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How To Rewrite Your Screenplay Without Losing Your Mind


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by Naomi in rewriting, screenwriting
screenwriting article rewriting screenplay blog

“I’ll add a line of dialogue – that’ll fix it.”

Hearing this response to a note makes me cringe. Because usually the notes I’m giving can’t be addressed with one line of dialogue, no matter how finely crafted or surgically inserted.

When writers bring their screenplays to me, it’s usually because they’ve written a draft or three, maybe entered a contest or gotten some beta reads… and they can tell there are still things that aren’t working, but they’re unsure what they are or how to proceed.

(So, yes, sometimes a line of dialogue will address a note. But right now we’re not talking about those farther-down-the-road, you’re-really-polishing-not-rewriting cases. We’re talking about things like fleshing out a character’s arc, shoring up structure, ensuring stakes are firmly established and build over the course of the story, and more.

Usually these kinds of rewrites will require more than adding a line of dialogue.)

It’s because writers know (even if it’s deep, deep down) that their rewrite is probably going to require some work that they try to avoid it and look for a quick fix (one line of dialogue should do it!) as is human nature.

But we have to address the big notes first. It’s like building a house, right? We have to make sure the foundation and the walls are where they should be before we critique the paint on the walls or the color of the bathroom tile. Big things first, since those will likely have ripple effects across those smaller things.

Based on that, today’s post is aimed at giving you a system for tackling your rewrite. It’s a way to assess and organize what you need to do to actually improve your screenplay, not just shuffle words or slap on band aids. We’ll use the Rewrite Hierarchy.

What is the Rewrite Hierarchy?

For efficiency’s sake, you’ll want to work from big to small. From the foundational elements of the story, through big-picture structure to more granular structure, stakes, theme, plot, character arcs, relationships, characterization, character introductions, individual scenes and scene work, dialogue, description, all the way through the
polish-y work of wordsmithing. That’s the Rewrite Hierarchy.

You’ve gotten notes… now what?

You’ll still need to assess your work yourself. You’re not just going to take someone’s advice without doing a little critical thinking of your own. (This is your project and your career, after all.)

Sometimes notes are insightful and precise and easy to understand. Sometimes you have to dig a little to get at the heart of the note. (Or “the note behind the note” as you might have heard.)

If the note you’re hearing is, “I got bored at page 20 and never recovered…” then it’s up to you to: 1) assess whether this note is valid, and 2) figure out what issue it’s actually pointing to. (Lack of stakes? No empathy for the character? The story problem just isn’t hard enough or entertaining enough to be engaging?)

Organize and address

Once you’ve assessed the notes and decided which need to be addressed, you’ll want to organize the notes into a hierarchical order. You don’t have to follow exactly the order I listed above – feel free to do what makes sense to you. Use the idea of “biggest to smallest” and your own judgment as your guideline.

The biggest notes and changes are likely going to be addressed globally across the script. Others may be localized in a particular section of the script. Again, big to small; the bigger the note, the more of a ripple effect it will have in the script.

Often it’s really helpful to go back to the corkboard or to the beat sheet in order to have the 40,000-foot view. Not back to the corkboard or beat sheet you started writing the draft from. Make a new beat sheet or set of cards, based on the script you now have.

Seeing the beats of your current story iteration all listed out can give you clarity about what’s working or not. Then, you can also use the beat sheet as a working document to note where you want to make changes. You can also rewrite your beat sheet and then assess the new version, which is a quick way to try out bigger changes. Your beat sheet can become a map for your rewrite.

Ready? Rewrite!

Take your rewrite one step at a time, working through the hierarchy, and you’ll have a manageable, methodical process and a rewrite that truly moves your project forward.


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