two – This is the beginning of Act Two, at which point we leave the "Thesis" world behind and enter the upside-down "Anti-thesis" world of Act Two. The hero makes a choice and his journey begins.
  7. B Story – This is traditionally the "love" story (if the screenplay isn't already a romance), and is where the discussion about the theme of a good movie is found.
  8. Fun and Games – Here, we forget plot and enjoy "set pieces" and "trailer moments", reveling in the "promise of the premise."
  9. Midpoint – The dividing line between the two halves of a movie. Stakes are raised and we start putting the squeeze on our hero(es).
  10. Bad Guys Close In – Both internally (problems inside the hero's team) and externally (as actual bad guys tighten their grip), real pressure is applied.
  11. All is Lost – The "false defeat" and the place where we find "the whiff of death," because something must die here.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul – The part of the script where the hero has lost all hope.
  13. Break Into Three (but not for long!) – Thanks to new inspiration or a last-minute action from the love interest in the B story, the hero chooses to fight.
  14. Finale – The "Synthesis" of two worlds: From what was and that which has been learned, the hero forges a third way.
  15. Final Image – The opposite of the Opening Image, proving that a change has occurred. Since all stories are about transformation, the change should be dramatic.
Save The Cat! Goes To The Movies by Blake Snyder
Save The Cat! Goes To The Movies by Blake Snyder

5. Look carefully for any grammar, spelling, or capitalization, punctuation or syntax mistakes

Finally, once you've followed the other steps mentioned in this article and have completed the second draft, look carefully through the entire screenplay for any grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, or syntax mistakes. While you hope your script stands on its own when sent to production companies or agents, small editorial mistakes can be a big red flag for people in the industry reading your script. Not only do such mistakes make your screenplay seem amateur, it also makes you come across as less than professional—a quality that you want to avoid at all costs when trying to sell your script.

If you feel that you lack the English skills to conduct such a thorough edit for your screenplay, it's best to hire a professional to do it for you. The money you spend on doing so would be returned and multiplied in getting your script chosen by a production company or agent.

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