Screenplay Edit: “Tenet”

Screenshot by the author; © 2020 by Warner Bros.

Tenet tells the story of a secret agent recruited by a mysterious intelligence organization to investigate the source of time-inverted objects and stop a terminally ill madman from inverting the entropy of the universe. The script was written by Christopher Nolan.

In this scene, the protagonist learns about inversion.

💬 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

INT. OFFICE, LABORATORY - CONTINUOUS
Barbara hands the Protagonist a cup of tea.
BARBARA
No small talk, nothing that might reveal who we are, or what we do.
PROTAGONIST
I thought I was here to find out what we do.
BARBARA
You’re not here for ‘what’, you’re here for ‘how’. ‘What’ is your department. And not my business.
PROTAGONIST
Well, to do what I do, I need some idea of the threat we face.
Barbara considers the Protagonist. Sips her tea.BARBARA
As I understand it, we’re trying to prevent World War Three.
PROTAGONIST
Nuclear holocaust?
BARBARA
No. Something worse.
INT. SHOOTING RANGE - MOMENTS LATER
Barbara hands the Protagonist a semi-automatic. He reflexively checks the chamber and magazine - EMPTY.
BARBARA
Aim it and pull the trigger.
The Protagonist SHRUGS, lifts the empty pistol, sights a target 25m away with several holes in it...He squeezes the trigger - BAM! - a shot. He is CONFUSED...BARBARA (CONT’D)
Check the magazine.
The Protagonist checks the clip – THERE IS A ROUND IN IT.PROTAGONIST
How?
Barbara pulls on PROTECTIVE GLOVES and removes the round from the clip, placing it next to an identical one on a table.BARBARA
One of these bullets is, like us, travelling forwards through time. The other one’s going backwards. Can you tell which is which?
The Protagonist shakes his head. Barbara reaches forward –BARBARA (CONT’D)
How about now? –
One of the rounds FLIES UP INTO HER HAND, FALLING IN REVERSE. The Protagonist is taken aback. Barbara holds the round towards him so he can inspect it –BARBARA (CONT’D)
It’s inverted – its entropy runs backwards. So, to our eyes, its movement is reversed. We think it’s a type of inverse radiation, triggered by nuclear fission.
PROTAGONIST
You didn’t make it?
BARBARA
We don’t know how. Yet.
PROTAGONIST
So where’d it come from?
BARBARA
Someone’s manufacturing them in the future. They’re streaming back at us.
Barbara places the round on the table, in front of a CAMERA.BARBARA (CONT’D)
Try it.
He puts on a glove - moves his hand over it, nothing.BARBARA (CONT’D)
You have to have dropped it.
The Protagonist reaches out again - it LEAPS UP INTO HIS HAND.PROTAGONIST
How can it move before I touch it?
She cues up the recording of what he just did -BARBARA
From your point of view you caught it, but from the bullet’s point of view...
She plays it BACKWARDS -BARBARA (CONT’D)
...you dropped it.
ON THE SCREEN: the round FALLS from his hand.PROTAGONIST
But cause has to come before
effect.
BARBARA
No. That’s just how we see time.
She PULLS the round towards herself using one finger - the round follows her finger as if MAGNETIZED...PROTAGONIST
What about free will?
BARBARA
That bullet wouldn’t have moved if you hadn’t put your hand there. Either way we run the tape, you made it happen.
She LAUNCHES it up into her other hand -
BARBARA (CONT’D)
Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.
Barbara PLAYS with the round in increasingly IMPROBABLE, BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENTS... The round SHOOTS AWAY FROM HER - the Protagonist CATCHES IT...PROTAGONIST
Instinct. Got it.
Barbara smiles, swaps him the round for the pistol. She then places a TRAY COVERED IN SHELL CASINGS beside him.The Protagonist aims at the target - a shell casing LEAPS into the gun - he FIRES, and a bullet hole near the bullseye VANISHES -PROTAGONIST (CONT’D)
Why does it feel so strange?
BARBARA
You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.
PROTAGONIST
Whoa.
The Protagonist examines the target - no bullet holes.PROTAGONIST (CONT’D)
I’ve seen this type of ammunition before.
BARBARA
In the field?
PROTAGONIST
I was almost hit.
BARBARA
Then you are exceedingly lucky...
The Protagonist turns to her...BARBARA (CONT’D)
An inverted bullet passing through your body would be devastating. The inverse radiation would spread through your body. Like polonium poisoning. Not pretty.
The Protagonist examines the rounds...PROTAGONIST
These look like today’s.
BARBARA
They may have been made today, then inverted years from now.
PROTAGONIST
Where did you get them?
BARBARA
They came with the wall. I was assigned it, like all the material I’m studying here.
PROTAGONIST
Do you have an analysis of the metals?
BARBARA
Sure. Why?
PROTAGONIST
The mixture of alloys can tell me where they might have been made. Look, I know you said that ‘what’ is my business -
BARBARA
Let’s not go off-topic.
PROTAGONIST
I’m not seeing Armageddon here.
Barbara takes the round from him, and beckons him to follow -

Line Edit

Scene 1

INT. OFFICE, LABORATORY - CONTINUOUS

Unless designating place names (such as a city within a state or province — for example, Phoenix, Arizona), elements in scene headings should be separated by dashes. So let’s replace the comma in this scene heading with a dash. Also, generally, and for obvious reasons, scene headings should include only one time designation. However, when two are needed, as in this scene heading, the second, more specific designation (LATER, CONTINUOUS, etc.) should be treated as a modifier and as such enclosed in parentheses. So let’s include an initial time designation and enclose CONTINUOUS in parentheses.

INT. OFFICE LABORATORY — DAY (CONTINUOUS)

Barbara hands the Protagonist a cup of tea.

Although the main character’s name in this script is Protagonist, he is not being referred to in this line by his name rather by his role; thus, Protagonist in this line is not a proper noun rather a common noun. So let’s lowercase this and all other relevant instances of the word.

Barbara hands the protagonist a cup of tea.

BARBARANo small talk, nothing that might reveal who we are, or what we do.

Let’s improve the mechanics of this sentence by replacing the first comma with a dash, to indicate that what follows the dash expounds on what precedes it, and removing the second comma.

No small talk nothing that might reveal who we are or what we do.

PROTAGONISTI thought I was here to find out what we do.

This line feels clunky to me. So let’s revise it.

Isn’t that why I’m here?

BARBARAYou’re not here for ‘what’, you’re here for ‘how’.

Although using quotation marks to designate what and how as words used as words is fine, the marks make the sentence look busy, especially since the line also contains two apostrophes. So let’s use italics instead of quotation marks. (And to avoid repeating this edit, let’s do the same for all other similar instances of quotation marks.)

You’re not here for what, you’re here for how.

The comma in this sentence is referred to as a “comma splice,” as it separates, or “splices,” two independent clauses in the absence of a coordinating conjunction. And although comma splices have their place — and although the comma splice in this sentence may be justified given the relatedness of the clauses — they nevertheless tend to be confusing, often indicating (even if only for milliseconds) false relationships between clauses. So let’s avoid misreadings by replacing the comma with a semicolon.

You’re not here for what; you’re here for how.

What is your department.And not my business.

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

What is your department and not my business.

PROTAGONISTWell, to do what I do, I need some idea of the threat we face.

This line also feels clunky to me; it’s a question posed as a statement, and it doesn’t immediately or obviously counter Barbara’s restriction. So let’s revise it.

Well, to do what I do, I need to know what I’m doing. So what’s the threat?

Barbara considers the protagonist.Sips her tea.

That Barbara sips her tea is sufficient to indicate that she considers the protagonist (for why else would she sip her tea in this moment if not for the break in speaking that it affords her?). So let’s consolidate these lines.

Barbara sips her tea.

BARBARAAs I understand it, we’re trying to prevent World War Three.

While I understand that Tenet is a secret program and that those involved in it have more questions than they do answers, the characters should nevertheless be deliberate about what they know and don’t know — meaning, they should always express certainty, even in and about their uncertainty. And this is because the protagonist is already uncertain and, for the sake of readers, should be the only character who is uncertain; indeed, if every character is ignorant, uncertain, or confused, then readers will be too, which will result in a frustrating reading experience. So let’s make Barbara’s line deliberate by removing the uncertainty from it.

We’re trying to prevent World War Three.

Throughout this script, as in this line, characters often speak in ambiguities, which then requires other characters to prompt them for clarification, as demonstrated in the lines that follow this line:

PROTAGONIST
Nuclear holocaust?
BARBARA
No. Something worse.

And although, given the prevalence of these ambiguities, this choice may be stylistic, it nevertheless increases the complexity of the script by adding unnecessary lines and giving readers extraneous information to process; indeed, such lines fail to provide readers with useful, progressive information about the story — meaning, readers are no further along than they were before they read the lines and as such may as well not have read them. For example, what does it mean to “try to prevent World War Three”? And what is “World War Three”? This response is too vague to be useful, which is why the protagonist attempts to specify it.

I believe the author’s intention with these lines is to generate questions that produce momentum that propels both the characters and readers into the next scene. However, there’s a way to do this without using hollow and ambiguous language: instead of having Barbara respond to the protagonist with a non-answer, let’s just have Barbara not answer the protagonist; let’s have her simply invite the protagonist to “Come with me.”

Barbara sips her tea.

BARBARA
Come with me.

Scene 2

INT. SHOOTING RANGE - MOMENTS LATER

As with the previous scene heading, let’s include an initial time designation and enclose the modifier MOMENTS LATER in parentheses.

INT. SHOOTING RANGE DAY (MOMENTS LATER)

Barbara hands the protagonist a semi-automatic.

Since there exist multiple types of semi-automatic firearms, let’s specify the “semi-automatic” that Barbara hands the protagonist as a pistol.

Barbara hands the protagonist a semi-automatic pistol.

He reflexively checks the chamber and magazine - EMPTY.

Although the description of the protagonist “reflexively” checking the chamber and magazine is illustrative of his training, it nevertheless feels indulgent, arbitrary, and implied. So let’s remove it. Also, all-caps is used to denote character-name introductions, camera direction, and sound effects; thus, since EMPTY does not meet this criteria, let’s remove the all-caps styling. Let’s also replace the dash before EMPTY with appropriate punctuation — in this case, a colon. (And to avoid repeating these edits, let’s do the same for all other similar instances of all-caps and dashes.)

He checks the chamber and magazine: empty.

BARBARAAim it and pull the trigger.

That Barbara is referring to the pistol is self-evident; thus, the pronoun it is unnecessary. So let’s remove it. Also, to “pull the trigger” is simply to fire. So let’s simplify this language.

Aim and fire.

The protagonist shrugs, lifts the empty pistol, sights a target 25m away with several holes in it...

The protagonist shrugging feels cartoonish, so let’s remove this action. Also, to “raise the empty pistol and sight a target” is simply to aim. So let’s simply this language. And although it’s common and fine to use numerals to express numeric values, I nevertheless prefer words (at least up to 100). So let’s spell out 25m.

The protagonist aims at a target twenty-five meters away with several holes in it…

The target that the protagonist aims at matters; indeed, it is not merely a target — any target, such as a paper bullseye — rather a concrete wall stuffed with inverted bullets. So let’s describe it as such. Also, the purpose of an ellipsis is to denote omission or trailing off, and the mark is also sometimes used in dialogue to denote hesitation or pausing; thus, since the ellipsis in this sentence does not meet this criteria, let’s replace it with a period. (And to avoid repeating this edit, let’s do the same for all other similar ellipses.)

The protagonist aims at a slab of concrete riddled with bullet holes twenty-five meters away.

He squeezes the trigger: BAM! A shot.

Since Barbara just told the protagonist to “pull” the trigger, let’s employ parallelism and replace squeezes with pulls. And since it’s implied that BAM! is the sound of the pistol firing, let’s remove the description that follows it. And let’s also italicize BAM!, to indicate it as a sound effect.

He pulls the trigger: BAM!

He is confused.

That the protagonist “is confused” does not tell us how he demonstrates his confusion. Further, although this line is useful in describing the protagonist’s response to firing an empty pistol, it is inefficient, as, in a few lines, the protagonist will voice his confusion by asking Barbara how the empty pistol was able to fire. So let’s remove this line.

BARBARA (CONT’D)

Since Barbara’s next line is not a continuation of her previous line, let’s remove the CONT’D extension. (And to avoid repeating this edit, let’s do the same for all other similar CONT’D extensions.)

BARBARA

Check the magazine.The protagonist checks the clip: there is a round in it.

Referring to the protagonist as “the protagonist” here is repetitive, so let’s replace this with the pronoun He. And since Barbara just referred to the magazine as a magazine (and since magazine is the appropriate term), let’s employ parallelism and consistency and replace this and all other instances of clip with magazine.

He checks the magazine: there is a round in it.

The construction of this sentence feels clunky; the colon that separates the clauses feels more stifling than inertial. So let’s improve the flow of the sentence by removing the colon and revising the sentence accordingly. And let’s also avoid jargon by replacing this and all other instances of round with bullet.

He checks the magazine and discovers a bullet inside.

PROTAGONISTHow?Barbara pulls on protective gloves and removes the bullet from the magazine, placing it next to an identical one on a table.

Since it’s not immediately clear whether the pronoun one in an identical one refers to a bullet or a magazine, let’s specify it as a bullet.

Barbara pulls on protective gloves and removes the bullet from the magazine, placing it next to an identical bullet on a table.

Although barely a problem, describing Barbara as placing the bullet “next to an identical bullet” before describing where or on what she places it prevents readers from immediately imagining the scene, as they must first imagine the bullets and then wait to imagine where the bullets are in space. So let’s swap the order of this information; let’s describe Barbara as placing the bullet “onto a table, next to an identical bullet.”

Barbara pulls on protective gloves and removes the bullet from the magazine, placing the bullet onto a table, next to an identical bullet.

BARBARAOne of these bullets is, like us, travelling forwards through time.

T-r-a-v-e-l-l-i-n-g (with two ls) is the British spelling of traveling, and t-r-a-v-e-l-i-n-g (with one l) is the American spelling. Although the author of this script is British, since this is an American script produced by an American studio, let’s use the American spelling. (And to avoid repeating this edit, let’s do the same for all other relevant instances of British spellings.) Also, although it is more common in American English to spell forward without an s on the end, since this line constitutes dialogue (and thus the spelling of the word contributes to its pronunciation), and since Barbara speaks British English, let’s leave the spelling of forwards as is.

One of these bullets is, like us, traveling forwards through time.

The other one’s going backwards.

Since this sentence is a comparison with the previous sentence, let’s combine them with a semicolon. And let’s also simplify the sentence by removing one from the other one and employ parallelism by replacing going with traveling.

One of these bullets is, like us, traveling forwards through time; the other is traveling backwards.

Can you tell which is which?The protagonist shakes his head.Barbara reaches forward.

That Barbara “reaches forward” is vague, as it’s unclear how, how far, at what, or with what she reaches. So let’s specify this action.

Barbara holds her hand palm-down over the bullets.

BARBARAHow about now?One of the bullets flies up into her hand, falling in reverse.

That the bullet flies “up” is implied by its flying into Barbara’s hand. So let’s remove this specification.

One of the bullets flies into her hand, falling in reverse.

The protagonist is taken aback.

The author of this script is also the director of the film made from it. As such, and as is often the case with scripts written by writer-directors, the information in this line is visually relevant but not dramatically relevant; indeed, it merely illustrates a cutaway. Further, that the protagonist “is taken aback” does not tell us what he does either to demonstrate or in response to his being taken aback; thus, his being taken aback has no effect on the events of the scene. As such, this information is irrelevant to readers and is therefore better included in a shot list for the director et al. of the film. So let’s remove this line.

Barbara holds the bullet toward him so he can inspect it.

Since we removed the previous line, making it clearer that the person holding the bullet in this line is Barbara, let’s replace Barbara with the pronoun She. Also, although hold is used correctly in this sentence, towards is not, as holding is static, and towards implies movement (“in the direction of”). I think what the author means is that Barbara holds out the bullet. So let’s remove towards and add out after holds. And since there are multiple pronouns and referents in this sentence, let’s improve the clarity of the sentence by replacing the pronoun he with its referent, the protagonist.

She holds out the bullet so the protagonist can inspect it.

BARBARAIt’s inverted; its entropy runs backwards.So, to our eyes, its movement is reversed.

The bullet’s inversion is not a mere illusion to the characters; it is physical, real. Thus, the description of the bullet’s movement being reversed “to our eyes” is inaccurate, as it’s movement is reversed absolutely. So let’s replace our eyes with us.

So, to us, its movement is reversed.

We think it’s a type of inverse radiation, triggered by nuclear fission.

That Barbara and other scientists “think” the inversion is caused by inverse radiation is an acceptable level of uncertainty; however, that Barbara describes this radiation as “a type of” inverse radiation is not, as she, as a scientist, should be operating under a stronger, more specific hypothesis. Further, linguistically, there’s no practical difference between “inverse radiation” and “a type of inverse radiation,” as both are inverse radiation. So let’s remove this uncertainty. And while we’re at it, since triggered by nuclear fission modifies the inverse radiation and not the scientists, let’s indicate as much by removing the comma after radiation.

We think it’s inverse radiation triggered by nuclear fission.

PROTAGONISTYou didn’t make it?BARBARAWe don’t know how.Yet.

Abrupt changes in thought are best indicated by dashes. So let’s combine this sentence with the one before it, using a dash.

We don’t know how yet.

PROTAGONISTSo where’d it come from?BARBARASomeone’s manufacturing them in the future.They’re streaming back at us.

That the bullets are “streaming back at” the characters is self-evident. So let’s remove this line.

Barbara places the bullet on the table, in front of a camera.

Since there are now two bullets in the scene — a regular bullet and an inverted bullet — let’s specify the bullet in this line as the inverted bullet. Also, on is a preposition that modifies nouns, and onto is a preposition that modifies verbs. Thus, since the modifier on the table describes Barbara’s action (verb) and not the position or location of the bullet (noun), let’s replace on with onto. And to better illustrate Barbara’s actions and intentions, let’s describe the camera as feeding to a monitor.

Barbara places the inverted bullet onto the table, in front of a camera feeding to a monitor.

BARBARATry it.He puts on a glove and moves his hand over it, nothing.

Since it’s not clear what glove the protagonist puts on or where he gets it, let’s add a line before Barbara’s dialogue, in which she hands it to him.

She hands the protagonist a glove.

BARBARA
Try it.

He puts on a glove and moves his hand over it, nothing.

Although it is obvious that the pronoun He at the beginning of this sentence refers to the protagonist, this pronoun is slightly awkward here given that the four lines that precede it refer to Barbara. Further, now that we have multiple objects in the scene (the regular bullet, the inverted bullet, the table, the camera, the glove, etc.) and therefore multiple referents in the sentences, let’s improve the immediate clarity of this sentence by replacing the pronoun He with its referent, The protagonist. And since we added the line about Barbara handing the protagonist a glove, let’s replace the article a that precedes glove with the article the.

The protagonist puts on the glove and moves his hand over it, nothing.

Since Barbara was previously described as “holding her hand palm-down over the bullets,” let’s employ parallelism and describe the protagonist as doing the same; let’s replace moves with holds. Also, it’s not immediately clear whether the pronoun it refers to the bullet or the glove, so let’s specify it as the bullet. And let’s also improve the mechanics of the sentence by replacing the comma with a colon.

The protagonist puts on the glove and holds his hand over the bullet: nothing.

BARBARAYou have to have dropped it.The protagonist reaches out again, and it leaps up into his hand.

Although describing the protagonist as “reach[ing] out again” is understandable for readers, it is inconsistent with the previous description of the protagonist’s action. And although we could make this description consistent by replacing “reaches out again” with “holds his hand over the bullet again,” this would add a lot of words to the sentence. So let’s simply state that the protagonist “tries again.” And to improve the clarity of the sentence, let’s specify it as the bullet. And let’s also remove up from leaps up, as this direction is implied in the bullet’s leaping.

The protagonist tries again, and the bullet leaps into his hand.

PROTAGONISTHow can it move before I touch it?She cues up the recording of what he just did.

The transition from the protagonist speaking to Barbara acting is a little awkward with the pronoun She. So let’s replace this with Barbara. And let’s also remove the unnecessary up in cues up. Also, although the camera was described as feeding to a monitor, it was not described as recording; thus, the recording in this sentence refers to an unspecified referent, which may cause readers to ask, “What recording?” So instead of referring to “the recording,” let’s imply a recording by replacing the recording with playback.

Barbara cues playback of what he just did.

BARBARAFrom your point of view you caught it, but from the bullet’s point of view...

Let’s improve the mechanics of this sentence by inserting a comma after the first view, to indicate what precedes it as an introductory clause, and a semicolon after it, to separate the independent clauses.

From your point of view, you caught it; but from the bullet’s point of view...

She plays it backwards.

Let’s elevate the language of this sentence by replacing plays it backwards with reverses the playback.

She reverses the playback.

BARBARA (CONT’D)...you dropped it.ON THE SCREEN: the bullet falls from his hand.

That the screen shows the bullet falling from the protagonist’s hand is implied by Barbara reversing the playback. So let’s remove this line.

The following lines must be considered and edited as a whole:

PROTAGONIST
But cause has to come before effect.
BARBARA
No. That’s just how we see time.
She pulls the bullet toward herself using one finger.The bullet follows her finger as if magnetized.PROTAGONIST
What about free will?
BARBARA
That bullet wouldn’t have moved if you hadn’t put your hand there. Either way we run the tape, you made it happen.

Although cause, effect, and free will are interesting concepts relevant to the ideas in this script, they are irrelevant to the story; all readers need to know to understand the story is that stuff moves backwards, and it does so because its entropy is inverted. Whether readers understand what it means for entropy to be inverted is also irrelevant, as all that matters here is that there is a rule that dictates the behavior of inverted objects; the rest is simply noise, distraction, or indulgence. So let’s remove the lines about cause, effect, and free will and retain only Barbara’s interaction with the bullet.

She pulls the bullet toward herself using one finger.

The order of information in this sentence is backwards, as the sentence describes that Barbara pulls the bullet toward her before describing how she does so, preventing readers from immediately and accurately imagining the scene. So let’s swap the order of the information. And let’s also employ more specific and descriptive language by replacing us[es] one finger with waves a finger.

She waves a finger and pulls the bullet toward her.

The bullet follows her finger as if magnetized.She launches it up into her other hand.

This line is ambiguous, as it’s not clear what it means for Barbara to “launch” the bullet into her other hand, nor is it clear why she would do so. Two lines from now, Barbara is described as “playing with the bullet in increasingly improbable, beautiful movements,” and, although vague, this description better describes and explains her actions. So let’s remove the current line.

BARBARADon’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Since these sentences are closely related, let’s combine them with a semicolon.

Don’t try to understand it; feel it.

Barbara plays with the bullet in increasingly improbable, beautiful movements.

Since it’s clear that Barbara is the one performing the actions in this line — especially since she just spoke — let’s replace her name with the pronoun She. Also, the description of Barbara playing with the bullet in “increasingly improbable, beautiful movements” is ambiguous, as, since we have no reference for such movements, it’s not clear what it means for them to become more or less improbable or beautiful. So let’s remove increasingly. And although I recognize that the use of improbable instead of impossible here is deliberate, it nevertheless feels…pretentious; that there exists a theoretical basis for the ideas presented in this story is great, but the theory should be demonstrated in the drama, not articulated in the narration. Further, impossible is used to refer to things that either are impossible or seem impossible, so using it to describe the movements of the bullet is appropriate. So let’s replace improbable with impossible.

She plays with the bullet in impossible, beautiful movements.

The bullet shoots away from her.

Since the bullet has previously been described as “flying” (not “shooting”), let’s maintain consistency and replace shoots with flies.

The bullet flies away from her.

The protagonist catches it.

Since this line is closely related to the previous line, and since both lines describe a continuous action, let’s combine them with the coordinating conjunction and.

The bullet flies away from her, and the protagonist catches it.

PROTAGONISTInstinct. Got it.

That Barbara tells the protagonist not to “try to understand it” but to “feel it” is sufficient to imply instinct, and that the protagonist catches the bullet is sufficient to illustrate that he understands the concept. So let’s remove these lines.

Barbara smiles, swaps him the bullet for the pistol.

Let’s replace the comma splice in this sentence with the coordinating conjunction and.

Barbara smiles and swaps him the bullet for the pistol.

She then places a tray covered in shell casings beside him.

A tray “covered in shell casings” is simply a tray of shell casings. So let’s simplify this language. Also, shell and casing are synonyms of bullet cartridge; thus, combining them is redundant. So let’s remove shell from this and all other instances of shell casings. And let’s also specify “beside him” as “on the table.”

She then places a tray of casings on the table.

The protagonist aims at the target.

Earlier, we specified the target as a concrete slab, so let’s maintain consistency by doing the same here.

The protagonist aims at the concrete slab.

A casing leaps into the gun.He fires, and a bullet hole near the bullseye vanishes.

Since it’s clear that the hole near the bullseye is a bullet hole, let’s remove bullet. And since there’s no longer a bullseye on the target, let’s replace bullseye with middle of the slab.

He fires, and a hole near the middle of the slab vanishes.

The following lines must be considered and edited as a whole:

PROTAGONIST
Why does it feel so strange?
BARBARA
You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.

At this point in the scene, having now spent a lot of time learning about inversion, the protagonist (and, by extension, readers) should begin to demonstrate understanding; indeed, the protagonist has already learned everything he needs to know to understand inversion and must begin to apply his knowledge. So instead of having him ask Barbara why it feels strange to shoot inverted bullets, let’s have him reason for himself and then verify his reasoning with Barbara.

He looks at Barbara.

PROTAGONIST
I’m not shooting it; I’m catching it.

BARBARA
Exactly.

PROTAGONISTWhoa.The protagonist examines the target: no bullet holes.

This sentence feels misplaced; the protagonist’s revelation that he is not shooting bullets rather catching them should inspire him, not to examine the target, but to catch more bullets, especially since Barbara provided him with a tray of casings to do so. Further, the concrete slab was initially described as “riddled with bullet holes,” but the protagonist, having fired only two bullets, is now examining a clean slab, which is discontinuous. So let’s revise this line; instead of having the protagonist examine the slab, let’s have him fire more bullets at it.

He fires five more inverted bullets at the slab.

PROTAGONISTI’ve seen this type of ammunition before.BARBARAIn the field?

Although it is likely that the protagonist has seen the ammunition in the field, it is not obvious or guaranteed, as inverted objects are everywhere in the story world. Further, as an archiver and scientist collecting data as well as someone aware of the ubiquity of inverted objects, Barbara would not guess where the protagonist saw the ammunition; she would simply ask him. So let’s have her do this.

Where?

PROTAGONISTI was almost hit.

Since we revised Barbara’s question, let’s now revise the protagonist’s response in kind; before stating that he was almost hit, let’s have him state that he has seen the ammunition in the field.

In the field; I was almost hit.

The following lines must be considered and edited as a whole:

BARBARA
Then you are exceedingly lucky.
The protagonist turns to her.BARBARA
An inverted bullet passing through your body would be devastating. The inverse radiation would spread through your body. Like polonium poisoning. Not pretty.

The purpose of these lines is twofold: first, to demonstrate the unique danger and potential of inverted bullets; and second, to prime readers for events that occur later in the story, when one of the characters is shot by an inverted bullet. In the first case, that the bullet is a bullet is sufficient to indicate its danger and potential; indeed, the protagonist should worry about radiation only if he survives being shot. And in the second case, explaining to readers the effects of being shot by an inverted bullet after just introducing them to inversion (and entropy and radiation and time travel) is simply excessive, especially since this information has no application in the scene. Thus, this information would be better presented later, when the character who is shot by an inverted bullet is shot by an inverted bullet. So let’s remove these lines.

The protagonist examines the bullets.

To examine the bullets, the protagonist must remove the magazine from the pistol. And although this action may be implied by his examining the bullets, let’s nevertheless include it, to improve the pacing of the line and better illustrate the scene. And since we removed the lines about radiation poisoning, this line now immediately follows the protagonist’s dialogue, meaning we can replace The protagonist with He.

He removes the magazine from the pistol and examines the bullets.

PROTAGONISTThese look like today’s.

Unless being sneaky, when we (humans) want information from people, we ask clear and direct questions, as such questions enable others to give us clear and direct answers. For example, if I want to know someone’s age, I don’t say to them “You look like you’re twenty-five” and expect them to confirm or deny my statement; I ask them “How old are you?” Similarly, if the protagonist’s goal with this line is to learn about the origin of the bullets, then instead of stating a fact about the bullets’ appearance (and thus being ambiguous in his intentions), he should simply ask Barbara a direct question about their origin. So let’s have him do this.

Were these made today?

BARBARAThey may have been made today, then inverted years from now.

Although Barbara may not have the answer to this question and thus hedges her response with may, a deliberate, affirmative response would be just as inconsequential to the drama as an uncertain response but more pleasant for readers. Also, since the bullets are Barbara’s assignment, and since she has been studying them in her lab, she should know everything (rationally) knowable about them — or, at least, she should know more about them than the protagonist does — which includes basic information such as when they were made. So let’s have Barbara be deliberate, confident, and informed and affirm that the bullets were made in the present.

They were.

Now, to further illustrate the protagonist’s understanding, let’s add a line for him in which he asks Barbara to confirm that, although the bullets were made in the present, they were inverted in the future, which is why he and Barbara can interact with them now.

PROTAGONIST
And then inverted in the future?

BARBARA
That’s right.

The following lines must be considered and edited as a whole:

PROTAGONIST
Where did you get them?
BARBARA
They came with the wall. I was assigned it, like all the material I’m studying here.

That the bullets came with the wall is self-evident, as is Barbara being assigned to study them. And even if Barbara being assigned to study them is not self-evident, this information is dramatically irrelevant anyway, as it fails to move the scene or story forward. So let’s remove these lines.

PROTAGONISTDo you have an analysis of the metals?BARBARASure. Why?PROTAGONISTThe mixture of alloys can tell me where they might have been made.

An alloy is a mixture of metals (or metals and non-metals); thus, mixture of alloys is redundant. So let’s remove mixture of. And since it’s uncertain that the alloys will tell the protagonist where the bullets were made, let’s replace can with may. Also, since the protagonist and Barbara both work for Tenet — meaning, they are on the same team — the protagonist’s statement that the alloys may tell him (and not them) where the bullets might have been made reads as selfish and myopic. So let’s replace me with us. And while we’re at it, let’s elevate the language of this sentence by changing might have been made to were manufactured.

The alloys may tell us where they were manufactured.

The following lines must be considered and edited as a whole:

Look, I know you said that what is my business -BARBARA
Let’s not go off-topic.
PROTAGONIST
I’m not seeing Armageddon here.

That Barbara tells the protagonist not to go off topic is inconsistent with her prior actions, in which she told the protagonist not to discuss who or what but then showed him what anyway. Further, her actions after this line are likewise inconsistent in that, despite telling the protagonist not to go off topic, he goes off topic and then she obliges by taking him elsewhere to give him more information. Thus, Barbara’s resistance feels contrived. Also, it’s not clear what the protagonist means by “Armageddon”; I think this is a reference to the beginning of the scene, when Barbara told the protagonist that they were “trying to prevent World War Three.” However, since we removed the line in which Barbara said this, this reference no longer makes sense. So let’s revise these lines accordingly; let’s remove Barbara’s line, combine the protagonist’s lines, and replace the ambiguous I’m not seeing Armageddon here with the clear I’m still not understanding how or why this is a threat.

Look, I know you said what is my business, but I’m still not understanding how or why this is a threat.

Barbara takes the bullet from him, and beckons him to follow.

Let’s improve the continuity of this sentence by replacing bullet with magazine, and the mechanics by removing the comma.

Barbara takes the magazine from him and beckons him to follow.

Edited Text

INT. LABORATORY - DAY (CONTINUOUS)Barbara hands the protagonist a cup of tea.BARBARA
No small talk - nothing that might reveal who we are or what we do.
PROTAGONIST
Isn’t that why I’m here?
BARBARA
You’re not here for what; you’re here for how. What is your department and not my business.
PROTAGONIST
Well, to do what I do, I need to know what I’m doing. So what’s the threat?
Barbara sips her tea.BARBARA
Come with me.
INT. SHOOTING RANGE – DAY (MOMENTS LATER)Barbara hands the protagonist a semi-automatic pistol. He checks the chamber and magazine: empty.BARBARA
Aim and fire.
The protagonist aims at a slab of concrete riddled with bullet holes twenty-five meters away.He fires: BAM!BARBARA
Check the magazine.
He checks the magazine and discovers a bullet inside.PROTAGONIST
How?
Barbara pulls on protective gloves and removes the bullet from the magazine, placing the bullet onto a table, next to an identical bullet.BARBARA
One of these bullets is, like us, traveling forwards through time; the other is traveling backwards. Can you tell which is which?
The protagonist shakes his head. Barbara holds her hand palm-down over the bullets.BARBARA
How about now?
One of the bullets flies into her hand, falling in reverse. She holds out the bullet so the protagonist can inspect it.BARBARA
It’s inverted; its entropy runs backwards. So, to us, its movement is reversed. We think it’s inverse radiation triggered by nuclear fission.
PROTAGONIST
You didn’t make it?
BARBARA
We don’t know how - yet.
PROTAGONIST
So where’d it come from?
BARBARA
Someone’s manufacturing them in the future.
Barbara places the inverted bullet onto the table, in front of a camera feeding to a monitor. She hands the protagonist a glove.BARBARA
Try it.
The protagonist puts on the glove and holds his hand over the bullet: nothing.BARBARA
You have to have dropped it.
The protagonist tries again, and the bullet leaps into his hand.PROTAGONIST
How can it move before I touch it?
Barbara cues playback of what he just did.BARBARA
From your point of view, you caught it; but from the bullet’s point of view...
She reverses the playback.BARBARA (CONT’D)
...you dropped it.
She waves a finger and pulls the bullet toward her. The bullet follows her finger as if magnetized.BARBARA
Don’t try to understand it; feel it.
She plays with the bullet in impossible, beautiful movements. The bullet flies away from her, and the protagonist catches it.Barbara smiles and swaps him the bullet for the pistol. She then places a tray of casings onto the table.The protagonist aims at the concrete slab. A casing leaps into the gun. He fires, and a hole near the middle of the slab vanishes.He looks at Barbara.PROTAGONIST
I’m not shooting it; I’m catching it.
BARBARA
Exactly.
PROTAGONIST
Whoa.
He fires five more inverted bullets at the wall.PROTAGONIST
I’ve seen this type of ammunition before.
BARBARA
Where?
PROTAGONIST
In the field; I was almost hit.
He removes the magazine from the pistol and examines the bullets.PROTAGONIST
Were these made today?
BARBARA
They were.
PROTAGONIST
And then inverted in the future?
BARBARA
That’s right.
PROTAGONIST
Do you have an analysis of the metals?
BARBARA
Sure. Why?
PROTAGONIST
The alloys may tell us where they were manufactured. Look, I know you said what is my business, but I’m still not understanding how or why this is a threat.
Barbara takes the magazine from him and beckons him to follow.

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

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