Detailing the nuts and bolts of the job of script editing, this book looks at what’s required and expected, how script editors assess a script, their approach to working with writers and producers, and their input during rewrites and pre-production, up to a project’s completion. It also examines the ways in which writers and producers can benefit from working with a professional script editor as they seek to refine and communicate their vision. This is a valuable resource for anyone developing a script, for writers and producers interested in expanding their understanding of how a script is advanced, and for those pursuing a career in script development.
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About the Author
Karol Griffiths has been a successful script supervisor, script editor and development associate for more than 20 years. She has worked with companies such as Warner Brothers, Universal, Disney, Paramount and Fox Studios and runs her own freelance consultancy.
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The Art of Script Editing
A Practical Guide
By Karol Griffiths
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2015 Karol Griffiths
All rights reserved.
RESPONSIBILITIES OF A SCRIPT EDITOR
The script editor's job is to read and analyse the script – give clear and strong notes and help the writer find their best version of the script.
WHAT SKILLS DOES A SCRIPT EDITOR NEED?
Having a passion for storytelling is a prerequisite for anyone in development, and that is even truer for script editors. Script editors must immerse themselves in stories, read loads of screenplays and books, watch plenty of films, and see tons of theatre. They must virtually dive inside a story and examine it from all angles, so it is crucial that they love reading, love watching stories unfold, and are highly knowledgeable about how storytelling and film structure work.
A script editor is comparable to an auto-mechanic. An auto-mechanic has to know how a car works in order to help customers care, repair, or maintain a vehicle. They are knowledgeable about all kinds of makes, years and styles of cars and they understand how cars are built and operate. In the same way, a script editor has to know how stories work, how they are built, in order to help writers successfully craft them.
Script editors must be diplomats, tactful, responsive and respectful. They must be good listeners and enjoy working with people. Having good communication skills is essential. Script editors must be able to substantiate their opinions with valid arguments within the context of the filmmaking process, and their opinions should be focused on assisting screenwriters and producers realise the potential of their screenplays. They must be able to communicate clearly, both in writing and in conversation, their thoughts, criticisms and opinions about the work and be able to provide clear, objective opinions and give detailed explanations of their reasoning. A script editor must always remember that they are there to help the writer find their own answers ... not to tell them how to write their story.
Script editors must understand the numerous development stages a project will undergo with regard to its particular format, and be aware of the different ways that genre and writing style affect an audience. They must be proficient in the crafting of a strong synopsis and premise line, as well as evaluating the contents required in a reader's script report including: the structure, tone, character, plot, action, dialogue, genre and style of the writing. Equally important is the use of dramatic tools, such as dramatic tension, irony, viewpoint, and suspense.
The best script editors provide their clients with diverse perspectives on their work, ensuring the writers consider the varied ways an audience might view the story while also considering the potential commercial market for the film. They should stay abreast of the current trends in production, incorporating into their reports an appraisal of how the project might fare in the intended market.
A script editor should continually be meeting and working with writers, developing a list of talent they respect and want to work with. Part of a script editor's value is their knowledge of and relationships with screenwriters. A script editor must stay knowledgeable about the current and available writing talent, which means reading script after script, keeping abreast of films and television shows and actively looking for new writing talent. It also means developing relationships with literary agents so that, when a broadcaster, independent film or TV company, or a producer, asks for suggestions about screenwriting talent for a project, they are able to provide strong ones.
For a television series, a script editor is also responsible for making sure that the logic and continuity of each script and story is maintained. As there are regularly numerous writers on a continuing series, and multiple stories being developed at a time, the script editor is often the only person available who knows the details of the show's 'bible' (history), and to a large degree the responsibility for story consistency falls upon them.
Strong negotiation and interpersonal skills are required to navigate through the development process and a script editor must be capable of liaising effectively among writers, researchers, producers and development executives. They must mediate effectively between the screenwriter's creative ideas and the requirements of the project. Helping the writer stay focused on the agreed nature of the work and aware of the kind of film that producers and financiers expect to be delivered is essential.
To work effectively, script editors must be present at all script development meetings to ensure that all parties share the same vision for the project, keeping a record of all notes and decisions made.
Script editors can be hired at any point of the development process, even well before a script has been written. A writer might hire them directly for creative support, or they might be brought on board by a producer, a development team or production company.
Making a film or television show is an expensive venture. Time and money are critical factors and production companies and producers cannot afford to waste either.
Script editing can vary enormously depending on the writer's personality and needs, and on the type of project being done. For example, developing original material is very different to working within an existing series or on commissioned work. Original work is a very creative process. Writers often need help clarifying their ideas and shaping their sense of story and characters. To that end, writers will often engage a script editor in the early stages of the process to discuss ideas, and help map out or outline their projects.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: A good script editor never imposes their ideas onto a project, but helps the writer cultivate their own ideas.
Script editors are hired to energise, motivate, and help writers tell the stories that are meaningful to them in a way that connects with their intended audience. It is also essential to help writers find ways to tell their stories in a format and style that is likely to be commissioned. There is no foolproof formula for success, but the odds greatly increase for writers who are clear about the story they are telling, know who they are writing for, and how best to reach their intended audience.CHAPTER 2
STORYTELLING AND SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE
Although this is not a book about screenwriting or story structure, understanding the building blocks of script construction is absolutely necessary for a script editor, and frankly essential for anyone in development at all, including script readers.
It's important to be aware that writers, especially experienced ones, will have their own methods of organising their work and so it's not helpful – or, in fact, the script editor's place – to try to change or impose ways of working onto them. Instead it is important that script editors be knowledgeable about the many different ways in which a screenwriter might approach their work so as to be able to adapt accordingly.
Screenplay paradigms exist to guide and support a writer's existing story. The story idea should come first, before the application of any method. Methods only exist to support the story, and writers should be encouraged to break the rules if it will strengthen their script.
I realise that the word 'structure' can sound very intimidating, but it shouldn't. Structure is the spine of the story, meaning how the script is built and the way in which the parts of the script function together.
Structure is the escalation of conflict, the cause and effect of events in a story.
A script editor must understand the nature of screenplays, and the effect that different types of narratives and genres will have on audiences. They must be able to give objective opinions about the writing and provide detailed explanations of their comments and reasoning, offering effective guidance on how to resolve any problems.
There are many theories on screenplay structure and I recommend that anyone interested in script development read up on, and become familiar with, as many as possible. As with any creative form, there are numerous schools of thought, all with valid points of view and valuable insights and tools. Which method (if any) a writer chooses to use is an individual preference, and irrelevant in terms of the final outcome. What is important is that a script editor be knowledgeable about the different forms, and able to work and communicate within them. Simply put, it helps if you and the writer speak the same language and use terminology that you both clearly understand.
Personally, I do not suggest that a writer limit themself to any set of rules or any one paradigm. It is a wholly personal decision. Trying to force a specific form can be very constraining and the writer has to work within their comfort zone. However, I do believe that understanding the components of story structure can also be very liberating, and can in many ways give the writer greater freedom, as well as saving them precious writing time. Nevertheless, writers must acquire their own practice and it's up to the script editor to be informed and adaptable to meet their needs.
We will now move on to a brief overview of the structure of storytelling and screenplay writing. Please note that, as we discuss the different components of the work, various terminologies will crop up and I will do my best to explain these as we go along. I have also included a glossary of terms at the back of this book.
Storytelling has been essential since the dawn of humankind and is one of the most important things that we do. Story gives us history, perspective, the ability to share our knowledge, to process experiences, to dream, and so much more.
So, how do stories work?
First, we have to have a storyteller. That is a vital role and the storyteller must have something to say. Whether the story is simply for entertainment value or contains a message or moral, the storyteller – that is, the writer – must have something they want to convey.
I know this sounds obvious – but you'd be surprised how frequently scripts get written without the writer having a clear idea what it is they really want to say.
Stories require characters. Characters are usually people, but they can also be animals or any number of other creatures or beings, even inanimate objects. Most of us have seen animation films where the characters are not human, but are nevertheless vital characters (think of the teapot in Beauty and the Beast or the Hal 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
In the story at least one of the characters must take a journey. The type of journey that the character takes – be it physical or emotional – is what defines what kind of story (genre) it is, and how the story will be organised. It is also crucial that the audience cares, empathises or can identify with the main character in some way.
Most stories involve some kind of change – and how the character copes with change is what defines them. Equally important is conflict. Conflict is the reason people engage in stories. Without conflict (a struggle or battle) there is no story, but simply a series of events.
Stories need to be organised or structured in a way that gives the audience everything they need to know when they need to know it, while also keeping them interested in finding out what happens next. The most prevalent theory of screenplay structure is the three-act structure based on the three-act paradigm, inspired by Aristotle's Poetics. This structure is based on the observation that all stories have a beginning, middle and end.
It is true that, often, screenplay timelines are manipulated and jumbled, but even so they contain a beeginning, middle and end, and although there are successful writers and teachers who rebuff this approach, there is still no denying that it is, and has been, the most prevalent method to date.
In its simplest terms the three-act structure breaks down into: act one – the beginning (the set-up); act two – the middle (conflict/confrontation); and act three – the end (the resolution).
These three acts correlate to the audience's emotional experience. In the beginning, the audience is introduced to the characters and becomes emotionally involved with them. During the middle, the emotional commitment is strengthened by rising tension and expectation. The end brings the audience's emotional involvement to a reasonable and (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.
THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE IN GREATER DETAIL
ACT ONE – THE SET-UP
Act one is the beginning – it's where the story takes off. It introduces the main character(s) and the world they live in and answers the questions who, what, where, when and how. It deals with location, setting and tone, presenting the main character's goal and the story question.
In act one we learn about the character(s), see them in action and discover what their situation is, what they are up against and what motivates them. Here we also learn what skills they have and what they lack.
The main character (also known as the protagonist) is usually troubled or flawed. Their need or flaw is present from the very beginning of the story, but they lack the ability, desire or need to change. They are usually stuck in their situation and are unable to change until they are forced to.
The set-up culminates in a dynamic on-screen event that incites the characters' desire/need to take action. This on-screen event is known as the inciting incident and is what kick-starts the story.
The inciting incident is the moment when the dramatic conflict is presented. It's the first pronouncement of the predicament to come, and is usually delivered in a very visual and formidable way.
An inciting incident generally happens in one of the following ways:
A new and critical piece of information is given to the main character.
For example, The Doctor is a film about a successful and arrogant heart surgeon who learns the value of life after he develops a life-threatening illness that forces him to be a patient.
The inciting incident is the moment the doctor discovers that he, himself, is ill.
An event forces the main character into conflict.
For example, in The Impossible, we are shown a happy family on vacation; then a tsunami strikes.
The tsunami striking is the inciting incident.
A series of small events accumulates and forces the main character on a journey.
In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Neal Page, a high-strung executive, tries to get home for Thanksgiving dinner, but events accumulate that prevent him from being able to travel easily, and he is forced on a life-changing trip with Del Griffith, a homeless shower-curtain-ring salesman.
The inciting incident in Planes, Trains and Automobiles is that Neal's flight is cancelled and he must find an alternative way to get home for Thanksgiving.
As you can see, the inciting incident significantly changes the characters' life and story. That is the moment the story really begins.
The inciting incident sparks two important questions:
What does the character need?
What is preventing them from getting it?
These two questions define what the conflict of the story is.
In Jaws, what does Sheriff Brody (the main character) need?
To save his community from the killer shark.
What is preventing him from doing that?
His boss, the mayor, won't allow him to close the beach.
The characters' attempts to deal with the inciting incident lead to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point.
The first turning point is where the main character is shoved deeper into the heart of the story and realises there is no turning back. It signals the end of the first act and ensures life will never be the same again for the character. It also raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the film.
The first turning point of Thelma and Louise comes when Louise shoots a man who is on the verge of raping Thelma. This action completely changes the course of the story. Up until then, Thelma and Louise have been on a recreational road trip, taking a break from their tedious lives; but when Thelma kills the man, they become criminals and everything changes.
The dramatic question is usually directed in terms of the protagonist's call to action. For example, in Jaws – will Sheriff Brody kill the great white shark and save his community? Or in The Matrix – will Neo face the challenges of the Matrix and accept that he is the one? In The Impossible – will the family survive the devastating tsunami? Will Neal Page make it home for Thanksgiving? Will Thelma and Louise get their normal lives back?
Excerpted from The Art of Script Editing by Karol Griffiths. Copyright © 2015 Karol Griffiths. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A Career in Script Development 11
Responsibilities of a Script Editor 15
Storytelling and Screenplay Structure 19
The Principles of Genre 42
The Script Report 55
The First Meeting 91
Asking the Right Questions 98
Treatments, Outlines and Pitching Materials 104
Script Editing for Television 119
Formatting Information and Technical Issues 161
Professional Advice 166
How to Get Started as a Script Editor 173
In Conclusion 175
Suggested Reading 177
Useful Resources 179
Glossary of Film Terms 180