Writing Horror: Check-In 6, Revising the First Half of My Spec Script

For this sixth check-in, I will begin to look at the revision process for my own spec script, Mother Knows Best. After completing my first draft, I sent it over to my project advisor, who returned the script with edits and potential revisions, as well as general commentary on the project. I am now in the process of tweaking—and occasionally making major edits to—my story in order to make it more compelling and concise. Hopefully, at the end of this process, I will have a completed screenplay that can be put into my creative portfolio.

During revisions on the first half of my screenplay, there were a couple of big takeaways I had from the process. I will share those here:

Takeaway 1: Limit Dialogue Where You Can

            Dialogue is the backbone of a compelling story, but that does not mean that it should be inserted into a script wherever possible. Telling a story visually will often provide a more interesting means of communicating plot and even relationship dynamics than just having characters talk. 12 Angry Men is a great film, yes, but even the biggest fan can admit that it drags at times because of the almost complete reliance on dialogue to drive the plot.

In my first draft, I tried to insert compelling visuals wherever I could, but I still found myself on the outside looking in when it came to an ideal balance of dialogue and visual storytelling. Take this small passage, for example, where I have Art and his agent Ethan talking about an iteration of the book Art is writing:

Screen Shot 2019-08-19 at 11.17.44 AM

Not bad (if I can fairly judge my own work, which may prove yet to be impossible), but definitely kind of superfluous. What is actually being said here? Ethan likes Art’s draft, yes, and Ethan is planning on seeing Art tomorrow. Not really anything else. Is half a page (about 30 seconds of screen time) the most economical way to do this? Probably not. It may seem like splitting hairs here, but these instances add up, and all combine to make dialogue scenes drag throughout a film.

Takeaway 2: Give Your Characters Strong (and CLEAR) Motivations

            This takeaway is the one that I struggle with the most. It is one of the first lessons when learning how to build characters, but it’s easier said than done. Sometimes it can feel like building a realistic character, with all of the contradictions and complications that make us all humans, can get in the way of making a character with clear and identifiable motivations. So what is the solution?

At first glance, it may seem like there will always be a choice between flat, clearly motivated characters and nebulous, complex characters that can be confusing. But I think that the solution for me is to realize that clear motivation and complexity are not two mutually exclusive aspects of characters. One of the ways to implement this solution is to go what I call the “Darth Vader route.”

The short way to describe this strategy is to create a character that acts with one clear motivation throughout a film, then to demonstrate the complexity through an action that reveals to us the struggle the character has been experiencing throughout the film. In Darth Vader’s case, his choice to kill the emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi reveals to us the conflicting motivations he has been experiencing throughout the film. Rather than rely on long passages of dialogue to demonstrate this conflict throughout the script, revolve the struggle around clear, motivated actions. This method prevents the confusing nature of a character whose actions do not convey a clear sense of morals or motivation.

Obviously, there are shortcomings to this one method (Darth Vader is not the protagonist, it relies on one big action to convince the audience the character is truly complex), but I think it is a good example of just one way to solve the problem of unclear character motivations.

For the penultimate check-in, I will be discussing my revisions of the second half of my script, Mother Knows Best.