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        5 Screenplay Editing Tips for a Top-Notch Script

        • calenderJun 03, 2022
        • calender 5 min read

        That blinking cursor in the FinalDraft or CeltX Window can be frustrating to look at even after you’ve finished your first draft. You know you’ve done a good job; but is it good enough for a high-powered executive in Hollywood, with so little time on their hands?

        Turns out, it is important to edit your screenplay multiple times before you submit it to a contest, festival, to your professor in film school or, if you’re really ambitious, to someone in the industry. Most final drafts of screenplays are usually the 10th or 12th ones. Even Michael Crichton’s draft for Jurassic Park was rewritten by Maria Scotch. So, as the guy behind the source material, he didn’t get a free pass.

        Let’s take a look at five crucial aspects of editing your screenplay.


        Screenplay editing instructions

        1. Take a breather before editing your screenplay

        This might sound unimportant but it is vital that you rest your “little grey cells” (as Hercule Poirot would say) before editing your screenplay. Unlike other forms of writing, story-writing usually works when it’s cooking on a slow burn. Try to do too much in one go and you might damage the first draft. So rest, recuperate, think about the story in the shower, and then come back to it after a week or so. This will give you a fresh perspective on the narrative, plot, characters, dialogues, scenes, etc.

        2. Refine and tighten the screenplay structure

        After you’ve emptied your soul on the digital page, it is important to go back to it after a few weeks and look at whether it adheres to storytelling conventions and narrative structure. Now, there are a few books you can read in-between drafts to bone up on those two integral aspects. 

        When editing your screenplay, construct a beat sheet based on the parameters laid out by Aristotle, Campbell, or Snyder. Think of a beat sheet as a bullet-point outline of your story. It is generally written before you embark on your script. But if you are a beginner at screenwriting, there’s nothing wrong with having written the first draft and going back to the story after a few weeks with a stronger sense of beat in mind. 

        In order to do this, you can also consult Syd Field’s books on screenwriting and numerous other screenwriting templates. But once you pick one that suits the story you’re trying to tell, see if you can write out a beat sheet that’s analogous to what more established storytellers consider to be workable structures. A lot of writers occasionally forget that they may know the story inside and out, but an audience watching it in a movie theater for the first time does not. Especially if you want mainstream Hollywood success, make sure your story mirrors the structure of the “Save The Cat” template or is shaped like a screenplay an accomplished screenwriter would pen.

        3. Show, don’t tell (Try using a montage)

        This is one of the oldest rules in the book. Film is a visual medium, and while it’s tempting to give a character a huge chunk of expository dialogue, your reader will be better served if you replace those with action descriptions instead. If you really want to show your prowess, deploy one of the major techniques of “pure cinema”, to use a phrase by Mr Hitchcock: the montage. A montage is a series of shots that, tied together, create a larger meaning, within the context of filmmaking.

        Go through your script and wherever possible, replace a character telling something with a visual description. This is known as having a grasp of “visual grammar”. You can add a voice-over, but illustrate through descriptive phrases what someone is doing, where they are going, who they are talking to, what they are wearing, etc.

        There are various ways to do a montage. But it’s important to study the style and the best way to do it is to read and analyze as many scripts as you can where a montage sequence has been used effectively, either to critical acclaim or popular appeal. You can also read up on montages through filmmaking books by Bordwell & Thompson. 

        4. Use crosscut as a tool

        Your draft is most likely littered with scenes that slow down the pace of the filmic narrative. While this may look good on paper, always remember, films are not novels. So, try to use another technique pioneered by the early artists of the medium: crosscutting. 

        Crosscutting is a type of montage where you take two or three different lines of action taking place simultaneously and ping-pong between them. For example, take a look at great examples of crosscutting or parallel editing, from movies like “The Godfather” and “Silence of the Lambs”. Let’s zoom in on the sequence from ‘Silence Of The Lambs’:

        Consider the sequence where Jack Crawford and Agent Starling are both about to confront the serial killer. It would have been cinematically lazy for Jonathan Demme, the screenwriter, to show both lines of action one after another or do away with the SWAT team red-herring altogether. But by showing the serial killer’s troubled mind, his conflict with his hostage and splicing that with the shots of the FBI SWAT team ready to swoop in, he uses a technique of “pure cinema” to enhance dramatic tension and suspense.

        The shots from inside the serial killer’s den and outside the house quickly ping-pong back and forth and as the moment of finality comes closer, they increase in pace and dynamism. This keeps the audience on the edge of their seat until the revelation that they, like the Feds, have been tricked. Clarice is alone with the serial killer. 

        By taking bits and pieces from two lines of action and cutting back and forth between them, the filmmaker performs a sleight-of-hand with the audience. You, as the screenwriter, can do this during pre-production itself. Go back to your first, second or third drafts and look for places where this dramatic device can be used to create suspense and demonstrate to producers and directors your firm grasp of “cinematic language”

        To learn more about this style, it would be beneficial for you to read a film script where crosscutting is heavily employed and take notes on how the goals of the screenwriter are furthered using this method. Use what you’ve learnt when you’re involved in screenplay editing.

        Crosscutting helps you get information across in a quicker manner than you would in a book. Make them adhere to cinematic conventions like using decoupage and intensive continuity. Decoupage is when a variety of different types of shots are juxtaposed to make the sequence more dynamic. Intensive continuity is a recent form of editing where the cuts are very quick and last for a few seconds only. Sometimes even less. While these are not hard and fast rules, the more you show the film producer your knowledge of the medium, the higher your chances are of getting your script filmed.

        5. Make your dialogues contextually apt

        There is an old adage in filmmaking – if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. You need to give your actors more scope to emote and show off their acting chops. Therefore, making things too obvious right off the bat could take the mystery out of the movie. Hint, rather than make facets of the story too conspicuous.

        Once you’re done replacing superfluous dialogue with visual descriptors, go through the dialogue again and think of how people talk in everyday situations given the world they inhabit. In other words, naturalize the dialogue or make it fit the narrative universe.

        For example, a character who dislikes women would scarcely say, “I dislike women” but rather, given a particular context, drop clues to that effect. They might express resentment about a female co-worker who got a promotion which they think they deserved. From the point of view of drama, it reveals a little bit about the character and his stance on women, without revealing too much, thereby titillating the audience. 

        Think of it this way: you’re playing a game with the audience, leaving little breadcrumbs for them to find. If you reveal everything in the first act, it’s not much of a fun game, is it? Make them work for it a little.

        Always have with you a separate sheet where each of the main characters’ biodata and life experience is outlined. That way, during editing, you can refer back to it and confirm if a certain piece of dialogue can conceivably be spoken by a particular character. Sometimes you may have seen actors ask directors, “do you think my character would say that?”. You need to pre-empt this and write dialogues in a way that they seamlessly blend with the arc of the character from the first act to the last.


        Screenplay editing apps and softwares  

        Popular screenplay editing software for Windows/Mac

        One of the most significant aspects to remember when submitting your screenplay is not to be flagged as an amateur. As a result, it would be well worth your time and money to buy and use a screenwriting software. Do not try to write your script on a Microsoft Word document and try manually to make it fit it into an industrial quality format. You’ll most likely get caught. Below are three of the best screenplay writing and editing software on the market today:

        • Final Draft
        • CeltX
        • WriterDuet

        The major advantage of using screenplay editing software for Windows and Mac is they will automatically take care of your issues when it comes to editing a screenplay for grammar. They will format it properly in terms of the font, margins and by default put the numbering and dialogue-speaking character’s name in caps.


        Screenplay editing services

        There are numerous online services that will take a look at your screenplay with an eye towards trimming the fat. But remember, if you’re shopping around for studio heads to accept your work and want them to work with you in the future, they will give you notes. 

        In either case, sooner or later, people will read your work. So it is important to avail of companies that provide screenplay editing service, so the draft you give the cinematographer, actors, script supervisor and producer looks polished.

        Creative writing is altogether a different kettle of fish, compared to other forms. It can be joyful yet arduous, gratifying yet painful, cruel only to be kind. Screenplays have an added component of having to be produced with other people’s money, so that complicates the situation. But boy is it fun to write a movie and see it develop in front of your eyes. Hope the above screenplay editing guide makes your writing journey a little easier and a lot more fulfilling.


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