Write Advice: screenwriter Justin Young explains how to script edit
For our John Yorke Story: Story for Script Development students, giving notes on TV scripts will be an important part of their job. In the second instalment of his grilling, writer and guest tutor Justin Young discusses how big of an edit an editor can suggest.
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Q – Hi Justin, I’m glad you’ve come along to take our questions. I’m wondering when an editor gives notes on a script, should they ever offer up ideas that might have hit them as they read, or should they strictly stick to feeding back on what’s been written? To explain with an example, I’ve compared a first draft script with the finished programme, and they were significantly different. One of the notes on the draft would have been developing the antagonist, and the way it was achieved in the programme was to combine two characters. If the editor had an occasional thought like that, would you welcome it (presented with tact and due deference)?
Justin Young – It’s a pleasure to be asked, and this is a great question.
The short answer is that a good idea is a good idea, and I’m hugely grateful when a script editor offers one up. As you suggest, it needs to be handled with tact and due deference, but – especially in those early drafts – those big, bold suggestions can make all the difference to a script. For most writers, a first draft is really a lump of clay, and it might bear only a scant resemblance to the shooting script. At that stage of the process there’s seldom any point in discussing individual lines of dialogue or even – sometimes – individual scenes. The discussion is much more global – are these the right characters? Is this the right story? Sometimes, as in your example, those are exactly the kind of suggestions an editor can (tactfully) make – do these characters overlap? Can we consolidate them? In fact, this is illustrated by an old joke:
Those moments when a script editor hands you the miracle fix, the lightning in a bottle, the ‘Eureka!’ moment suggestion are moments of joy for a writer.
Q: How many script editors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Does it have to be a light bulb?
A caveat to this, of course, is that sometimes you can throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes you’ll try a huge change and decide it was better before. That’s fine, though. It’s frustrating, but you’ll usually take something from it.
Another caveat is that as the drafts progress, it gets progressively more high risk to throw out these big suggestions. But, again, sometimes it will be the right suggestion. For example, you’re on the fifth draft and your protagonist’s through line still seems foggy. The editor asks: ‘What would happen if you cut the entire B story with the nice subplot that you’ve done loads of work on?’. As a writer, my knee jerk response might be: ‘No way! I’ve put loads of work into this and I love that scene with the donkey’. On consideration, though, it might turn out to be the thing that’s choking the script. You will have heard the expression ‘kill your darlings’ – although Russell T. Davies recently took amusing (and valid) exception to it in an interview – and it’s often true.
One more caveat is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Make sure you’re not just changing things for the sake of it. But, as I say, a good idea is a good idea, and those moments when a script editor hands you the miracle fix, the lightning in a bottle, the ‘Eureka!’ moment suggestion are moments of joy for a writer. And, of course, we get to take all the credit when the script is good. Script editors are unsung heroes.
Big suggestions I’ve had and taken on board have included swapping the gender of a key character, moving what I thought was my end of episode hook up to the midpoint, and removing one of four suspects from a murder mystery altogether at a late draft. I might have sulked a bit initially but they all made the script infinitesimally better.
Q – Justin, what a fantastic and comprehensive answer. Thank you for your time!
JY – My pleasure. Good luck!