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Rewriting for the Big Screen: “Script Doctors” and the Art of Revision

Jourdan Aldredge

There are many moving parts in the world of screenwriting. Let’s explore rewrites by examining this role in any screenplay’s development.

In the world of screenwriting, there are many, many moving parts. You might think writing a script is as easy as sitting down and putting pen to paper (or, more accurately, opening a laptop and typing away). However, for small indie features to big-budget blockbusters, developing a screenplay can take years and often involves many different writers.

One of the most notable titles for a script revisionist is the infamous “script doctor,” who seems to have magical screenwriting powers in the industry. These script doctors are perceived to be hired guns who can come in, fix all the problems that ail a failing script, then disappear into the night to work on another troubled screenplay.

In this article, let’s take a moment to explore these script doctors and break down who they are and what they actually do. At the same time, we can look into the art of revision to learn how you can script doctor your own screenplays and become a better screenwriter.

We’ll also look deeper into some of the most famous names who have served as script doctors and explore how they have been tasked to fix specific plot points and story elements to help bring some of your favorite cinema classics to life.


Who Is a Script Doctor?

Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin, one of the most recognizable script 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 hired by a film, television, or theater production to rewrite an existing script or polish specific aspects of it.” The definition goes on to include examples of specific parts of a script that can be rewritten, including: “structure, characterization, dialogue, pacing, themes, and other elements.”

Obviously, scripts and script doctors are nothing new. All manner of stage performances over centuries of theatrical productions employed both. However, what’s unique about screenplays and script doctors is how new the medium of film really is, as well as how formulaic and streamlined the majority of film productions have developed over the years.

At the core of this concept of script doctoring, we’re really talking about someone who can come in and help make any script or screenplay become recognizable, entertaining, and above all else, fit within the confines of standard film production.


The History of Script Revisions

We need to go no further than to examine the history of script revisions and script doctors to learn how the medium has used these experts to help shape our collective understanding of the art of film. Many might be surprised to learn that one of the most recognizable faces and names in Hollywood over the past few decades, Carrie Fisher—best known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise—was also an accomplished screenwriter and sought-after script doctor in her time.

While she wrote a few features films of her own, it was her work behind-the-scenes—fixing, revising, and tightening up other screenplays—that was highly in demand. As is the case with many notable script doctors, like Paul Attanasio, John Sayles, and Aaron Sorkin, Fisher came from a rich background in film with a distinct understanding of what makes a movie tick. Her insights would help to “doctor” many film projects, which would go on to commercial and critical success, including Hook, The River Wild, and The Wedding Singer.

Looking specifically at some of Fisher’s films, like Sister Act, the multi-talented actress and screenwriter was tasked with making Whoopi Goldberg’s character stronger. Fisher worked closely with Goldberg and, according to interviews, was a much-needed catalyst in saving a project that was “skidding out of control,” until she brought stability to the script.

A sought-after script doctor like Fisher was also tasked with helping to save another ailing project with the maligned Last Action Hero, which had gone through many rewrites already prior to her joining the production. Like many instances of studios employing a script doctor for specific elements, Fisher was mainly responsible for touching up a paternal mother/son relationship in the film, as well as re-write characters’ dialogue in many scenes.


The Different Elements of Script Doctoring

Elements of Script Doctoring
There were various factors involved in receiving credit for doctoring a script. Image by Tenkorys.

Due to the necessary, but at times complicated, nature of the Writers Guild of America screenwriting credit system, script doctors need to reach certain thresholds (or at times avoid them) to receive official credit for working on screenplays. However, this wasn’t always the case. You can trace the origins of script doctors back to famous examples like Herman Mankiewicz as perhaps one of the most famous script doctors of his time, and recently the subject of a new film on the writing of Citizen Kane.

For those exploring the art of revision and script doctoring today, the basic elements of a script doctor rewrite will usually fall into these distinct rewrite categories.

  • Brainstorming and Basic Ideation: These script doctors help early on in the process with some of the big picture ideas through brainstorming. They can help lay out the basic elements of a story, define the emotional crux, then leave the majority of the actual script to be written by a single writer.
  • Story and Character Changes: Conversely, at times a script doctor may be needed after an initial idea is laid out, but to help further develop and refine a project’s central story and characters.
  • Alternate Scenes and Endings: Similarly, a script doctor is often needed to come in towards the end of the creative process to help wrap up a film that might be stuck on the ending. This is one reason you often see alternate versions or endings in a film that was doctored or rewritten at the last minute.
  • Audience Feedback Revisions: It’s standard practice for big-budget features to use test screenings and audience feedback to judge if a project is ready to go, or might need revisions to its script or direction. Script doctors can be brought in with the goal of taking audience feedback to help revise a script to better meet audience expectations and demand.
  • Final Production Polish: Perhaps the most common form of script doctoring comes as a last stage in the script process as a means to help “polish” or “punch-up” a script with extra flourish. These revisions are often minor and quick without changing the crux of a story.

Tips for Self-Revising Screenplays

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

If you’re interested in either becoming a script doctor or simply becoming better at self-revising your own scripts and screenplays, the paths for both are pretty similar—write, write, and write. The majority of script doctors in the industry found their careers because of their depth of knowledge and years of writing unique and original scripts of their own. 

However, you don’t have to dive into this journey alone or without insights to help you along the way. The core tenets to any exceptional script or script rewrite all come from the same elements of storytelling, which, in the medium of film specifically, share many of the same fundamentals you can study up on. Here are some resources to help:

If you can master these elements of screenwriting, you can start writing, and even producing or directing, your own scripts and features. From there, as you make connections and further learn the industry, you might begin a process of being asked to write or rewrite different projects as they come your way. Or, alternatively, as you begin to work on projects of your own, you might look for insights and help from other writers and script doctors to ensure your projects are more recognizable and entertaining. 


If you’d like to read more on screenwriting and the art of filmmaking, check out these resources below:

Cover image by VGstockstudio.

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