You've just finished your first draft, congratulations. Take a moment to bask in the glow of victory and completion. All right, and.... the moment's over. You now have two options to choose from. You can decide that the screenplay is perfect and send it out (Don't do it, it's a trap). Or you can accept the fact that your first draft is bloated and some things are going to have to go (choose this one, choose this one). All first drafts are bloated... all of them. But cutting down your baby is easier said than done. It's not like you wrote stuff you didn't like and figured you would just take it out later. If it survived until the end there has to be some reason that you thought it belonged in there, but that doesn't change the fact that something has to give. To think any differently is nothing short of hubris. So... here are some suggestions to help you with the fun process we all love so well, editing and rewriting.
- Identify Neutral Scenes: There are only two types of scenes that should be in movies, Positive and Negative Scenes. A Positive Scene is one that conveys "We're going to make it. We're going to win!" A Negative Scene conveys "Oh my God, we're going to die". If a scene does not convey either of those emotions it is a Neutral Scene. It is a scene that does nothing to propel your story forward to resolution, it just kind of sits out there... talking. All Neutral Scenes have to go. If there is important dialogue, or that joke you just can't lose, it needs to be moved to another scene. If you can't find another scene that it fits in, then it must not have been as important as you thought.
- Combine Redundant Scenes: As we push through our first draft, one of our main focuses is to just finish. Get it done and on the page. This makes it really easy to start repeating ourselves without knowing it, especially in the always fun second act. Many times we might justify it by thinking we are driving a point home. Or maybe we are trying to catch another character up to date (don't do this, it's an easy recipe for on the nose dialogue). Go through and identify those redundant areas. Either combine them or figure out which part is going to get cut.
- Read Dialogue Out Loud: Sure, it may sound great in your head, but that's because your mind is filling in what you think it should sound like. Read it out loud and things begin to change. You will find that that great speech in your head is a clunky mess out loud. Or maybe that quick comeback really doesn't fit when it's actually spoken. To paraphrase Mark Twain, if you have a choice between a simple word and a big flowery word, always choose the simple word. The same with if you can say something in three words instead of eight. Always choose the shorter.
- Entering a Scene: This is a great tip I learned from our Story Specialist, Kay Tuxford, during our Industry Insider Contest mentorship. Go through each of your scenes and cover up the first two or three lines of dialogue. If you can still understand the scene then you entered too early and those covered up lines can go.
- Combine Characters: Look through your script. Do you have a lot of characters popping up to say, or do, something for only a scene or two? Try to figure out a way to merge some, or maybe all, of them into one character who weaves through the story. That's four introductions out of the way and a lot less confusion for the reader.
- Check Your Backstory: How long does it take you to get to the meat of your story? I would be more than willing to wager you can do it quicker. Remember that the way most script programs auto formats carry over from page to page, a 1/4 page saved in the first ten can translate to a full page by the time it is done. I have actually taken one word out on page two before, and it ended up taking a 1/2 page out of the script.
- Show, Don't Tell: Everyone has heard this in their career, show don't tell. We also all know that subtext is one of the hardest elements for a new writer to master. Editing is actually a surprisingly easy way to learn it. If you can figure out a way to say with a look, or singly charged sentence, what had taken a two or three line back and forth, you have cut down your script and added subtext. Yes, I know that subtext is more complicated than that, but it's a great start.