6 Things You Can Do to Save a Dying Screenplay
Art and Experience: Writing a screenplay is kind of like falling in love. You’re passionate. You’re devoted. You couldn’t imagine this beautiful thing coming in any other form. But as time goes on, things get complicated. You start to see the blemishes. Issues start to pop up. You’re putting in a lot more work with a fraction of the passion, and you start to wonder if it’s even worth it to stay invested anymore.
I’ve been there before—staring at a screenplay that seems to be dying right in front of my eyes. The plot has holes in it, the characters aren’t complex enough, and the structure is a complete mess. But don’t despair! Here are 6 solutions that I’ve used on my own ill-fated scripts that might help you revive yours.
Turn it into a short film script
Features are hard to write—and so are shorts (they certainly have their own unique challenges), but shortening the length of your narrative might ease the pressure to construct something so massive. Furthermore, some stories are better told in short form. In fact, back in college I pitched my screenplay to a professional screenwriter and his feedback was, “This sounds like a short.”
Also, there’s no law against writing a short script in order to built up to a feature. Plenty of filmmakers have done this (Wes Anderson did this with Bottle Rocket and several other films). It’s a great way to simplify your story so that tackling the feature length version doesn’t seem so daunting.
I’ve done this with several of my testy screenplays and I’ve found that simply working on something smaller and less lengthy is (obviously) easier for my brain to manage.
Sometimes stories are about the wrong people. If your screenplay doesn’t seem to be working, you might want to think about writing it from the perspective of a different character. Is your story about a single father? Trying writing it from the perspective of his kid. Is your story about a wealthy business tycoon who’s empire goes down the toilet? Try writing it from the perspective of her assistant.
I’ve switched up the perspective twice on the screenplay I’m currently working on; the protagonist changed from a grandmother to her daughter to her son, and with every change came a bunch of new narrative possibilities (and a bunch of new narrative problems to solve).
This is actually a great exercise to do anyway to keep your creative juices flowing and fresh, but it also might prove to be the jolt your screenplay needs to get its pulse back.
Change up the internal/external goals
Screenplays are made up of many building blocks, and two of the most important are interior and exterior goals. These goals give your narrative an opportunity to create conflict as well as a character arch, which is why it’s such a catastrophic event when they aren’t functioning correctly in your script.
So, if you’re finding that your script lacks significant conflict or fully developed characters with intense desires, you should think about altering your internal/external goals. For example, my current screenplay lacked a discernible conflict, but after testing several different goals for my protagonist to go after, I was able to take the story in other directions—ones that didn’t lead to dead ends.
Change the genre
This might be a drastic change to your screenplay, but some stories work better as other genres. (Just ask a Hollywood producer.) Just because it doesn’t work as a drama doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work as a dark comedy, because maybe certain aspects of your story don’t quite fit with your current genre (i.e. the qualities of your characters, the setting, the style of your dialog).
I know this issue all too well. I’ve been adamant about keeping my “cannibal kid” screenplay a very serious drama—not a horror (much to the chagrin of my critics). Now, I’m still unwilling to make it a horror, because—you know—I want to be somewhat original and try something new, but drama and horror aren’t the only genres out there. I’ve experimented with adding elements of dark comedy and romantic comedy (even considered a few sci-fi/fantasy things, too) and the addition of the comedy element is something I think was missing in a story that was too severe and, quite frankly, depressing.
Make sure your script is an organ donor
Okay, some screenplays are doomed from the start. If your screenplay is flatlining and you just cannot get it back to life, it’s time to start looking through it piece by piece and salvaging what you can, because chances are your script isn’t all bad; some parts of it probably work. Characters, plots, lines of dialog—some of these things might actually work well in other screenplays.
I’ve done this countless times. Admittedly, I’m fickle. I get super passionate about a screenplay at first, but I quickly lose interest if a story with a prettier skirt walks by. But I don’t just scrap those scripts, or the ones that I’ve worked on for years with no progress (dead ones). I go through each one and say, “Hey! This character is great. I’ll put her in something else,” or “I like this plot, it just needs new—everything.” Nothing goes to waste! Harvest everything you can!
These six solutions are just the tip of the iceberg—there are countless other things you could do to revive your screenplays. But in the end, there are two skills I hope you walk away with.
Learn how to diagnose what’s wrong with your screenplays so you can either know 1.) what it needs in order to be nursed back to health, or 2.) when to call it quits and start harvesting its working parts. It’s easy to dump on your own work and say, “It’s terrible! Kill it! Kill it with fire,” but taking the time to really find out what’s missing or what’s not working will allow you to add or subtract elements that will give it life again. Alternately, if nothing can be done, you need to have confidence in that assertion so you can move on without having wasted your time.
On an emotional level, though, this is key: DO. NOT. BE. PRECIOUS. You have to be open to drastically changing a screenplay you love if you have to. Many times writers don’t do this and their work suffers because of it. They’re too attached to their original ideas, they don’t want to lose them, they don’t want to let them go for fear of them sinking down into the dark abyss of forgotten creativity. But guess what, you don’t have to trash your good ideas. Again, harvest. Keep them in a cute little notebook (I called mine “Cherry Sprinkles”) for another time and another story.
At any rate, may you and your screenplays be well.