5 Ways to Rehab a Stale Script


Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Perhaps you’ve been tinkering with the same screenplay for years, or perhaps you just know your story needs some serious rehab. Either way, there’s a huge difference between standing up for your story and clinging to a story that simply doesn’t work.

For writers who are ready to try some radical revision, these are a few trade-tested ideas to get the plot moving again.

No. 1 — Start in the middle.

There’s a time-honored tradition in journalist circles where the copy editor lops off the first two paragraphs of an article. The general idea is that the first two paragraphs are typically filled with flowery, tone-setting nonsense and don’t address to the 5 Ws the reader is looking for. The same can be said for many screenplays.

Even if your exposition is the leanest of the lean, it’s possible your story starts in the wrong place. Imagine what the story would look like if it began 30 or 40 pages in instead of at its current slug. It’s possible to re-energize the story by simply moving it down the road a piece.

Elsa in Frozen. Photo courtesy: Disney Pictures

No. 2 — Choose a new protagonist.

By now you’ve heard the tale of Jennifer Lee’s Frozen script: Elsa began her life on the page in the classic villain archetype. Elsa’s character shift from evil queen to misunderstood hero required an entire overhaul of the story, for the better.

I’m sure you’ve walked out of a movie once or twice wondering about the life of a character that didn’t receive enough screen time. Who is that character in your story? Is it possible your current protagonist is actually meant to be a supporting player? Here’s a test: If anyone has told you they “don’t get” or “don’t care” about your protagonist’s motives or arc, you might be focusing on the wrong hero.

Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien was originally written as a male lead. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

No. 3 — Change the genre.

What label have you given your story’s genre? Action-thriller? Rom-com? Docu-drama? Whatever it is, have you thought about a different one? I’ve read many scripts that didn’t know what genre they were; some tried too hard to be funny in the serious moments and some tried too hard to be serious when the stakes were not.

It’s fine – important, even – to write the first several drafts without much mind to genre. But once the bones are down, it’s essential to 1) choose appropriately and 2) be consistent.

Photo courtesy: Paramount TV

No. 4 — World-build.

When I was a kid, Star Trek conventions were a target of ridicule. Now? There’s a Con for everything, you know. Even if you don’t foresee your script spawning a cottage industry, it’s a good exercise to think about how plot points, characters and set pieces live off the page. (Harvard has a Quidditch team. I paid to see them play.)

Go back to the areas of your script that make world-building possible and flesh them out, if necessary. Ending a spec with “And so it begins…” does not a trilogy make. Vivid settings, symbolic journeys, endearing/heroic/aspirational characters are all essential to creating a world audiences want to bring home with them.

No. 5 –Change the medium.

This last tip could be the most or the least radical, depending on how married to your medium you are. Several years ago, I read a spec so well written and so prescient, I encouraged the writer to revise the feature as an hourlong drama spec, with six episode ideas.

The writer politely demurred, as he couldn’t really see his story outside of the feature format. All these years later, that spec is still a standout among all I have read, though I know it never sold, and I suspect the story’s time has passed.

Sure, features are adapted to novels are adapted to series are adapted to Broadway musicals are adapted to comic books every day. But you are writing the origin story. Who is your audience?

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Are they as likely  — or more – to find your story online? On a bookshelf? On their handhelds? Shakespeare shows us that a great story can be told through any number of media and still pack the same punch. Turn your script on its head and shake it around; there are more media out there to facilitate than when you started writing it.


Maureen Green is Scrambler-in-Chief at ScriptScramble.com. She has worked with pro and aspiring screenwriters since 2006, when she joined the masthead as editor at Script magazine. She teaches writing and lives in Charleston, SC, near the beach.

11 Replies to "5 Ways to Rehab a Stale Script"

  • comment-avatar
    Keith January 23, 2017 (7:17 am)

    I have a script that needs shaking up. Sounds like you have some good points for me to use. Thanks

    • comment-avatar
      Maureen January 24, 2017 (5:25 am)

      Thanks, Keith. I hope one or more helps your story! mg

    • comment-avatar
      Star Lawrence January 31, 2017 (10:23 am)

      I thought it said reFABBING–not rehabbing. I like mine, too.

  • comment-avatar
    Kathy Ayers January 24, 2017 (7:14 pm)

    This is terrific advise. Thanks!

  • comment-avatar
    Maureen Green January 25, 2017 (3:44 pm)

    Thanks, Kathy. I hope it helps!

  • comment-avatar
    Patricia Poulos January 31, 2017 (2:48 pm)

    Thank you for this.

  • comment-avatar
    Anton S.Jayaraj January 31, 2017 (10:08 pm)

    All the points are well explained and the essay is much useful to aspiring writers like me. Your suggestions may help me give more life and action to the screenplay I am writing now. Thanks a lot.

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