Rewriting for the Big Screen: "Script Doctors" and the Art of Revision
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There are many moving parts in the world of screenwriting. Let's examine rewriting by examining this role in developing a script.

There are many, many moving parts in the world of screenwriting. You might think writing a script is as simple as sitting down and putting pen to paper (or more precisely, opening a laptop and typing it away). For small indie features to big budget blockbusters, however, developing a script can take years and often involve many different writers.

One of the most notable titles for a screenwriter revisionist is the infamous "Screenplay Doctor" who appears to have magical scriptwriting skills in the industry. These script doctors are perceived as rented guns who can come in, fix any problems that arise with a flawed script, and then disappear into the night to work on another problematic script.

In this article, let's take a moment to examine these script doctors and find out who they are and what they actually do. At the same time, we can delve into the art of revising to learn how to write your own scripts and become a better screenwriter.

We'll also dig deeper into some of the most famous names who have served as scriptwriters and examine how they were hired to correct certain plot points and story elements to bring some of your favorite cinematic classics to life.

Who is a Script Doctor?

Aaron Sorkin, one of the most famous screenwriting doctors currently working. Image via Mark Von Holden / BAFTA / Shutterstock.

According to a most basic Wikipedia definition, a script doctor is "a writer or playwright who has been hired by a film, television or theater production company to rewrite an existing script or to polish certain aspects of it". The definition gives examples of certain parts of a script that can be rewritten, including: "structure, characterization, dialogue, tempo, themes, and other elements".

Obviously, scripts and script doctors are nothing new. All kinds of stage performances over centuries of theatrical productions both used. What is unique about scripts and scriptwriters, however, is how new the medium of film really is and how formulaic and streamlined most film productions have evolved over the years.

At the core of this concept of the screenwriting doctoral thesis is really about someone who can help make any script or screenplay recognizable, entertaining and, above all, fit within the confines of standard film production.

The history of script revisions

We don't need to go further than examine the history of script revisions and script doctors to learn how the medium has used these experts to shape our collective understanding of cinematography. Many will be surprised to learn that Carrie Fisher – best known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise – was one of Hollywood's most recognizable faces and names in the past few decades, and was also an accomplished screenwriter and a coveted screenplay Doctor in hers Time.

While she was writing some of her own feature films, her behind-the-scenes work – fixing, reworking, and tightening other scripts – was in great demand. As is the case with many notable screenwriters such as Paul Attanasio, John Sayles, and Aaron Sorkin, Fisher has a rich background in film with a keen understanding of what makes a movie tick. Their insights would help "handle" many film projects that would lead to commercial and critical success, including Hook, The River Wild, and The Wedding Singer.

On several of Fisher's films, like Sister Act, the versatile actress and screenwriter has been hired to strengthen Whoopi Goldberg's character. Fisher worked closely with Goldberg and, according to interviews, was a much-needed catalyst to rescue a project that "got out of hand" until she stabilized the script.

A sought-after script doctor like Fisher was also hired to rescue another troubled project with the vicious Last Action Hero, who had gone through many rewritings before she even entered production. As in many cases of studios that employed a script doctor for certain elements, Fisher was primarily responsible for improving a fatherly mother-son relationship in the film and rewriting the characters' dialogue in many scenes.

The various elements of script doctoring

Elements of script doctoringThere were several factors that were responsible for a script's credit. Image by Tenkorys.

Because of the necessary, but sometimes complicated, nature of the Writers Guild of America's screenwriting credit system, scriptwriters must meet (or sometimes avoid) certain thresholds in order to receive official credit to work on scripts. However, this has not always been the case. You can trace the origins of screenplay doctors to famous examples like Herman Mankiewicz, who is perhaps one of the most famous screenwriters of his day and was recently the subject of a new film about writing Citizen Kane.

For those involved in the art of revision and script doctoring today, the basic elements of a script doctor rewrite usually fall into these different rewrite categories.

  • Brainstorm and basic ideas: These script doctors help out early in the process with some of the big ideas through brainstorming. They can help lay out the basic elements of a story, define the emotional core, and then let a single writer write most of the actual script.
  • Story and character changes: Conversely, a script doctor may sometimes be needed after an initial idea has been drawn up, but to further develop and refine the central story and characters of a project.
  • Alternative scenes and endings: Similarly, a script doctor is often needed to step in towards the end of the creative process to finish a movie that may get stuck at the end. This is one reason why you often see alternate versions or endings in a movie that was last minute treated or rewritten.
  • Audience Feedback Revisions: For big budget features, it is common to use test screenings and audience feedback to assess if a project is up and running or if changes to its script or direction may be required. Script doctors can be called in with the aim of getting feedback from the audience to revise a script to better meet the audience's expectations and requirements.
  • Final production Polish: Perhaps the most common form of script editing is the final stage of the scripting process to "polish" or "beat" a script with additional success. These revisions are often minor and quick without changing the gist of a story.

Tips for self-revising scripts

The wedding singerThe Wedding Singer, one of the films Carrie Fisher worked on as a script doctor. Image via Warner Bros.

If you're interested in becoming a script doctor, or better still revising your own scripts and scripts yourself, the paths are pretty similar for both: writing, writing, and writing. The majority of script doctors in the industry found their careers through their extensive knowledge and years of writing unique and original scripts.

However, you don't have to dive into this journey alone or without insight to help along your way. The basic principles of an extraordinary script or script rewriting all come from the same elements of storytelling, which in the medium of film have many of the same fundamentals that you can study. Here are some resources:

Once you master these elements of screenwriting, you can start writing, and even producing or directing, your own scripts and functions. As you make connections from there and learn more about the industry, you may be prompted to write or rewrite different projects if they get in your way. When you start working on your own projects, you may seek insights and help from other writers and script doctors to make sure your projects are more recognizable and fun.

If you want to learn more about screenwriting and the art of filmmaking, check out the following resources:

Cover photo from VGstockstudio.

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