Screenplay Edit: “Lincoln”

Screenshot by the author; © 2012 by DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.

Lincoln tells the true story of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to procure support for and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which amendment abolished slavery and effectively ended the American Civil War. The script was written by Tony Kushner, based in part on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

💬 Original lines appear as code blocks, edited lines appear as “quote blocks,” changes appear as boldface, and commentary appears as regular text. Original lines that do not require editing are run into the same code blocks as original lines that follow them and do.

Original Text

EXT. BATTLEFIELD, JENKINS’ FERRY, ARKANSAS - DAYHeavy grey skies hang over a flooded field, the water two feet deep. Cannons and carts, half-submerged and tilted, their wheels trapped in the mud below the surface, are still yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen.A terrible battle is taking place; two infantry companies, Negro Union soldiers and white Confederate soldiers, knee- deep in the water, staggering because of the mud beneath, fight each other hand-to-hand, with rifles, bayonets, pistols, knives and fists. There’s no discipline or strategy, nothing depersonalized: it’s mayhem and each side intensely hates the other. Both have resolved to take no prisoners.HAROLD GREEN (V.O.)
Some of us was in the Second Kansas Colored. We fought the rebs at Jenkins’ Ferry last April, just after they’d killed every Negro soldier they captured at Poison Springs.
EXT. PARADE GROUNDS ADJACENT TO THE WASHINGTON NAVY YARD, ANACOSTIA RIVER - NIGHTRain and fog. Union Army companies are camped out across the grounds. Preparations are being made for the impending assault on the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina.Two black soldiers stand before a bivouacked Negro unit: HAROLD GREEN, an infantryman in his late thirties, and IRA CLARK, a cavalryman in his early twenties. ABRAHAM LINCOLN sits on a bench facing Harold and Ira; his stovepipe hat is at his side.HAROLD GREEN
So at Jenkins’ Ferry, we decided warn’t taking no reb prisoners. And we didn’t leave a one of ‘em alive. The ones of us that didn’t die that day, we joined up with the 116th U.S. Colored, sir. From Camp Nelson Kentucky.
LINCOLN
What’s your name, soldier?

Line Edit

EXT. BATTLEFIELD, JENKINS’ FERRY, ARKANSAS - DAY

At the time of this scene (1864), Jenkins’ Ferry was not a battlefield; it was a ferry crossing on the Saline River. Today, Jenkins’ Ferry is a battlefield. In the first case, the addition of battlefield in the scene heading is inaccurate, and in the second case, the addition of battlefield is redundant. So let’s remove it.

EXT. JENKINS’ FERRY, ARKANSAS — DAY

Heavy grey skies hang over a flooded field, the water two feet deep.

G-r-e-y is the British spelling of gray, and g-r-a-y is the American spelling. Since this is an American script telling an American story, let’s use the American spelling.

Heavy gray skies hang over a flooded field, the water two feet deep.

This sentence is probably fine as it is; however, it may help to specify that the field is flooded with water before noting the depth of the water, since the article the that precedes water specifies a referent not yet referenced (water). So let’s try this instead:

Heavy gray skies hang over a field flooded with water. The water is two feet deep.

Or this:

Heavy gray skies hang over a field flooded with two feet of water.

Cannons and carts, half-submerged and tilted, their wheels trapped in the mud below the surface, are still yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen.

The adjective tilted in this sentence is ambiguous, as what exactly does it mean for a cannon or cart to be tilted within this context? I believe what the author means is that the cannons and carts are slanted, or sticking out of the mud at odd angles. And while this detail does help paint a picture of the scene, it nevertheless seems arbitrary and unnecessary, so let’s remove it.

Cannons and carts, half-submerged, their wheels trapped in the mud below the surface, are still yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen.

Since the mud below the surface of the water is not self-evident nor has it been referenced until this point in the scene, let’s remove the article the that precedes it, as this article specifies nouns relative to referents. Similarly, since we (the reader) have only just encountered the cannons and carts, the adverb still may be confusing, as it requires us to infer that the cannons and carts both are and have been yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen. So let’s remove this adverb. And while we’re at it, let’s replace below with beneath, as beneath is more precise, implying depth and concealment in addition to direction.

Cannons and carts, half-submerged, their wheels trapped in mud beneath the surface, are yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen.

Reading this sentence now, I realize that if the cannons and carts are half-submerged and trapped in mud, then where else would the mud be if not “beneath the surface” of the water? This description, then, is implied in the cannons’ and carts’ being half submerged, so let’s remove it.

Cannons and carts, half-submerged, their wheels trapped in mud, are yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen.

A terrible battle is taking place; two infantry companies, Negro Union soldiers and white Confederate soldiers, knee- deep in the water, staggering because of the mud beneath, fight each other hand-to-hand, with rifles, bayonets, pistols, knives and fists.

This sentence has a lot of commas, which can make the information in the sentence difficult to follow. So let’s employ other markings to segregate the information: let’s isolate the description of the two infantry companies by surrounding it with dashes. And while we’re at it, let’s improve the mechanics of the sentence by capitalizing white (because it’s used here as a proper noun, referring to race, not color), removing the space after the hyphen in knee-deep, and adding a serial comma after knives.

A terrible battle is taking place; two infantry companies Negro Union soldiers and White Confederate soldiers, knee-deep in the water, staggering because of the mud beneath fight each other hand-to-hand, with rifles, bayonets, pistols, knives, and fists.

This still feels like a lot of information to me, and I’m unconvinced that the list of weapons at the end of the sentence is necessary; these weapons are implied by the context — and even if they aren’t, their mentioning here adds little to the reader’s emotional understanding of the scene. So let’s replace this list of weapons with something more concise and provocative. Also, since it’s implied that the mud is beneath the water, let’s remove this description.

A terrible battle is taking place; two infantry companies — Negro Union soldiers and White Confederate soldiers, both knee-deep in the water and staggering in the mud — fight each other in close quarters.

There’s no discipline or strategy, nothing depersonalized: it’s mayhem and each side intensely hates the other.

The first part of this sentence uses two nouns and one adjective to describe what is lacking from the scene. So let’s make these consistent with each other by converting the adjective (depersonalized) into a noun (depersonalization). And while we’re at it, let’s remove intensely, as this adjective is redundant when describing hatred.

There’s no discipline or strategy, no depersonalization: it’s mayhem and each side hates the other.

Let’s improve the mechanics of this sentence by replacing the colon with a semicolon and adding a comma after mayhem, to separate the independent clauses.

There’s no discipline or strategy, no depersonalization; it’s mayhem, and each side hates the other.

I’m struggling to identify what about no depersonalization is bothering me (besides the double negative), but something about it is. I think the problem with these words is that they require explaining; they inspire the question, “What do you mean?” And I think what the author means is simply that the fighting is personal — that it lacks the abstraction and emotional distance afforded by physical distance; that, as described in the previous sentence, the fighting is intimate. So perhaps this is what’s bothering me about these words: they’re redundant. So let’s remove them.

There’s no discipline or strategy; it’s mayhem, and each side hates the other.

Both have resolved to take no prisoners.

This sentence as is feels like overkill, so let’s add it to the previous sentence and use it to describe the soldiers themselves instead of their actions.

There’s no discipline or strategy; it’s mayhem, and each side hates the other, both resolved to take no prisoners.

HAROLD GREEN (V.O.)Some of us was in the Second Kansas Colored.We fought the rebs at Jenkins’ Ferry last April, just after they’d killed every Negro soldier they captured at Poison Springs.

Since rebs is used here as a proper noun (short for Rebels, referring to the Confederate Army), let’s capitalize it.

We fought the Rebs at Jenkins’ Ferry last April, just after they’d killed every Negro soldier they captured at Poison Springs.

EXT. PARADE GROUNDS ADJACENT TO THE WASHINGTON NAVY YARD, ANACOSTIA RIVER - NIGHT

I’m not sure whether the author is presenting the information in this scene heading as a place-name (for example, “Phoenix, Arizona”), or if the information is simply ordered backwards and separated by a comma. Information in scene headings should be presented logically, from big to small, or from outside in (which in this case would mean beginning with “Anacostia River”), and separated by dashes (so as not to be confused by locations that require commas, such as “Phoenix, Arizona”). That I’m even questioning the order, though, means that we should probably swap it, so let’s do this and also replace the comma with a dash.

EXT. ANACOSTIA RIVER PARADE GROUNDS ADJACENT TO THE WASHINGTON NAVY YARD — NIGHT

Rain and fog.

Weather designations belong in scene headings, as they provide general and enduring information about the location of a scene. So let’s add this information to the scene heading.

EXT. ANACOSTIA RIVER — PARADE GROUNDS ADJACENT TO THE WASHINGTON NAVY YARD — NIGHT (RAINING AND FOGGING)

(Yes, fogging is a weird word, and nobody uses it like this, so let’s.)

Union Army companies are camped out across the grounds.

The word out forming the past-participial phrase camped out is unnecessary, so let’s remove it.

Union Army companies are camped across the grounds.

Preparations are being made for the impending assault on the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina.

The use of passive voice in this sentence (are being made) is inconsistent with the active-voice writing of the script thus far, so let’s replace it with active voice. And while we’re at it, let’s add this sentence to the previous sentence, to more clearly explain why the Union Army companies are camped across the grounds.

Union Army companies are camped across the grounds, preparing for the impending assault on the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Two black soldiers stand before a bivouacked Negro unit: HAROLD GREEN, an infantryman in his late thirties, and IRA CLARK, a cavalryman in his early twenties.

The placement of the colon in this sentence suggests that what follows the colon is information about the Negro unit; however, what follows is actually information about the two Black soldiers. So let’s rearrange the information to make the sentence easier to understand. Also, since we are encountering the two Black soldiers already performing an action (standing), let’s indicate as much by using the present-participial form of the verb that references the action they’re performing (standing). Oh, and let’s capitalize black, as the word is used here as a proper noun, referring to race.

Two Black soldiers — HAROLD GREEN, an infantryman in his late thirties, and IRA CLARK, a cavalryman in his early twenties — are standing before a bivouacked Negro unit.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN sits on a bench facing Harold and Ira; his stovepipe hat is at his side.

As written, this sentence makes sense and is grammatically sound; however, the modifier facing Harold and Ira is misplaced, as it describes, not Abraham Lincoln, but the bench he’s sitting on. So let’s add a comma after bench, to indicate that facing Harold and Ira describes Abraham Lincoln. Also, since we are encountering Abraham Lincoln already performing an action (sitting), let’s indicate as much by using the present-participial form of the verb that references the action he’s performing (sitting).

ABRAHAM LINCOLN is sitting on a bench, facing Harold and Ira; his stovepipe hat is at his side.

HAROLD GREEN

Since Harold’s next line is a continuation of his previous line, let’s indicate as much by adding a CONT’D extension to his character name.

HAROLD GREEN (CONT’D)

So at Jenkins’ Ferry, we decided warn’t taking no reb prisoners.

Let’s capitalize reb and maintain a consistent accent for the character by dropping the g in taking and replacing it with an apostrophe to denote its omission.

So at Jenkins’ Ferry, we decided warn’t takin no Reb prisoners.

And we didn’t leave a one of ‘em alive.

Since this line begins with a coordinating conjunction and is closely related to the previous line, let’s combine them.

So at Jenkins’ Ferry, we decided warn’t takin’ no Reb prisoners, and we didn’t leave a one of ’em alive.

The ones of us that didn’t die that day, we joined up with the 116th U.S. Colored, sir.

Since numerals cannot be spoken, let’s replace 116 with words. And although I’m generally reluctant to modify dialogue given that dialogue is unique to the ear of every writer, let’s conform this line to the previous line and lean into the character’s speech pattern by dropping simple words.

Ones of us didn’t die that day, we joined up with the One Hundred Sixteenth U.S. Colored, sir.

From Camp Nelson Kentucky.

This is a sentence fragment, so let’s combine it with the previous sentence. And let’s add a comma between Camp Nelson and Kentucky to designate this as a place-name and to distinguish the camp from the state where the camp is located.

Ones of us didn’t die that day, we joined up with the One Hundred Sixteenth U.S. Colored, sir, from Camp Nelson, Kentucky.

LINCOLN

Throughout this script, character names are configured as either first names, last names, or first and last names; however, all of these configurations should be the same. So let’s employ consistency by configuring all character names equally. And since there are many characters in this script — some of whom share names, and all of whom are real people from history — let’s configure the character names as first and last names.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

What’s your name, soldier?

Edited Text

EXT. JENKINS’ FERRY, ARKANSAS — DAYHeavy gray skies hang over a field flooded with two feet of water. Cannons and carts, half-submerged, their wheels trapped in mud, are yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen.A terrible battle is taking place; two infantry companies Negro Union soldiers and White Confederate soldiers, both knee-deep in the water and staggering in the mud fight each other in close quarters. There’s no discipline or strategy; it’s mayhem, and each side hates the other, both resolved to take no prisoners.HAROLD GREEN (V.O.)
Some of us was in the Second Kansas Colored. We fought the Rebs at Jenkins’ Ferry last April, just after they’d killed every Negro soldier they captured at Poison Springs.
EXT. ANACOSTIA RIVER — PARADE GROUNDS ADJACENT TO THE WASHINGTON NAVY YARD — NIGHT (RAINING AND FOGGING)Union Army companies are camped across the grounds, preparing for the impending assault on the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina.Two Black soldiers — HAROLD GREEN, an infantryman in his late thirties, and IRA CLARK, a cavalryman in his early twenties — are standing before a bivouacked Negro unit. ABRAHAM LINCOLN is sitting on a bench, facing Harold and Ira; his stovepipe hat is at his side.HAROLD GREEN (CONT’D)
So at Jenkins’ Ferry, we decided warn’t takin no Reb prisoners, and we didn’t leave a one of ’em alive. Ones of us didn’t die that day, we joined up with the One Hundred Sixteenth U.S. Colored, sir, from Camp Nelson, Kentucky.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN
What’s your name, soldier?

I hope this demonstration has been useful to you, and that it furthered your understanding of editing as well as enabled and encouraged you to improve the quality and efficiency of your own work. See you next time.

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Mitchell Ferrin

Mitchell Ferrin

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I write about writing and editing and also share occasional thoughts on things. mitchellferrin.com