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How to Make Targeted and Smart Revisions

If you saw my last post, you know I wrote the first draft of a sci-fi short film script in just a couple days.

If you know anything about writing, you know the first draft is never perfect. It's going to need revisions!

Heading into revision mode can be just as daunting as staring at a blank page. And if you're not careful, you can over-revise, leaving you with a tighter, but lackluster, version of your original creative idea.

Here are some of the methods I use to stay focused when revising my own scripts, as well as when I'm providing targeted feedback to others on everything from pitches through completed films.


1. Big Picture Cuts and Additions

That's right, revising doesn't exclusively mean trimming. It can mean adding more to your story too!

Your first draft is all about getting the whole story on paper as best as you can while the ideas are flowing.

Revising is all about identifying which of your story's elements are crucial, which are not, and which are lacking.

You may have already noticed problem areas while writing your first draft. Usually these are things you get stuck on -- like how to word a character's dialogue to give them a stronger voice, or how to get your protagonist from one plot point to the next.

but hopefully you focused more on finishing the damn thing rather than driving yourself crazy trying to make revisions while writing. ;)

it's so so easy to fall into this trap of trimming and rewording needlessly. i've found i most often do this when i don't quite know what to do with my story next. when that happens, it's always best to go back to the basics of story structure and identify, big-picture-wise, how your plot can progress from where it currently is.

If you gave your draft to others to read, you're likely to receive a lot of the same comments about certain elements of the script. When you get similar feedback from multiple people, you know those areas of your story should be the first place you look.

Your problem areas can range from overall structure to unclear plot relevance of a small supporting character. In other words, your problem areas can lead you towards a page 1 rewrite, or very simple trims.

Don't distract yourself with rewording that one line of dialogue just yet!!! Especially if some of the notes you receive seem impossible to address without starting over completely.

It's best to tackle each issue individually rather than trying to accomplish everything in one revision.

It can be tedious if there are several notes you're trying to address and you're going back to page 1 to solve for each thing... But you're likely to find that solving the bigger picture issues first can naturally solve smaller issues, leaving you with less work than you thought you needed to do!

For example, maybe you got the big picture note that your theme is unclear, and a smaller note that a certain character is really strong and could be more present in the story.

While you revise your script with the intention of clarifying the theme, you may realize that fleshing out that character's relationship with the protagonist and involving them more in the plot provides you with more opportunities to land the theme.


2. Beginning and End

If these were part of your big picture notes and you already addressed them, great! But regardless, it's still worth it to take an extra close look at how your story begins and ends to ensure a few things:

  • Everything that's set up in Act 1 plays out later. This includes:

    • Theme

      • Do the challenges your protagonist faces in act 1 contribute to what they ultimately learn and how they change in the end?

      • Do the foundations of your plot connect to the central idea / message / lesson you want your audience to take away from the story?

      • Do your protagonist's actions align with what they want / need?

    • Plot

      • Do the events in act 1 build up to the events in acts 2 and 3 because of actions your protagonist takes?

      • Is there a clear predicament established in act 1 that is resolved by the end of the story?

      • Are each of the plot points in act 1 relevant to the story later on?

    • Character arcs

      • Are certain characters in act 1 focused on heavily but not as present in the plot later? Is there a plot-based reason for this?

      • Does your antagonist have their own clear storyline and goal that directly conflicts with the protagonist's?

      • Does each character arc contribute something to the main storyline that would not be possible to convey if it were absent?

  • Act 3 resolves everything established in Act 1. Including:

    • Theme!!

      • Is there a clear answer to the dramatic question posed in Act 1? (ex: in When Harry Met Sally, the dramatic question is: can men and women just be friends? In act 3, this is answered when Harry and Sally ultimately get together)

    • Plot complexities

      • Especially in mysteries or thrillers, do we ultimately have answers as to how a character learned certain information or got from one place to another? Are all plotholes and intentionally unexplained events clarified by the end of the script, if not sooner?

    • Supporting character arcs

      • Do your characters reach the goals they set out to achieve earlier in the story, or otherwise learn something related to those desires?

  • It all plays out how YOU want it to.

    • Does the overall tone feel as funny, dramatic, or thrilling as you intended?

    • Do certain plot points feel like they occur too late, or too early?

    • Does the story end in a satisfying way, whether positive or negative for the protagonist?

These questions are a great starting point when the big picture revisions don't quite seem to cut it.

You may find these questions also identify things you must tackle in Act 2, which leads to...


3. Everything In-Between

Once you have your first and last acts solidified, take a look at Act 2 to ensure everything effectively takes the characters from Act 1 to Act 3. Look at areas like:

  • Relevance of themes

    • Maybe your story has several themes you want to touch on, but trying to fit them all into the plot makes the story feel bloated or unfocused. Can you identify which central theme you want to convey and put that idea front and center throughout your story?

    • If your theme is unclear or not as integrated into the plot as it could be, can you find a connecting point between your protagonist's want/need and the larger meaning/reason behind the actions they take to achieve their goal?

  • Relevance of characters

    • If certain supporting characters aren't present for very long in the story, do they need to be there at all? If they do, how can you integrate them into the story more actively and effectively?

    • Do your main characters all contribute something to the plot or theme that can't be achieved any other way? Maybe your protagonist's love interest isn't as critical to the story as you think... 😱

  • Relevance of scenes

    • Does each scene move the plot forward because of actions your characters take? Does each scene move the protagonist closer/further to/from their goal? If you were to remove a certain scene or subplot entirely, would it have an effect on the main storyline?

    • Do your scenes start and end in different places? Do your characters learn, achieve, or lose something by the end of each scene?

Answering these questions will really help you identify how you can tighten or expand your narrative into something more effective than what you started with.

See how we've addressed all these problem areas and we haven't lost sight of our creative idea!!!

That's how we know we're ready for...


4. The Nitty-Gritty

Here's where we get into each scene, each line of dialogue, each action description block and make revisions with surgical precision.

by the way, i know that show is soooo cheesy but i could not stop watching it when i first saw it on netflix. i was obsessed... anyone else here a fan of overdramatized shows?

If you started with this step, shame on you.

I can already see you now, frustrated after having done hours or days-worth of work just to end up with.........

a shorter version of your still crappy script.

When you start your revision process with the details, you're almost guaranteed to lose sight of the tone, charm, and overall creativity of your story.

How do I know this?

I'VE BEEN THERE!! Many many times.

And I've read many many scripts where I can tell the writer did the exact same thing I used to do. It's painful to see a story with so much potential be ruined with terrible revision habits.

Now... contrary to the title of this step, i actually won't be getting into the nitty-gritty.

Because I already wrote about it in detail in my post: Writing Effective Action Description (Part II)

However, because i'm feeling generous, i'll summarize for all of you who don't want fully enlighten yourselves 💅

  • Write action description in active voice to keep your reader in the moment and convey information as quickly as possible

  • Remove words or ideas that are implied by other elements in a scene or sentence

  • Identify opportunities for stronger word choices (replace several words or dialogue exchanges with a single, more effective word or line)


And look at that. We learned how to make targeted and smart revisions to our script (or, we used this guide to analyze someone's material and give them feedback that will help them in their revision process)!

Now open Final Draft and make some cuts!

or add some flavor!


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Thanks for the sage advice.




thanks Borat



This is awesome. Thanks Mic!

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