Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tips to Editing a Screenplay

Last year, I took to writing screenplays…again. As a teen, I wrote them and then moved to writing short stories and novels. Something last year called me back to scripts, and it’s been a wonderful learning journey so far. In the last year, I’ve braved the contest world and submitted one feature-length script and one short script to competitions. Didn’t win, but both placed, giving me enough gumption to continue the journey.

A friend of mine mentioned the idea of writing more short scripts because they could be used as calling cards – if produced – for larger works. Short scripts can be as short as one page or as large as 60 pages though most tend to fall within 3 to 25 pages. It’s important to note that in the script world one formatted page runs about one minute of airtime.

The advice my friend gave me happened to coincide with The Muse Online Writers Conference, put together by the awesome everywoman Lea Schizas. If you don’t know about the conference, you should.

One class I took during the conference was Writing the Short Screenplay with produced screenwriter Kristin Johnson. I knew the class would give me the opportunity to crank out a short script in a week, and it did. Within a week, I had written SOCIAL NETWORKING, and I was elated.

And then came editing.

For me, there are four major KEYS to editing a screenplay – whether it’s short or feature-length.

Yep, just like a novel manuscript, format is vital. If you attempt to submit a badly formatted screenplay to an agent or production company or contest, then you will receive the “slush pile” treatment just like any novel manuscript would. There are several books you could get to help you with format, but the one I LIVE by is David Trottier’s “The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script”. If you’re like me, you also may want examples of formatted scripts to see what a script really looks like; one place where you can purchase both feature film and TV scripts is Script Fly.

Movies, TV shows, and made-for-TV movies are visual. The scripts are primarily parsed into two categories – dialogue and action. The dialogue is not stale and typical; it reveals the characters, the conflict, etc. Just like in a novel. The action shows us the movement that occurs within the movie.

Recently, my media writing students wrote short scripts for me, and the major problem they had was differentiating between “action” and “narration”. In a novel, it might be perfectly OK to write the following: Sarah’s tears continued to fall as she thought about the death of her brother and the evil bastards who took his life without a care for the ones left behind. In a novel, that’s narration. In a screenplay, this type of writing is not VISUAL. We couldn’t, as moviegoers, know Sarah’s thoughts or know this is why she’s crying. That knowledge would have to be conveyed either through action or through dialogue.

As an editor, you have to put yourself in the place of a moviegoer and ask yourself, “Can I see these things occurring?”

If you can’t see it, and it’s integral to the story’s plot and to character development, then you need to figure out the best way to visualize the material.

Strong dialogue is very important in scriptwriting. Dialogue, as state above, should do at least two things: reveal character and develop the story’s conflict. When reading the script, it’s important to look for stock, generic dialogue. In real life, we have dialogue like, “Hey, how are you doing?” “I’m doing OK. Tired. You?” “Good, thanks for asking.” Unless dialogue like this…those helloes and goodbyes of conversations…is integral to character development and/or story development, it is often not needed.

At some point in the editing process, you should print a copy of your script and read it aloud. The more the merrier, actually. One of my students corralled a bunch of his friends into his dorm room and they acted out the script. Having seen the rough draft of the work, I can guess he caught some minute things during the “performance”. You can read aloud the action and attempt to visualize it, remembering that if you can’t visualize it, it needs to be restructured. You can read the dialogue for authenticity. Like my student, if you’re lucky enough to get a few friends to act it out while you sit on the sideline, you can actually see and hear the story unfold to catch things regarding the story’s pacing, interest (to other potential viewers), building of conflict, climax, and resolution.

What you’ve probably noticed is that most of these key elements are vital in editing a short story or a novel, too. The major difference is the visual element that gains prominence in screenplays.

Before the editing even begins, however, you want to make sure you have a GOOD STORY to SHOW your viewers. Much money is put into the production of a movie and even more is put into the marketing and promotion of a movie. If your story – like with a novel idea – is not fresh and marketable, it won’t see the light of day…unless you produce it yourself.

To conclude, I have to share this article, "Three Approaches to Developing a Screenplay" by Gina Vanname. If you’re actually interested in writing a screenplay, it’s worth the read!


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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  1. Shon, how accurately do you have to write your dialogue in a film script. If an actor has to stumble over his words, do you actually type, "Um.... well, I dunno... it seems-you know-well, sort of......" Or do you write a complete sentence and let the actor interpret? Is this accepted in screenwriting, or could it be viewed as the writer getting lazy? As it most certainly would be in a novel.


  2. Screenplays are confusing to me - the way they're set up, what's included and not included. They're a whole different way of looking at things. For now, I'm sticking with novels.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Dani, since I'm a scriptwriter, too, I can answer your question. Most scripts don't include all the hesitations etc in the dialogue. It is written out and the director and actor then add their creativity to it. The instructors I took classes from discouraged any sort of "directing" in the script. Made sense to me.

    Shon, very nice article and I learned some things. Will definitely have to check out the article by Gina when I get a chance.

  4. Yes, informative article. I write for TV but hit the ground running- meaning had to learn after I had the job, so it is great to get any new insight into this business. Thanks

  5. Hey Dani!

    Maryann answered your question, but I wanted to add to it. What Maryann says is true, most scripts don't contain much in regards to direction; you don't want to step on the actor's or the director's toes; however, if a stuttering character is integral to the story, I think it's important to place that descriptor with the character's name as soon as that character shows up on the scene. From there, a director and/or actor could decide what to do with that in regards to the dialogue.

  6. OH, and just to toss out there - though Final Draft [http://www.writersstore.com/product.php?products_id=2220] is the industry standard, anyone wanting to practice scriptwriting can download the free scriptwriting software suite Celtx [http://www.celtx.com]. I used it before the university I work for bought me FD. It's a great software, and you can actually script more than screenplays.

  7. What type of TV writing do you do, Lauri?

  8. Hi,
    Came across your blog and thought you might be interested in this contest because of your interest in writing short scripts.


    You can win $3000 in cash and prizes for writing just 10 pages.

  9. Thanks, Todd, :-) Will definitely check it out!

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  11. Thanks for sharing such an interesting post with us. You have made some valuable points which are very useful for all readers

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  13. Oh wow! Still loving it:) Thanks for posting and sharing with us.

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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