A 4-Step Guide For The Beginning Script Editor

Sixteen is an exciting year in any teenager’s life, and for me it presented an exciting opportunity because I was able to get my first job. I worked as a stock boy at the sneaker store Finish Line.  For a few hours a week, I kept control of the inventory for seven bucks an hour. I came in on the middle of pay week and after two weeks, I was giddy to receive my first check, only to open it and stare blankly, wondering where did my money go!?  My total pay of fourteen bucks had to be some sort of cruel joke. I never cashed that check. I kept it as a reminder that sometimes it’s the small steps that count.

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My first writing job mirrored my sneaker store experience: a small step with little money, but it provided real world experience in telling stories.

A friend from college knew my writing ambitions and forwarded my name to an independent producer who needed a young writer to do a pass of his pilot before his big week of pitches.

My first lesson:  Deadlines.

I had by the end of the night to send my writing sample to the producer. I rushed home and went over any spelling or grammatical errors before I hit send. I then waited by the phone like a teenage boy waiting for his crush to give him a call.

It took another week for me to get that call, but when I got it, and news that the job was mine, I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, because I signed a non-disclosure agreement, I can’t go into details about the content of the pilot or what networks he was pitching to, but there is still a lot of useful information I can share in helping you become a writer and script editor.

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I had two weeks to fine-tune a 60-page script while I finished my last quarter in film school. At first, I was intimidated by the assignment, because this wasn’t school and I wasn’t getting a grade at the end of this particular writing task.

The stakes were much higher: I was getting an industry “in” and I couldn’t afford to mess up.

The lifeline of this proposed series was in my hands, and this was my first real shot to show somebody that I could write on a professional and network level. All script editor experiences may not be exactly like mine, but I utilized every writing and editing skill set that I had learned in film school and applied them to this particular 60-page script. Now, the hard work was set to begin, but hopefully yours will be a little easier.

Check out my 4 east steps to being a top-tier script editor below.

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4 Crucial Steps to Becoming a Hollywood Script Editor

1) Meet the Producer

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Meeting with the producer was a very important step in the process. I met with the producer at a Starbucks and we discussed my background and the genesis of his idea. We talked for about two hours, and I picked his brain about the style, tone, and impact he was hoping to make with his pilot. This next statement is very important:  My goal wasn’t to re-write, but more so to polish what he already had, so I needed to understand the DNA of the show.

2) Research the Topic

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Since this particular show centered on true events that happened in the news from a particular region of the U.S., research was imperative. I watched tons of documentaries, read newspaper articles, and talked to friends, who I had from that area of the country where this pilot took place.  The latter helped authentically capture the dialect and speech patterns of that area of the country.

3) Breaking Down the Original Script

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I had 48 pages to work with and carefully analyze for even the smallest subtext. The task at hand was to take the story that he wanted to tell and make it more complete and coherent. I also had to add 12 more pages, shorten the dialogue and beef up the characters. The last thing I wanted to do was write in a different voice that others would be able to point out. I was a rookie, but I knew enough to know that I was working for somebody and my job wasn’t to push my ideas, it was really to make his ideas better.

I plotted out his story on index cards and I lined them up in my bedroom so I could lock down a cohesive structure. After I had a clear view of scenes and plot points, I did the same thing with the characters.  I gave each character an index card with an extensive biography. Once I understood his characters, I was able to give them dialogue that helped the audience understand who they were without the dialogue telling the story. The characters dictate the story; the story should never dictate the characters.

My biggest challenge in this edit was rearranging the scenes so the characters’ actions showed their intentions and not their words. This is the engine that would help me move the plot along.

4) Rearranging the Puzzle Pieces

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Now that I had disassembled the car down to its bare framing and essential parts, I had to put it all back together so it could get back on the road. I knew every aspect of these characters, because I had created a list of set ups and payoffs.

For the pilot to work, final page 60 had to leave the reader wanting five-to-six additional seasons of the show. I can’t stress this enough because I’ve been told more than several times that when you’re pitching a pilot, you’re actually pitching a series.  And unless it’s a special event, one-season miniseries, you should probably start thinking second season and beyond when you delve into writing a pilot. (Because we all want job security, right?)

I knew I had to open big for my audience, so I started with the climax, which was a huge payoff, and I worked my way back to page 10, plotting out small intricacies that all led up to the big bang. This was difficult at times, because it was easy to get lost in plot twists and turns, but every time I was unsure of where I was going or if it was the right step, I went back to my character list to ensure their motives and actions served every sequence and helped build toward the pilot’s ‘inciting incident’ or climax.

Since this was a pilot, the trick is to provide the viewer with smaller slices of the entire story or seasonal arc and dissect such conflict episode-by-episode – no matter if you’re lucky enough to get an 8 or 22 episode order.

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Mad Men: Hailed as one of the most well-written television pilots.

At the end of the process, the producer was extremely happy with my writing and editing abilities.  Although that particular pilot didn’t get picked up, I eventually got called back for more work with his company. I firmly believe that this happened because of my four-step approach to the editing process. As a script editor I had to first “edit” ego out of the process, and realize that at the end of the day, this was a job, and I was working to bring someone else’s vision to life. Always remember: when script editing, the idea is not to reinvent the wheel; rather it’s to put air in once again after it has gone flat.