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The rewrite. While we’d love to believe that our first drafts are perfect and ready to be shopped, packaged and produced, nothing could be further from the truth.
Rewrites are a fact of the screenwriter’s life. The first draft is always considered to be the worst, but all too often terrible rewrites—especially in Hollywood— can turn a train wreck into a disaster of even more epic proportions.
Rewriting scripts is an art. In Hollywood, if you’re a good re-writer—much less a good writer—you’re going to be well ahead of the crowd. And in the context of your own spec scripts, if you’re a good re-writer, your scripts and your chance of breaking through will increase tenfold.
But what does it take to accomplish a great rewrite?
This starts before you write one single word in your first draft. Preparation is key. You need know your concept, story, characters, themes and tone before you begin typing. This is called development. How do you accomplish this? Do your homework. See as much of the film through your own mind’s eye before you type a single word. (Read ScreenCraft’s Five Habits to Get Those Creative Juices Flowing for more on that.) When you’re well prepared going in, you’ll have won rewrite battles before you have even started writing.
2. Don’t Write Blindly
This hogwash of writing blindly or frantically nonstop with no looking back through the first draft will do you no favors as a screenwriter, and will certainly get you no work as a professional. With proper preparation, you should already have an overall idea where the stories and characters are going.
It’s not about knowing every detail going into the first draft. That will work against you because you’ll leave little to no room for discovery.
But you need to know the broad strokes from beginning to middle to the end. Writing blindly may work in certain mediums, but for screenwriting—a rather technical format with many restrictions (certain page count expectations, no inner thoughts, needing to write less than more, etc.)—it just doesn’t work. The eventual rewrite will prove to be torture.
Have a general map in your mind (or on paper) to your destination. Feel free to veer from the set path to explore the unknown, but always be able to find your way back to that original path that you had set forth on.
3. Rewrite as You Go
This may be a little controversial to some. However, it’s proven to work well while speeding up the process.
In Hollywood, most contracts give screenwriters just 10 weeks for the first draft of a script on assignment. Ten weeks. Following that, if you’re still on board for the second draft, you’ll maybe have two to three weeks (likely just two) for that. So if you’re following the dated and ill-advised “write blindly” method, you’re not going to make that second draft deadline (you’d probably already be fired).
So here’s a tip to follow: Rewrite as you go.
Let’s say your first writing session earns you 10 pages. During the second writing session, you begin by reading those first 10 pages. As you do, you rewrite and tweak those 10 pages, fixing typos, cutting down description and dialogue, shortening scenes (if not deleting them), working on pacing, etc. Then you write on.
Let’s say you write another 10 pages. During the third session, you again read what you’ve written—now 20 pages—and rewrite them.
You repeat this pattern as you write that first draft.
The results? By the time you write “FADE OUT” at the end of the draft, you’ll have a much more focused, tight and flowing first draft of your script.
The problem with frantically writing forward without looking back until you finish the script is that each writing session often finds you in a different place in life—a different state of mind. You write differently if you’re having a good day compared to when you’re having a bad day, or you may have watched a movie or show that sways you a different direction as far as tone, atmosphere, etc. So if you write onward without stopping and reading what you’ve written before, you’re not going to be on the same page (pun intended) as your past self.
So instead, you always start a writing session by reading the pages you’ve already written beforehand. And during that, you take some time for rewriting and tweaking. You’ll then have a draft that feels pretty darn close to a second or final draft. Because of this, if you’re under assignment, you won’t be fired. If you’re writing on spec, you’ll cut your rewrite time virtually in half.
Make the necessary variations to fit your own process, but stick to this “rewrite as you go” process as best as you can and reap the benefits.
4. Take a Vacation From Your First Draft
When you’re done with that first draft, walk away. It’s time for a little vacation. Don’t give the script to anyone. Don’t read it yourself. Certainly don’t market it. Walk away. Not for a day. Not for a week. Not for two. Consider stepping away from it for a month.
Now, this is certainly not a luxury you can afford while under assignment, so consider this “month” time frame solely for writing while on spec. In the context of writing while on assignment, give yourself a week or whatever time your contract allows for you to be able to step away.
When you return, be it after a week or a month, read the script from cover to cover without making any notes. Read it as a reader just trying to experience the story. And when you’re done, be prepared for an epiphany of sorts (big or small). You’ll be thrilled to see what works well and you’ll be surprised to see what doesn’t. The problems will be so evident, so much more than they would’ve been had you read the script shortly after completing it.
Consider this vacation a cleanse, ridding your mind of the many toxins associated with your script. It also makes room for more ideas and concepts that you can apply to your rewrite. You’ll then go into that first read of the draft with a much freer, more open mind.
5. Deliver Your Own Strongest Critique
The greatest hurdle a screenwriter can overcome is getting to a point where they can look at their own work as objectively as possible.
When that first draft is complete and you’ve taken the vacation away from it and read it again, your role now is not the original writer. You are now the re-writer. It’s a whole different job. Now it’s time to look in the mirror that is your first draft and pinpoint each and every pimple, scratch, and out-of-place hair. And if you can’t do that, and instead hold your work higher than it should be held, you’re not ready.
You need to be objective. You need to step outside of your own skin and be your worst (or best) critic. You need to read a scene or line of dialogue and realize that it just doesn’t belong. You need to see each and every flaw of the script, big or small.
How do you accomplish this? How do you reach that level of self-awareness?
Read scripts. Read many. My greatest education in screenwriting was as a studio script-reader because I was able to read hundreds of scripts, most of which were bad or not ready. You quickly learn what not to do. And you can take that to your own writing after time. If you can’t nab a reader job, read as many scripts as you can through script share programs and local or online writing groups. Read. Read. Read. And also read as many produced ones as you can. Both good and bad.
This will hone your objective mind.
Then bring that to reading your own work. When you can accomplish this, you’ll be an amazing re-writer.
6. Pepper Your Script
This is the fun part of rewriting. This is where you get to add all of the amazing details, clever foreshadowing, character tics, etc.
With each and every scene, each and every character, each and every line of dialogue, and each and every moment, ask yourself, “How can I make this even better?”
Do you have a great ending? Now is the time to go back and build it more, as much as you can, with big or small elements.
Do you have great characters? Now is the time to flesh them out with more moments, tics, etc.
Pepper every element of the script and enhance everything that you can.
7. Kill Your Darlings
The final stage of the rewrite is making those hard decisions.
You may need to cut down the page count for whatever reason. You may need to increase the pacing. You may need to switch things around for everything to flow better. Whatever it is, you need to make those hard decisions and, yes, kill your darlings.
Those darlings may be a line of dialogue, a scene, a supporting character, a moment, or a visual. No matter how much you may love them for whatever reason, make no mistake, you will need to kill many darlings for the better of the overall script. Embrace that truth. Get used to it. And most importantly, trust your gut. If you keep coming back to some element of your script, wondering if it can work or struggling to find a way to make it work, just delete it. Save yourself the torture.
Trim all of the fat that you can.
Any scene, character, story or plot point, and any line of dialogue that doesn’t serve the continuing flow of your story shouldn’t be in there. You may have some great action sequences, monologues, one-liners, gimmicks and visuals, but if they don’t truly service the story, they need to go. Save them for the next script.
A master re-writer has the courage and humility to be able to swiftly delete those elements. And a master re-writer understands and experiences that almost-immediate sense of freedom when he or she re-reads that script again without them.
Mastering the art of the rewrite is essential to a screenwriter’s career prospects. It will make your spec scripts better. It will allow you to write more spec scripts in a shorter amount of time. It will make the overall process of writing a script more enjoyable. And when you get to the level of being considered for writing assignments, which is truly the bread and butter of all screenwriters, you’ll flourish. Too many newcomers focus solely on finishing that first draft. While it is a major accomplishment, it’s only the beginning. MM
This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.