Script Coverage Chronicles – October 2015: The Hazards Of Recycling In Screenplays

What do I mean by recycling in screenplays?

I’ve seen a lot of writers do it.  It’s basically any time you use material from one or more of your old scripts and try to repurpose that material in a new script. 

Maybe you have an old feature-film spec that you decide to convert into a pilot.  Or you have a character from one script that you want to import into another.  Or, on a more micro level, you have a single line of dialogue you really liked in a prior screenplay that you try to use again in a new one.

Recycling can be very tempting.  You work hard on everything you write of course.  And if you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve got lots of great material already written, so why not repurpose some previously perfected product from time to time?

The answer is: because it’s dangerous. 

Like anything else, it can be done well if it’s done right.  To do it right, you have to understand what it is.  It’s basically an adaptation.  You’re adapting story material into a new context.  And any adaptation presents certain hazards and pitfalls.  You can recycle in your screenplays with success, but only if you keep those hazards and pitfalls in mind.

So if you decide to engage in some narrative recycling, here are some things to think about:


Does that deeply insightful line you wrote for an indie drama really work in your teen comedy?  Is that wacky character you created two years ago for a satire an appropriate player in your largely realistic political thriller?  Maybe.  But you want to think carefully about tone when recycling across genres.


Is your audience the same for the new script as it was for the script that contained the original material?  If it’s different, is the old material something the new audience will like?  If the answer is “maybe not”, you might be able to tweak the material to please a different demographic.  If not, don’t use it.


The use of character arcs in feature screenplays is very different from the way they’re used in TV writing.  In feature films, you have two hours (or less) to arc a character.  In TV writing, you have many seasons for characters to evolve.  If you’re converting one to the other, ask yourself if the character arcs are still working in the right ways.


Does the old material really make sense logically in the new context?  Are the motivations still in place for all the behaviors?  Do the characters’ decisions feel natural and believable in the new scenes?  Is the overall logic of the old material consistent with the overall logic of the new story?


If you put a character in a new place, with new relationships, that character may need some tweaking to feel real.  You also want to ask yourself, would this character actually be in these relationships?  Would the other characters in the new script actually hang around with this character?  The answer may be yes, but when you’re importing fictional people into new worlds, it can be easy to overlook such concerns.


Pacing varies among genres and among script lengths.  If you move scenes from a drama to a horror, you’ll probably want to change their pace.  If you lengthen a story (pilot to feature) or compress it (feature to pilot), you’ll want to focus very carefully on how those changes affect the pacing: the overall pacing, the pacing of the character arcs, and the pacing of the changes within relationships.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this:  If old material is a questionable fit for a new home, avoid the temptation to jam it into your new script.  You’re much better off taking the time to custom craft a new plotline or character or line of dialogue, creating material that’s tailor made for your latest tale. 

You don’t even have to kill your babies.  Just leave them where they are and give life to some new ones.