Meet the Reader: The Domino Effect

A few weeks back, I assessed a script for one of my consulting clients. The story was okay, but the protagonist was too cold and remote. I said that we needed to see a warmer side to the character and suggested that perhaps we could see him help an old lady across a street or adopt a stray dog or do something else to show he has a heart.

domino-effectI sent the notes to my client and four days later I got the script back, along with assurances that the piece had been completely rewritten to incorporate my suggestions. Perusing the revision, I saw that the client had done exactly what I proposed – inserted a scene in which the protagonist helps and old lady across the street and another in which he adopts a stray dog. But that was it – otherwise the script was exactly the same.

This is a fairly common occurrence, especially with new and aspiring writers – when rewriting their scripts, they will change one or two elements without touching the rest.

When you point this out to them and tell them that the screenplay isn’t any better, they become upset: “I don’t understand. I rewrote the script just the way you told me to. What’s the problem?” But they don’t understand is that they really haven’t rewritten the script at all  — instead, all they have done is graft the changes onto the existing piece without altering anything essential.

In a properly conceived and constructed piece of dramatic writing, every element in the script – every character, every plot development, every bit of action and behavior, and every line of dialogue – should be integral to the overall piece. Every element should tie into every other element and there should be nothing irrelevant, extraneous, or without purpose in the pages. In other words, a screenplay should be as elegantly and intricately constructed as the movement on an expensive Swiss watch – all of the pieces should be interdependent, working together seamlessly and in unison to create a single remarkable experience.

If this has been achieved, then if one aspect of the script – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – is changed, every other aspect in the piece should change as well. I call this the Domino Effect – a change in one element of a screenplay should affect every other element in the screenplay from the beginning of the line to the end. If this doesn’t happen, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the script.

When it comes to rewriting, what this means is that whenever you make an alteration in your screenplay – no matter how minor or apparently inconsequential – you need to go through the script from page one to page last, adjusting every facet in the piece to reflect the alteration.

For example, if you change a cowardly character into a brave one, it’s not enough to simply include a scene in which the character stands up to some bullies. An inherently brave man speaks and behaves in a completely different manner than an inherently cowardly one, so in addition to including a scene in which the character deals with the bullies, every one of the his actions and every one of his lines in all of the other scenes in the story must be revised to reflect his new persona. Also, a brave man deals with others differently than a coward, so all of the character’s relationships with the other people in the script must also be revised. And all of this is going to influence how the plot develops and so the entire narrative must be overhauled as well.

Many writers – especially those just starting out — are hesitant to revise their work this radically. I certainly understand why – writing is laborious and hard and time consuming and nobody wants to put all that work into a screenplay only to have to start all over again. It’s a wonderful fantasy to imagine that all you have to do is tweak a few things here and there and you’ll be able to turn an imperfect screenplay into a perfect one, but it is a fantasy. So when rewriting your work, resist the urge to simply graft a few new bits onto the existing material and don’t be content with just nibbling around the edges.  If you want your script to work, you have to knock down all the dominoes, not just one or two.

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Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
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