Rewriting Your Script (Part 7): Scene-by-scene breakdown

In November, upward to 1,000 writers — myself included — took a crack at pounding out a script as part of the Zero Draft Thirty Challenge. Many of them reached FADE OUT / THE END. They’re probably like me, staring at my 86 pages of diamonds-in-the-rough amidst pages and pages of verbal manure pondering this question: How the hell do I rewrite this mess?

So I thought it would be helpful to do a GITS series on the rewrite process.

The first thing to acknowledge is that the same thing applies to rewriting as to writing: If there is no right way to write, there is no right way to rewrite. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And every rewrite is different.

That said, this week and next, I will lay out some keys to the rewriting process. If they help you, great. Use them with my blessing. If they don’t help you, feel free to chuck them… and find your own way.

But know this: Starting January 1, I invite you to join me in Rewrite Draft Thirty One: 31 days devoted to rewriting an original script. Hashtag: #RW31SCRIPT.

Otherwise known as Re-Write-O-Rama.

I will be hacking my way through my zero draft. If you have a draft from the recent ZD30 challenge or any script in need of revision regardless of its origin, mark your calendar. Take part in a communal effort to take our stories to the next level in this time-defined challenge.

Part 7: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown

Perhaps the best way to track a screenplay’s existing structure as well as its pace is to do a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is exactly what it sounds like: You create a document [Word, Excel], then note every single scene in your script. Here is an example from the script for the Shakespeare in Love:

1–4: Establishing shot (London). To avoid being tortured, Henslowe takes on Fennyman as partner on Shakespeare’s new play.

4–5: Will’s house. Henslowe visits Will who has not finished play. Will states his goal: Needs to find his “muse.”

5–7: Street. Henslowe begs Will to finish the play — to deaf ears.

7–10: Dr. Moth’s office. Will admits he has “lost his gift” of writing. Moth gives Will a bangle to offer a woman to bring back Will’s muse.

10–13: Whitehall Palace. Will agrees to sell his new play to Burbage, potentially double-crossing Henslowe.

13–14: (cont’d): The Queen arrives. Will gives bangle to Rosaline.

14–15: (cont’d): A comedy act to the Queen’s delight. Viola introduced. Lord Wessex enters and “notices” Viola.

15–16: (cont’d): Viola recites Will’s words along with the actors revealing she is a fan of the theater. Will has left to write.

17–19: Viola’s room. Viola complains about custom of men playing ladies’ roles. Goal: “I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love.”

19–21: Street. Fennyman presses Henslowe about the play.

21–23: Street. Will barges into Burbage’s place, only to find Rosaline having sex with Tilney. She’s not his muse. Will burns the new pages he’s written.

23–26: Tavern. Will lies and tells Henslowe the play is done. Henslowe puts out the call for actors.

26–28: (cont’d): Will admits to Christopher Marlowe he hasn’t written a word of the play. Marlowe gives him some helpful tips for the story.

28–31: Rose Theater. Auditions, but scant talent. “Thomas Kent” (Viola dressed as man) auditions. Will is astonished at her talent.

This is the most rudimentary version. For purposes of a rewrite, you want to include more extensive information including:

  • Page numbers [as above]
  • The scene’s location
  • A brief description of what happens in the scene
  • List the characters in the scene
  • Number of pages [down to the ¼ page]
  • What is the point of the scene as it relates to the Plotline?
  • What is the point of the scene as it relates to the Themeline?
  • How does the scene transition from the previous scene?

In addition, you should note each Major Plotline Point.

Here is an excerpt of a scene-by-scene breakdown of the opening sequence in the movie Up [it uses the minute count from the movie]:


00:00:40–00:02:35: Newsreel footage of Charles Muntz, “The Spirit of Adventure,” and Paradise Falls. Watched by young Carl Frederickson in a movie theater. Muntz accused of fabricating skeleton of “The Monster of Paradise Falls.” Muntz’s goal: To “capture the beast alive.”

  • Plotline point: Introduces two key characters, Carl and Muntz; establishes Paradise Falls and the scandal related to “The Monster of Paradise Falls.”
  • Themeline point: Establishes that young Carl has the spirit of adventure.

00:02:35–00:05:05: Carl imagining himself as Muntz, then hears a voice: “Adventure is out there!” From a rickety, abandoned house. It’s Ellie, who is as big a fan of Muntz as Carl is. [4:28: She gives him her grape soda pin and says, “You and me, we’re in a club now.”] Trying to retrieve his balloon, Carl falls. Ambulance.

  • Plotline point: Introduces Ellie and intersects her with Carl; introduces the callback line “Adventure is out there”; establishes the importance of balloons; leads up to Carl falling and breaking his arm.
  • Themeline point: Provides an immediate connection between Ellie and Carl, based on their mutual love of adventure and admiration for Muntz.
  • Scene transition: The voice-over narrator of the Muntz newsreel ‘narrates’ Carl’s adventures as he heads down the sidewalk, continuing the spirit of the newsreel.

00:05:00–00:07:10: Carl in his room at night with broken arm. Ellie shows up with his balloon and shares with Carl “My Adventure Book.” [“Cross your heart!”] Her goal: To go to Paradise Falls. [6:35: “Only I just don’t know how I’m going to get to PF.”] Carl sees his balloon. “That’s it. You’ll take us in a blimp. Swear you’ll do it. Cross your heart. Cross it!” And Carl’s first word: “Wow.”

  • Plotline point: Reinforces the importance of balloons; establishes Ellie’s “My Adventure Book”; introduces the callback “Cross your heart!”; establishes Ellie’s goal of getting to Paradise Falls; leads up to Ellie getting Carl to promise he will take Ellie there in a blimp.
  • Themeline point: Carl is smitten by Ellie.
  • Scene transition: Because Carl broke his arm, Ellie shows up to make him feel better and uses a balloon floating into Carl’s room to make her entrance.

00:07:10–00:11:30: Carl and Ellie’s life together montage. Key plot points: (A) Wedding. (B) He gets a job at a zoo selling helium balloons. © They want to have children, but find out they can’t. (D) Set sights on Paradise Falls, but those plans laid aside due to a series of financial setbacks. (E) Now old, Carl plans to surprise Ellie with tickets to go to PF, but Ellie dies.

  • Plotline point: Shows Carl and Ellie’s married life; demonstrates how they constantly had to set aside their plans to go to Paradise Falls; leads up to Ellie’s death.
  • Themeline point: Carl’s full life with Ellie comes to a crushing end with his wife’s passing, leaving him alone.
  • Scene transition: Carl’s first word — “Wow!” — and the balloon popping leads to the flash of a camera light at the wedding of Carl and Ellie.

Major Plotline Point [The Opening]: Ellie’s death. Carl has made a promise to Ellie to take her to Paradise Falls because of her childhood dream of building a clubhouse right next to the falls. How to fulfill that promise now that his wife is gone?

So my suggestion: Create a scene-by-scene breakdown of your entire script. Yes, this is a lot of work, but three things: (1) Analyzing your script this way will help you track the Plotline and Themeline. (2) Analyzing your script this way will help you track the script’s pace. (3) You can use this document as the basis of your Revision Outline… and that is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Part 1: Set It Aside

Part 2: A Clean Read

Part 3: Characters

Part 4: Themes

Part 5: Structure

Part 6: Pace

DON’T FORGET! Starting January 1, you are welcome to join me in #RW31SCRIPT, a month-long challenge to rewrite an original script from FADE IN to FADE OUT. Who’s with me? If you’re into it, join the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook page here.

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