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How to Rewrite a Script: A Hands-On Master Checklist.

Discover how to add the #1 element missing from most spec screenplays and elevate yours above the competition.

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by Script Reader Pro in Screenwriting Tips
September 27, 2022 10 comments
how to rewrite a script

How to rewrite a script: a hands-on master checklist. 

You’ve probably heard advice on how to rewrite a screenplay that goes something like this:

“Leave room for discovery as you go along”

“Make a list of what needs fixing, and fix it”

“Don’t pull any punches with your rewrite. Kill your darlings!”

etc. etc.

If rewriting a script was as easy as looking at what you have, making an action plan and changing it for the better (all the while remembering to “follow your gut”), every spec script would be amazing.

But… they’re not…

If you’re looking to really learn how to rewrite a script, in this post we’re going to give you the ultimate script rewrite checklist:

A hands-on guide that you can actually use to go through your script, page-by-page, and base your next rewrite on. And this checklist is based on the #1 script rewrite element that a huge number of spec scripts miss out, causing them to not sell.

Implement this element in yours using our checklist, though, and you’ll automatically elevate your script above 99 percent of the competition.

So let’s take a look at what’s coming up:

The difference between writing and rewriting a script

The #1 problem writers face when rewriting a script

The #1 script rewrite element you MUST include in your work

The ultimate script rewrite checklist

So let’s dive on in and learn how to rewrite a screenplay!

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What’s the difference between writing and rewriting a script?

The answer to that would be not much. Zero, even.

That’s because “writing is rewriting,” as the cliche goes. And rewriting is writing.

In fact, this is the only screenwriting platitude that we’ll be giving any time to in this post as it actually gets to the crux of why so many screenwriters have a hard time during the rewrite process:

Learning how to rewrite a script essentially means learning how to write a script.

If, as a writer, you haven’t mastered the #1 screenwriting element we’re going to discuss in this post before tackling a rewrite, it won’t be nearly as successful as it could be.

Therefore, it’s not useful to approach the question of “how to rewrite a script” as any different from “how to write a script.” It’s not something “other” or “alien” to writing that first draft. It’s all writing.

But before we get to the solution of how to rewrite a script (or write a script), it’s probably a good idea to briefly discuss the problem…

The #1 problem writers face when rewriting a script.

There’s one big reason why we as writers can often find writing and rewriting a script so hard: because it’s so hard to be objective of own work.

The problem is either:

1. We’re too close to our own scripts to see its faults, or

2. We know they exist, we don’t know how to fix them

In either case, simply being told to figure out what needs enhancing or cutting and getting on with it, doesn’t help much.

This is because, while rewriting a screenplay, we usually fall into one of two camps:

Camp A: “My script’s good to go.” These writers think that their script’s pretty wonderful as it is. During a rewrite they’ll make superficial changes—adding commas, changing the color of a character’s hat, etc.—without listening to feedback and addressing its core problems.

Camp B: “My script’s so not ready yet.” These writers know their script has major problems, but aren’t sure how to tackle them. Sometimes they don’t even really know what they are. During a rewrite they’ll listen to feedback and make big changes to a script, but without significantly improving it.

In other words:

The writers in Camp A:

Think they have exceptional dialogue… but it’s flat

Think they have an active protagonist… but he/she’s passive

Think they have an exciting, twist-filled plot… but it’s predictable

The writers in Camp B:

Know they don’t have exceptional dialogue… but don’t know how to make it better

Know they have an passive protagonist… but don’t know how to make him/her active

Know they have a predictable plot… but don’t know how to make it exciting

The problem is usually a lack of objectivity. 

Both camps are in this position because they lack objectivity in their own work.

This is perfectly understandable, though, because it can be extremely hard to be objective when analyzing your own work.

Before we get to the script rewrite checklist, we need to discuss the #1 script rewrite element that you’ll be using with the checklist.

This element will help you become more objective and really get to the heart of what’s working and what’s not in your script.

The #1 script rewrite element you MUST include.

A lack of objectivity when writing or rewriting a script leads to another huge problem. It is (by some distance) the biggest one we see with spec scripts that come in to us for script coverage:

A lack of STAKES.

Often, there’s simply not enough at stake in a spec script. Either the protagonist’s goal doesn’t have high enough stakes attached, or, he or she seems disinterested in pursuing it…

All of which leads to a protagonist who:

• Isn’t faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem

• Isn’t struggling to achieve a goal against the odds

• Isn’t going to literally or figuratively die if they don’t achieve it

• Isn’t faced with a much stronger antagonist

• Isn’t repeatedly backed into a corner

• Isn’t forced to make any tough decisions

• Isn’t making things happen, but instead reacting to events

• Isn’t driving the action through their decisions, but letting others drive it

The end result is a spec script in which the protagonist floats from scene to scene, chatting with other characters, while the reader floats off to sleep.

A spec script like this will never sell.

“But what about [insert black and white foreign arthouse movie] in which the protagonist doesn’t have a goal?! It won six Oscars!”

Yes, arthouse movies like The Tree of Life and Roma contain wafer-thin plots in which the protagonist doesn’t seem to do much except wander around reacting to events. (If there are any.)

We explain why it’s a bad idea to try and replicate this approach in a spec script in a short section at the end of this post: “A quick word on arty movies with passive protagonists.”

The ultimate script rewrite checklist (and how to apply it to your script.)

We get that you probably already know that “there must be something big at stake” in a script. They say it in practically every screenwriting book out there.

But it’s a lack of objectivity that allows a writer to understand this on one hand, and yet write a script that’s almost completely stakes-free on the other.

It’s a lack of objectivity that leads to thin plots, passive protagonists and tension-free scenes.

This can be overcome, or at least reduced, by amping up the stakes in your work by applying our script rewrite checklist to it.

While stakes should be present in every aspect of your script, due to space limitations, we’ve grouped elements together to create four broad categories:

Concept/Logline

Theme/Characters

Structure/Plot

Scenes/Dialogue

Each section begins with a brief recap on how stakes relate to that particular area, followed by a step-by-step to-do list that will help you enhance them.

As you go through each section, re-read the relevant parts of your script as you go, checking it against the list. If you struggle to answer any of these questions, the stakes could probably do with amping up.

How to rewrite a script: concept/logline.

A lack of stakes in the concept/logline is a big reason why many spec scripts are dead on arrival.

Writers waste months rewriting because they often jump into writing an entire script before realizing it’s not working because there’s not enough at stake in the concept in the first place.

Infusing the concept with high stakes before you start writing, therefore, is the way to go.

The simplest way to consider the overall, core concept stakes of a script is:

What is he/she trying to achieve?

Why is he/she trying to achieve it?

What will happen if he/she doesn’t achieve it?

The key to learning how to rewrite a script, is in these three questions. This is the “meat” of the story—the foundational concept that should be readily apparent in the logline.

Step #1: read these two blog posts.

How to Write a Logline: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Protagonist and Antagonist Conflict: The Secret Formula

Step #2: consider these two movie examples.

Happy Death Day: Tree is the protagonist, the killer is the antagonist and Carter is the stakes character.

Silver Linings Playbook: What is Pat trying to achieve? In his outer goal we see him struggle desperately to get back together with his ex-wife, Nikki. But we’re rooting for his inner goal: to get together with the stakes character, Tiffany. Why? Pat wants to achieve his outer goal because he has no control over his feelings. But we want him to achieve his inner goal to become in control of his feelings. What will happen if Pat doesn’t gain control of his feelings? He’ll figuratively “die” by missing out on the one person—Tiffany—who could make him whole again.

Step #3: apply this script rewrite checklist.

1. Open up your logline in a document (or try writing one if you haven’t already). Now go to IMDb and open up the loglines to three movies/TV shows that are similar to yours. How does your concept stand up in comparison?

2. Can you identify a) the protagonist, b) the antagonist (or antagonistic force), c) the stakes character (or what’s at stake)?

3. Can you identify a) what your protagonist is trying to achieve, b) why they’re trying to achieve it, c) what will happen to them if they don’t?

4. Does your protagonist’s goal contains the words “must,” “attempts,” “struggles,” or similar?

5. Is your protagonist forced out of their comfort zone, or are they operating in a world that’s familiar and cozy?

How to rewrite a script: theme/characters.

Theme and character are inextricably linked. If the theme represents the writer’s opinion on a philosophical argument, it’s the characters who represent each side of that argument.

In a typical movie with a relatively happy ending:

• The protagonist represents the “wrong” or “bad” side of the argument—the side that needs to grow and change by the end of the movie

• The antagonist represents the “even worse” side of that argument—a more extreme version

• The stakes character (often the love interest) represents the “good” side of the argument—the side that the writer themselves agrees with, and that the protagonist eventually moves toward

What elevates the stakes in a script and makes it truly great, is the inner goal (unconscious desire) of each character—particularly the protagonist.

Going back to the What, Why, What will happen aspects we just discussed—this Why part is the protagonist’s inner goal/unconscious desire/“need.”

This is the whole reason why an audience gets glued to the screen—because they’re watching and waiting to see if the protagonist can fulfill their inner goal and fix the great big hole inside them.

The protagonist’s outer goal—the external plot—and all of the other bells and whistles, are just a device to get the protagonist to fulfill their inner goal.

The INNER GOAL is the stakes.

And every character in the script—not just the protagonist—should have a goal that relates back to these stakes and the theme.

Step #1: read these two blog posts.

Character Arc: The Secret Sauce to Showing a Hero’s Growth

Screenplay Theme: 3 Superb Ways to Express Your Script’s Message

Step #2: consider these two movie examples.

American Beauty: The theme = “A meaning to life and true beauty can be found not in material possessions, but in the simple things.” Lester represents the “bad” side of the argument as he’s going through a midlife crisis and completely unaware of the theme at the start of the movie. His antagonist wife, Carolyn, represents the even worse side of the argument as she craves material possessions and a superficially “perfect” man. The stakes character, Jane, represents the “good” side of the argument as she rejects superficiality (Angela and her mom, Carolyn) in favor of a simple life, as represented by Ricky Fitts.

The Truman Show: Truman is a classic active protagonist, making choices and driving the narrative. We see him decide to relentlessly pursue an outer goal—to leave the island. But it’s his inner goal—to be with the stakes character, Sylvia—that gives the movie its theme and emotional heart.

Step #3: apply this script rewrite checklist.

1. Open up a doc and add three movies similar to your own that you know well. Underneath each one, list their major and minor characters, (being sure to include the protagonist, antagonist and stakes characters). Then, list each of their inner (unconscious) goals and outer (conscious) goals

2. Next, add all of the major and minor characters in your own script. Can you easily give each one an inner and outer goal that uses verbs like “struggle,” “battle,” “contend”?

3. Does each characters’ goal relate back to the theme and have “death” stakes attached? Will they literally or figuratively die if they don’t achieve it?

4. Does each character pursue their goal with a rabid ferocity—like it’s a do-or-die mission? Or do they “kind of” pursue it and not really care whether they achieve it or not?

5. Write down the consequences of what will happen if each character doesn’t achieve their goal. Will an audience whose paid money to go see your film, be gripped with worry if they achieve it, or not?

How to rewrite a script: structure/plot.

If the theme and stakes of the movie can be found in the protagonist’s inner goal, the mechanism by which which we see him or her succeed or fail is via the plot: the choices we see them make while pursuing an outer goal.

Every big decision the protagonist makes at every major turning point, takes him/her either closer or further away from their main outer goal.

Traditionally, writers are told to do this via a basic three-act structure. However, an easier, more intuitive approach, is to do this is via sequences.

A sequence is like a “mini-movie” that lasts about ten to fifteen minutes and has its own three-act structure and goal with stakes attached. In a typical 90-120 minute movie, this gives the protagonist seven or eight sequences/mini-goals to accomplish, each of which fit snugly within the traditional three-act paradigm.

Maintaining high stakes and conflict is made that much easier by using sequences because they give the writer more turning points to work toward, rather than just the usual big five at the Call to Action, End of Act 1, Midpoint, etc.

Step #1: read these two blog posts.

How to Master Screenplay Structure Using Sequences

How to Write a Script Outline and Save Months of Rewrites

Step #2: consider these two movie examples.

Collateral: Take the scene outside the jazz club in which Vincent tells Max that they’re going to pay his mother a visit. This isn’t just a scene that’s floating unanchored at the shores of Act Two. It’s the Act One turning point of the third sequence: the moment that sets up the conflict of the sequence.

The Devil Wears Prada: Andy’s goal is to have a glittering career at a fashion magazine. Each sequence ends with a climax that brings her either closer to or further away from that goal. Sequence A ends with her getting the job. Sequence B with her hating the job. Sequence C with her dazzling everyone with her outfits and determined to make it, and so on.

Step#3: apply this script rewrite checklist.

1. Write an outline of your script—a sentence for each scene—as described in the above post (or pull up your outline if you have one already)

2. Can you break the protagonist’s outer goal/plot down into seven or eight sequences, with five of their climaxes corresponding to the traditional five major turning points found within three-act structure?

3. Are events happening to the protagonist, or are they making things happen through their choices? (Especially the big decisions at the end of every sequence)

4. Do these choices alternate between moving the protagonist closer to, and further away from, their outer goal?

5. Does the protagonist start the script making really terrible choices that get progressively better as it goes along, until they make the final correct decision at the end? (Or don’t, if it’s a tragedy)

How to rewrite a script: scenes/dialogue.

If there’s not much at stake in the overall concept, the protagonist’s goal, the plot, etc. then it’s virtually impossible to write a scene that has anything at stake in it.

Scenes with not much at stake in them most often result in characters simply chatting amiably or bickering (and asking a lot of questions), without being made to feel truly uncomfortable from any kind of pressure.

This is because they’re not being forced to struggle with something at stake in the concept and overall goal. Or if there is something big at stake overall, they’re choosing not to engage with it.

Instead, each scene should be stakes pressure cooker for the protagonist (on varying dials). Not necessarily overt conflict—shouting or guns going off—but mental or emotional pressure related to whatever problem they’ve been forced to overcome.

And every scene should lead directly on to the next one—the pressure getting more and more intense—as they either succeed or fail while moving closer or further away from their overall goal.

Step #1: read these two blog posts.

How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters (Insider Hack),

8 Out of 10 Writers Have Been Told How to Write a Scene the Wrong Way

Step #2: consider these two movie examples.

Bridesmaids: In the cafe scene near the start, Annie and Lillian discuss their relationships. There’s no protagonist vs. antagonist set up here with opposing goals, or escalating conflict. There’s only gentle disagreement in a warm, funny conversation between friends. But there are stakes. Annie’s life is what’s at stake, and here we learn (briefly, we might add) more about what she and others make of her situation.

Little Miss Sunshine: We’re introduced to the family’s son, Dwayne, via jump cuts of him obsessively working out and marking off days on a calendar until enlistment. His mission is to fly and we’re shown this through his actions and, in this case, lack of dialogue.

Step #3: apply this script rewrite checklist.

Methodically go through each scene in your script and write down what’s at stake in each and every one.

1. Do the characters’ dialogue and actions contain stakes that relate directly to the their main problem/goal?

2. Write down how the protagonist is put under pressure in each scene. Are they being made to really struggle with what’s at stake, or are they happily avoiding it?

3. Write down at least one thing in each scene that would shock, or at least mildly surprise, the audience. Is the biggest surprise reserved for the scene’s climax?

4. Label the beginning and end of each scene with either a positive (+) or negative (-) emotional charge for the protagonist. On the whole, do the scenes contain reversals from a positive to a negative and vice versa?

5. Write down how each scene ends and how the next one begins. Is there a direct correlation between them, with the events in one scene only happening because of the events in the previous scene?

Again, a failure to have a ready answer for any of these questions could mean the script is lacking stakes in that area and that they’re in need of enhancing.

How NOT to rewrite a screenplay: 5 things to avoid.

To finish up, here’s a few tips on what you probably shouldn’t do while rewriting a script:

1. Don’t put off actually rewriting. A basic point, sure, but a massive one. Yes, rewriting a script can be a daunting task, but either you get on and do it, or you don’t. Read this post How to Find Time to Write  on finding the motivation to sit your butt in the chair and write. The longer you put off rewriting a script, the longer you’re putting off a potential sale.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. We often see writers send their scripts in for a repeat round of script coverage and hardly anything’s changed. Don’t spend your entire rewrite endlessly refining sentences or agonizing over formatting. Always focus on the meat of a script’s problems—whether that’s the stakes or the characters, or the structure, etc.—as hard as they may be to face.

3. Don’t “write forward.” In other words, don’t start each rewrite session from the exact page you left off last time and keep plowing forward. Take the time to reread what you did in the previous session and rewrite it if necessary. Otherwise, you’re just barreling forward without a clear idea on where you’re going, which can lead to completely overlooking the fact that the scenes don’t have much at stake in them.

4. Don’t get stuck straight into a rewrite after finishing a draft. Once you finish a draft, set the script aside for a while. Leave it alone for at least three weeks without opening it or even thinking about it. While this may feel like you’re wasting time by not writing, you’re actually doing the best thing possible. Putting distance between you and the script makes it that much easier to be objective and realize how and why it may be lacking stakes.

5. Don’t read the script in the exact same way you read it the last time. After three weeks or so when it comes time to read your script again, do so using a different medium. If you last read it last time on a laptop, print it off and read a hard copy. If you last read a hard copy, read it on a computer screen. Again, this will help put distance between you and the script and see it with fresh eyes. Better yet, organize a table read—they’re an invaluable learning experience.

A quick word on arty movies with passive protagonists.

Yes, not all movies contain traditional Hollywood-style active protagonists, goals and stakes.

Many critically acclaimed movies such as Chungking Express, The Class and Nomadland, instead prefer to eschew these elements in favor of atmosphere, intellectual ideas and studying characters.

These kind of movies make it to the big screen because they’re written and directed by the filmmakers themselves (and usually established, critically acclaimed filmmakers, at that) not aspiring screenwriters. As such, they’re given a ton of artistic license (and money) to produce something for a certain audience.

The same luxuries aren’t afforded to aspiring screenwriters competing in a highly competitive industry in which ninety-nine percent of the scripts that get sold contain a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal with high stakes attached.

So, if you want to go from aspiring screenwriter to working screenwriter, we strongly suggest you forget about arthouse movies in which not much happens, and instead focus on learning how to rewrite a script with high stakes attached.

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How to rewrite a screenplay: conclusion.

This blog post is not intended as an exhaustive list of things you should check when rewriting a script. But it’s a start.

Check the stakes in each of the elements listed in the post, make the necessary changes and your script is guaranteed to be stronger than the majority of the competition.

Remember:

Without stakes in the concept, you won’t have stakes in the protagonist’s goal

Without stakes in the protagonist’s goal, you won’t have stakes in each act

Without stakes in each act, you won’t have stakes in each sequence

Without stakes in each sequence, you won’t have stakes in each scene

Without stakes in each scene, you won’t have a sellable screenplay

Need help from a pro screenwriter to rewrite your script?

As writers, sometimes we take a script as far as we think we can take it. We run out of ideas, and get stuck (and frustrated). If this sounds familiar, maybe we can help…

Our team of professional screenwriters here at Script Reader Pro have vast amounts of experience helping writers gain representation, sell scripts and break into the industry.

Hire a pro screenwriter to rewrite your script with our script doctor service.

If you’re interested in seeing what one of our team could do with your script—a rewrite, polish, or even ghostwrite—check out our script doctor services by clicking the image below.

how to rewrite a script

If you’d like more information on any of our script coverage or script doctor services feel free to reach out at submissions[at]scriptreaderpro[dot]com.

Enjoyed this post? Here are more on how to write a script…

How to Write a Screenplay: The 5 Steps Most Beginners Miss

16 Screenwriting Tips That Will Improve Your Script Today

Script Analysis Hacks Used By Pro Writers That Will Improve Your Script

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