Order of Operations isn’t just for mathematics. Ray Morton created one for script revision as well – a way of prioritizing the elements of a screenplay from what he considers the most important to the least important.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.
As a script consultant, one of my jobs is to assess submitted screenplays, identify problem areas, and then offer appropriate guidance to my clients to help them satisfactorily resolve those issues as they rewrite their work. This is usually a multi-step process: the first time (or times) around we deal with major issues, the next time (or times) around we address less serious problems, and the last time around we tackle the minor stuff.
When new writers first approach me for help, they often want to focus on correcting issues related to screenplay formatting and problems with the technical writing (spelling, grammar, and punctuation), thinking these are the most important areas to address. They are usually pretty surprised when I refuse.
Do you remember back in school when you were leaning math? At some point you were introduced to the Order of Operations – the protocol for solving math problems that directs you to deal with the most complex operations first and then work your way down to the simplest ones. The Order of Operations is usually summarized with the acronym PEMDAS (which stands for Parentheticals, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction) and memorized using the amusing mnemonic “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.”
Well, for me there’s an Order of Operations for script revision as well – a way of prioritizing the elements of a screenplay from what I consider the most important to what I consider the least important. I use this order as a guide when I assess screenplays, when I work with clients to help them revise their scripts, and when I rewrite my own material. It can be summarized by the non-acronym SWCDFT, which stands for:
Story is the single most important element in mainstream commercial filmmaking (both studio and independent). The story is the base from which all of the elements in a script spring. It is what producers buy, what gets made, what gets sold, and – most importantly – what audiences (hopefully) embrace. So, when revising a screenplay, the writer’s first and most important task is to get the story right.
The story in most first drafts is usually pretty ragged – overstuffed with too many ideas and characters and scenes and notions. First draft stories are usually not as focused as they need be and major aspects are often under-developed. This is all okay – the point of a first draft is to get the writer’s concept down on paper and a certain amount of messiness is both expected and acceptable. However, once that first draft is done, the narrative must then be developed and shaped.
This process starts with the premise. A strong premise is the foundation of a good screenplay. If a script doesn’t have one (which happens more often than you might think), I will encourage the writer to devise one. If it has too many (another common problem with first-time writers), I will insist the author choose one and discard the rest (or save them for use in scripts of their own). I then work with the writer to make sure the premise is clearly established as early in the script as possible and then to ensure that the story properly develops the premise and doesn’t veer off into a lot of unrelated tangents.
Next we have to make sure the story is properly structured – that the plot has three strong acts and a clearly-defined protagonist and antagonist; that the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist is believably established and escalates properly; that there are clear and effective plot twists and reversals and that the narrative contains sufficient suspense and surprise; that any narrative devices (non-linear storytelling, narration, etc.) are used in the service of the tale rather than as nonessential window dressing; and to make sure the plot has a powerful and thrilling climax that resolves the story’s central conflict in a believable and satisfying manner. I also encourage writers to address genre tropes in a creative manner; to avoid or rethink formulas and clichés; and to make sure that their scripts are as tight as possible – to be sure every scene in the script advances the plot in some meaningful way and that any extraneous material is excised.
Finally, I push my clients to make the story as entertaining as it can possibly be – to maximize every opportunity for action, humor, thrills, suspense, surprise, satire, commentary, and (most importantly) emotion.
A script’s story must be solid, but to work it must also be executed well.
In many first drafts – especially those by new writers – information vital to our understanding of events and characters is written down in the text as if the authors were writing a novel. This is a big problem because the only way viewers would be able to understand such material is if they read the script at the same time they are watching the movie. Therefore I constantly remind my clients that – because cinema is an visual/audio medium and because audiences can only know what they see on the screen or hear coming out of the speakers – it is necessary for them to tell their stories using action, imagery, and sound (including dialogue) rather than text.
Just as screenplays are not novels, they are also not stage plays. Stage plays tell their stories primarily through dialogue and this is something many writers – especially beginners – do in their first drafts as well. So I always remind the writers I work with to tell their stories as much as possible through action (character behavior as well as car chases and shootouts) and imagery. I tell them that while they can use dialogue to help tell their stories, it should always be the third tool they use rather than the first.
I also work with my clients to ensure that the tones of their pieces are consistent and that the narratives are well-paced – that the individual scenes begin as late as possible and conclude as soon as possible and the overall pieces move at a brisk clip. Finally, I advise them to make the piece is as tight as possible – to be sure that every scene in the script advances the plot in some meaningful way, that all extraneous material is excised, and that the script never (ever) runs longer than 120 pages.
Once the story is squared away, it’s time to focus on the characters. (Some might argue that the story should spring from the characters and so they should be the writer’s first priority. I think that can certainly be true when one is writing a first draft, but once that is done then the story must come first.)
When revising, the screenwriter’s most important character-related task is to make sure the story has a clearly-defined protagonist (many new writers have trouble choosing a single main character to drive their narratives). If there isn’t a clearly-defined protagonist, I ask the writer to select one. If there is (or once there is), the next step is to make sure the protagonist has a significant goal to pursue (because the actions a protagonist takes in pursuit of an important goal are what drives the plot forward). Next, it is important to make sure that the protagonist is an active character rather than a reactive one (protagonists should always take action rather than respond to the actions of others).
A strong protagonist requires a worthy antagonist, so if the script doesn’t have one, I will encourage the author to develop one. The other supporting characters must serve a vital function in the story. Any character that doesn’t must be removed – this is something that is often very difficult for new writers to recognize and accomplish so it’s something I emphasize in my notes in my notes. I also encourage my clients to make sure that all of the characters’ goals and motivations are clear – especially the protagonist’s
And obviously, a good script needs to have characters who are well-developed – colorful, interesting personages that audiences can engage with and that actors (especially bankable ones) will want to play. The characters in many first drafts tend to be flat and functional, so when rewriting I encourage authors to round out their people – to give them additional facets, traits, and quirks; powerful emotions, distinctive points of view, and unique senses of humor.
The characters in a first draft often all sound the same. This is not surprising, since they are all the product of the same author and so tend to sound like him/her. However, as the script is developed, it is vital that each character begin to speak in his/her own unique voice. It’s also important to make sure that the dialogue sounds like the way people actually talk if the piece is meant to be naturalistic and accurate to the time if the story is period. If the dialogue is meant to be stylized, then it’s important that the stylization be consistent throughout.
FORMATTING and TECHNICAL
Only after all of the issues pertaining to story, writing, characters, and dialogue have been addressed should one turn one’s attention to formatting and technical matters. It’s not that these things aren’t important, but compared to the preceding items, they are relatively minor – if a story’s brilliant, potential buyers won’t refuse to buy it because the formatting is problematic or the punctuation poor, but if the story is lousy no one will want to make it no matter how perfect the scene headings or exact the spelling. And no matter how bad a script’s formatting or technical issues, they are relatively easy to fix compared to the creative heavy lifting required to fix problems with narrative, characters, or dialogue. To resolve formatting problems, all one has to do is refer to a format guide or look at some screenplays penned by professional writers and to correct technical errors all one needs to do is consult a dictionary, a style manual, or good old Strunk & White or use Spellcheck.
So when you sit down to revise your screenplay, it’s best to remember these great words of wisdom: Sally Will Call Doug For Tea.
Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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