By Lee Hamilton.
You’ve finished your screenplay!
Congratulations, you’re now officially one of the 20-ish% of people who set out to write a screenplay and actually completed one. That fact alone means you deserve a hefty pat on the back, a large slice of cake, and a well-deserved cup of tea (or whatever wets your whistle). Finishing a script is no mean task, and you’re right to celebrate.
But after the giddy sugar and caffeine high has depleted, then what?
- Send it off to the first agent or manager you find on google?
- Enter it into a ream of esteemed screenwriting contests?
- Get professional coverage to help take your script to the next level?
Please don’t do any of these!
While it can be tempting to run before you can walk, what you’ve got is the first draft. And by its nature, most first drafts are awful. That’s not a reflection on your commitment, passion, or even your writing ability. Fact is, a first draft isn’t referred to as a vomit draft for no reason. You have essentially carved out the form of your sculpture, now you need to keep chiseling away at it, refining the details, and bringing it closer to life.
‘But, how can I do that? You said not to get professional feedback?’, I hear you say.
And I stick by that. You should only be seeking coverage when you’ve gone through the rewrite process yourself and the script is as great as you can possibly make it. If you get feedback before you’ve even tried, then a lot of the notes are probably going to be telling you exactly what I’m about to tell you here!
Even if you’ve started the rewrite process and are already a few drafts in, here are 7 top tips on how to analyze your own screenplay and more importantly, how to improve it.
TAKE SOME TIME AWAY FROM THE SCRIPT
This isn’t possible for everyone, especially if you’re working to a deadline, but coming back to your script after a month, six months, or even a year, with fresh eyes will help you find lots of immediate errors not least because your writing has very likely improved since then. If you’re too close to a project, it can be hard to look at it objectively, so go work on another script, read other screenplays, or watch movies and get inspired.
THE BEAT SHEET REWRITE
It’s best to do this from memory and without referring to your screenplay. If you can’t recall the pivotal moments in your story, make a note, as this likely means they’re weak or underdeveloped, plus if you can’t remember them, will the audience?
This is a mish-mash of well-known story beats. So each one may not occur in your script, but if you do find one that’s missing, seriously consider whether adding it in now would help improve the story.
Opening Image: What visual do you use to grab the audience straight away?
Hook: This isn’t the same as the inciting incident, but something needs to occur in the first few pages (ideally, the first!) that grabs the reader and leaves them wanting more.
Theme Stated: Often stated by a minor character, a visual, or during a conversation where one character is pro-theme, and the other is anti-theme.
Setup: This is introducing the Main Character’s (MC) ‘normal world’. It establishes the rules of the world, the tone, and reveals character flaws or weaknesses.
Inciting Incident: What happens to disrupt the MC’s ‘normal world’ and forces them into a new one?
Refusal of the Call: Your MC doesn’t like change, they’re resistant to it. Here’s where you show how unwilling they are to take up whatever difficult challenge lies ahead.
Debate: Through debate, the MC accepts the call to action, and starts to make preparations and plans.
Turning Point 1: The Break into Act 2 is where something happens to pivot the MC’s plans 180 degrees and takes them into a new direction
Focal Point 1: The B-story subplot. A minor failure occurs, but the MC can still walk away if they want to.
Fun & Games: The MC reacts in the same old manner to new complications, so usually fails.
Midpoint: This is the point of no Return for the MC. They no longer have the option of turning back.
Bad Guys Close In: Rising stakes, more obstacles, bigger problems.
Focal Point 2: B-story progression. The MC is learning/growing/getting stronger.
Rock Bottom: A huge failure occurs. We can’t see the MC winning from here.
Dark Night of the Soul: A new hope arises, moral support, and more resolve to carry on.
Turning Point 2: Break into Act 3. A major setback or moment of truth.
Final Battle: Win or lose everything here.
Resolution: The problem is solved.
End Twist: The greatest obstacle of all.
Closing Image: This should be a mirror image of your opening image in some manner that shows progression or change.
Why are you writing all of these beats out again? Because in a first draft, some of these plot points may be missing, lack emotional drama, are forgettable or are weak. Story beats need to be strong and clear on the page. They help drive the plot forward. If they’re not, then they’re potential cuts or need more work.
WRITE (OR REFER BACK) TO YOUR LOGLINE
If you didn’t write a logline before you wrote the script, now’s the time to get that baby down on paper. If you did write a logline beforehand (well done you), then check to see whether you stuck to it or not. A logline can tell us a few pivotal details, such as who your story is about, what their flaw or weaknesses are, what their goal is, what’s standing in the way of them achieving that goal (antagonistic force), and why it’s really important that they don’t fail (stakes).
Why are you checking this stuff? Because all of this info needs to be presented in the first act of your script, the sooner the better. The premise you promised in your logline needs to be delivered arguably no later than 15-pages in. If it doesn’t, you’ve probably got too much setup, backstory, and are starting your story way too early. Audiences don’t want to wait that long to understand what your movie is about or why they should care, so gauge your first draft against your logline to discover if you need to get to the good stuff quicker.
Jot down these essential details for your core cast of characters and keep them to hand.
What’s standing in the way of them achieving their goal:
If you struggle to fill in any of these details, that should already set off some alarm bells. If you don’t understand what a character wants, how can you create any conflict around that? If we don’t know what’s motivating a character, will their actions be believable? And if we don’t know what’s at stake, will the audience care whether they succeed or not, etc.? Use this checklist when going through every scene in your script in order to discover whether all of these different elements are being expressed. Stakes are the most important factor. What does each character have to win/lose during each scene? This is key when making sure there’s enough conflict happening throughout.
Every scene needs to serve a purpose, otherwise, it’s just pointless filler that can be cut. Figure out what goal needs to be achieved by each character in every scene, what action is taking place in order to achieve that goal, and what complication occurs along the way. Keep referring back to your character checklist as well as asking yourself these 4 questions:
- How can I make this more interesting?
- Is the story predictable at any point?
- Is the info I’m trying to deliver clear enough?
- Is my writing engaging to read?
Clarity is your friend here. Make sure it’s clear what’s going on and why (even when adding mystery, suspense, red-herrings, and throwing curve-balls into the plot).
It can be really easy to forget that a screenplay needs to be as enjoyable to read as it will be to watch. Reader’s, agents, and execs read hundreds of screenplays every year, but honestly, it can be very grueling when a script is clearly at an early stage of writing. That’s why it’s important to not only impress the reader but to emotionally engage and immerse them into your story. This is the fun part, where you get to use all of your creativity and writing skills to turn your script into an absolute page-turning experience for whoever’s reading it!
Getting to grips with formatting is essential here. Any errors, mistakes, or confusing wording is going to break the immersion for the reader, as will anything that makes the reader stop to question logic, such as “why is that character doing that?” The best way to learn how to apply format is by reading other screenplays. Don’t feel that by doing this you’ll be taking yourself away from precious writing time. Reading is just as important here. If you find that you just don’t enjoy reading other scripts, maybe question why that is and use that to help you write scripts that you would like to read.
In a first draft, you have probably over-written. Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal. Remember, you’re chipping away at the sculpture, so now’s time to start cutting away all of the small things that are getting in the way of your story, hampering the pace and read, and cluttering up the page. As a general rule, if something isn’t moving the story forward, revealing character, or delivering pivotal information, it’s a potential cut.
Here’s a short guide to what you very likely don’t need to have in a scene:
Repetition. This doesn’t just include repeating information we already know; it includes stating the obvious or using the same words in your description over and over, which doesn’t do much to showcase your creative writing skills.
Too many characters. Cramming lots of names into a scene for the reader to remember risks causing confusion. If minor characters aren’t pivotal to the scene, don’t mention them, or at least try to be general.
Over description. Less is more. We don’t need to know every single movement a character makes or every item in the room to understand the context. Use evocative but sparing descriptions to set the scene, tone, and genre.
‘Unfilmables’. If we can’t see it on the screen, it doesn’t need to be in the description. This includes telling a character’s thoughts, backstory, or character relationships.
Long Sluglines. Anything that’s making the reader take longer to read your script should be avoided, and limiting lengthy scene headings, which, let’s face it, aren’t exactly riveting to read, is one way to do this.
A lean script is an effective script. Trim off as much fat as possible.
This has been left until last on purpose, as many of the recommendations on how to improve the readability apply here too.
Less is more!
Cut dialogue down to the bone. The script (and the reader) will thank you for it.
Here’s a short guide of things to check when rewriting dialogue. You can do a separate pass for each one, or take a single sequence or scene and go through the entire list – whatever works best for you.
Enter late and leave early: Get rid of greetings and goodbyes, cut the waffle, jump straight into the gripping dialogue, and end on the most powerful line in the scene.
Show, don’t tell: If you can get the point across by using a visual or action instead of someone telling us via dialogue, it usually creates a stronger impact.
Cut the chit-chat: All the fluff that makes dialogue sound natural could also be getting in the way of the story, slowing the place, and making your script take longer to read. Um’s, oh’s, and conversational pleasantries are all potential cuts.
Use subtext: People rarely blurt out exactly what they’re thinking or feeling. In fact, most of the time, people skirt about a subject and say anything but those things, so add as much subtext as you can to make dialogue much more engaging.
Do a harsh cut: Early drafts almost always have far too much dialogue. Now it’s time to remove absolutely everything that isn’t moving the plot forward, is revealing character, or is delivering pivotal exposition. If we don’t need to know it, you don’t need it in your script. Now’s also a good time to get rid of any repetition that’s taking up precious space on the page too.
Speech needs to be realistic: Not only do voices need to stand out from one another, but they also need to be believable. There’s a hard balance to obtain here, too realistic and there’s going to be too much filler-dialogue that slows the pace, too unrealistic, and the viewers won’t connect to your characters. Do your research, character development, and ensure that speech is appropriate to the time, location, and personality of each character.
What’s pivotal when analyzing your dialogue, is reading it out loud. What! Yes, put aside your embarrassment for one moment and ignore the fact that this will take you longer. Verbalizing your dialogue is going to help you find all the lines that might read well on the page, but don’t flow as great when spoken. It’ll help you find instances of repetition, lines that aren’t naturalistic, moments of waffling chit-chat, and it’ll help you proofread your script at the same time. Bonus!
As you can see, analyzing your script is just the beginning of the rewriting process. Some writers love it, others not so much, but with each pass, will come more and more improvement. Do as much as you can; THEN get some professional eyes on it.
Script coverage can help you discover problem areas you’ve missed or haven’t considered, highlight the good and bad, and if a Shore Scripts reader ends up loving what you’ve written, they can also champion your script and recommend it to our roster of judges, directors, and production companies!
What more reason do you need to get your script into the best condition first?
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.
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