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Script CPR: Cut, Polish, Revise

You don't have to be a script doctor to know how to fix a script that isn't working. Here's some first aid for scriptwriters.

You have a great idea for a screenplay, but when you sit down to write it, something happens. The ideas in your mind don't translate to the paper. The dialogue falls flat, the main character is boring, and you feel like you've heard every joke you're writing a million times before.

Before throwing down your pencil in disgust and giving up, try giving your script a little CPR. You can breathe life into a script that's not working with a few simple exercises that help you punch up uninteresting scenes, get past writer's block, and choose the best way to handle key moments.

SYMPTOM: A scene is too predictable. Your idea is fresh, but your treatment of it isn't. As much as you'd like to write a wildly original climax to your script, when you read it over, you realize you've seen it all before.

TREATMENT: Change your point of view. Before tackling a big scene, try writing it from the antagonist's point of view. Some of the most interesting scenes in The Silence of the Lambs are when we see the world through Hannibal Lecter's eyes. Let your bad guy have a voice; let a criminal say how he feels about the bumbling detective; let the snooty cheerleader complain about the geeky protagonist who asks her to prom; let the cheating husband justify his affair with his beautiful secretary.

By hearing these characters out, you gain sympathy for them. And when you write the actual scene for your script, they will be more human, which will result in a rounder, fresher, more original scene. By understanding the motivations of all your characters, not just the good ones, you create drama instead of writing a flat stereotype.

SYMPTOM: You can't figure out the best way to approach an important scene in your script. You know that one of the pivotal plot points in your script will occur when Mary, your protagonist, tells her husband, John, that she wants a divorce. But how do you make it happen? Should it be funny or grim? Does it happen at home or in the car on the way to a business function? Should he laugh off her news or have to restrain himself from hitting her? These decisions are crucial to the scene's impact on your story—how do you choose what's right for your script?

TREATMENT: Experiment with different styles to find the one that works best. An easy way to try out different styles is to imagine you're giving the finished scene to three different directors to film, and you want your script to suit each of their styles. In a Quentin Tarantino film, what would happen when Mary asked John for a divorce? He might protest with a black-humored rant, finally agree, then go into the next room to call a hit man to assure she'll never get away from him. In a Rob Reiner film, however, Mary might have to yell and scream at John to get any reaction at all, and when he finally breaks down and cries, his vulnerability could make her question whether she really does want to leave him after all. And in a Merchant Ivory film, chances are Mary and John would have a dignified fight, in voices low enough that the servants don't overhear, before retiring in cold anger to separate bedrooms.

Try writing the scene three times, each in a different stylistic voice, then see which elements work best for your script. Maybe you want your final scene to have the quiet acceptance of Merchant Ivory laced with an undercurrent of Tarantino violence. Maybe the straight-laced romantic comedy of the Rob Reiner version appeals to you. Or maybe none of them work for you. In a Farrelly Brothers' movie, the whole time Mary is talking, John might be desperately trying to cover up the fact that his mistress is crouching naked in the closet; maybe your script demands that sort of broad comedy. Play around—the more styles you try, the more choices and inspiration you have for the finished scene.

SYMPTOM: Your script seems "one note." You're writing a thriller, a murder mystery with a great detective and lots of suspense, but it feels like you're rushing through to get to the ending. Every scene shows the detective finding a clue or chasing the suspect or solving a riddle. There's no story other than the main mystery, and as a result, the overall script feels flat.

TREATMENT: Layer the story by adding character-driven plot points. In the movie Fargo, Frances McDormand's police officer character is pregnant. While her pregnancy has nothing to do with the main plot, it gives immense color and interest to all of her scenes, from the way people react to seeing her immense belly to the inconvenience of having morning sickness at a murder site. The main plot of the film would have remained the same whether she had a dozen kids or none at all, but by including the pregnancy as a character-driven plot point, the Coen brothers opened up the story and gave us a way to identify with the character.

Think of situations you can have your characters deal with that enhance your script's main plot. Maybe your detective is getting married in a week and wants to solve the case so he can enjoy his honeymoon. Maybe the "girl next door" in your romantic comedy needs to deal with an elderly parent.

SYMPTOM: The pace is too slow. Your script lacks excitement. Maybe it's even a little boring. There's no tension, no urgency; the plot meanders along with nothing driving it to the finish. You want the audience to be on the edge of their seats, rooting for your hero to reach his goal, but it feels like if he doesn't succeed today, he can simply try again tomorrow. So how do you get the audience's hearts pumping and pulses racing?

TREATMENT: Put a "clock" on the scenes. One of the simplest ways to raise the stakes is to give the characters a deadline they just can't miss. This is why so many romantic comedies end with the main character racing to the airport, trying to catch his true love before she gets on a plane and flies out of his life forever. The fact there's a clock on the relationship, that we're counting down the seconds, makes the chase exciting.

Examine your script to see how you can add deadlines. If your main character has a tumultuous relationship with his father, the character's need to make his peace with him will be heightened if the father is sick and only has a few weeks to live. If your hero wants to break up a female friend's engagement so he can marry her himself, it's much more interesting to have him realize this 24 hours before the ceremony, when it's now or never, rather than six months before. Let your characters be procrastinators, let them wait to solve their problems until the situation is dire and it's almost too late.

SYMPTOM: A scene seems too on-the-nose. In life people rarely say exactly what they mean. They speak in fragments and half-truths and fits and starts. But in your script, the characters are laying it all on the table, with no subtlety or innuendo or hidden meanings. Because people don't actually speak this way in real life, the dialogue doesn't ring true.

TREATMENT: Use subtext to give your scenes depth and varied shades of meaning.

Try this exercise to explore the meaning behind the words in any given scene: Take a pivotal moment in your script, such as an adopted woman meeting her birth mother for the first time. Try writing it first without using any dialogue at all. Remember, screenplays are made up of a series of images; it's the visual moments in films we remember best. No amount of dialogue could equal the look on Diane Keaton's face in The Godfather as she realizes Michael is in the Mafia. Write out your scene as a series of visuals; the mother and daughter setting eyes on each other, the mother reaching out for a hug, the daughter pulling away. Show all the emotion and drama in the characters' actions, the setting, the way the women shiver with cold as the sun slowly sets.

Then write the scene again, this time using only dialogue, no action lines or description at all. Keep it simple:

It's been a long time.

I'm sorry

Don't be.

Read the lines aloud, or read them with a friend, to see all the variations such a simple exchange can have.

Now combine the two scenes you wrote, taking the best parts of each, to give you a nuanced final scene for your screenplay.

Writing a script is not easy. Writing a good script can seem nearly impossible. But with some doctoring, you can cut the parts of your screenplay that aren't working, polish out the rough spots, and revise the rest, to make the script on the page match the one in your head.

From the September 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.


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