The truth about writing is that most of your time is spent rewriting.
That’s not the most inspiring thing to hear when you’ve just completed the most perfect first draft anyone’s written since Edward Albee wrote Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in a weekend. The problem is, in 99.99 percent of cases, your first draft is unfilmable.
In figuring out the best way to tackle the second draft, you’ll find it’s comprised of a maddening number of mini-drafts, all working toward the goal of writing a screenplay that’s at the very least not embarrassing, and at the very most, a work of utter genius. When you’re done with your “utter genius” draft, then you can tell people you wrote it in a weekend. I’m not implying that’s what Edward Albee did, of course…
Take Time Away
You should take some time away from your first draft to forget about the project and gain perspective. Two weeks is probably fine, more than two months and you may lose some enthusiasm. Read a book. Take up a new hobby. Take that cross-country road trip you and your high school amigos have been planning for decades. Go to the Bahamas and become a paragliding instructor. See, rewriting can be fun, and more importantly, easy.
Assess The Situation
After you’ve had some time away from your screenplay to rejuvenate your withering mind, body and soul, print it out. When you read it, try to have the experience of an audience member seeing your movie for the first time, or an executive reading it on her iPad while using an elliptical and watching last night’s Honey Boo Boo. In some severe cases, a major overhaul is required. The protocol here changes depending on how shitty your first draft really is.
Let’s say the entire concept of your film rings totally false. Maybe the central character you’re writing isn’t really the main character of the story you’re trying to tell. Maybe you’re telling the story in present day, and really, the story wants to take place a hundred years ago, or a hundred years from now. When considering those kinds of changes — big ones, crazy ones, don’t just dive right into Final Draft or Movie Magic and start hacking away.
Even though moviemaking is fundamentally storytelling, sometimes you need to step outside the movie-box to see what story you’re really trying to tell without the whiz-bang-pop of cinematic conventions. In these cases, I would recommend that you explore telling the story in a different medium. Write it as a five- to 25-page short story. Try writing it as a persuasive essay, a children’s story, or even, as David Seidler did with his Academy-Award-winning screenplay for The King’s Speech: rewrite it as a play. Rewriting your script as a play = Oscar gold.
Re-outlining gives you a bird’s eye view and helps you familiarize yourself with how your story operates structurally. It’s also a great way to ease back into the groove of writing your script because it’s busy work, so there’s nothing really stressful or writerly about it. Write each slugline and a brief description for each scene. In general, if it’s hard to write a one-sentence description of a scene, it’s a problem scene.
Once you’ve got a brand new outline of your script, specify the changes you want to make in a different color font so you can get a sense of how much work you’re going to have to do when you look at the document as a whole. Execute these changes as best you can. After you’re done with this mini-draft, it’s a good time to get a deeper sense of what’s working and what’s not.
In the journey from first draft to finished film, you’re going to get tons of feedback from everyone, and some of it may piss you off. That’s okay, you’re going to want a lot of people to see this film, so you might as well start to get a sense of what people think of it.
Be selective about who you send this second draft out to, though. Don’t send it to an agent or a perspective producer or an actor friend who just got big. Send it to someone you took a screenwriting class with, send it to a friend who expressed interest in reading, send it to your sister’s boyfriend who works at a video store (just kidding, no one works at a video store).
As you’re processing the feedback, it’s important to remember a few things.
1. Consider the source. Your brilliant rocket scientist friend may have some issues with the physics of that one scene where your main character is thrown across the room after stepping on a live wire. But consider, is this rocket scientist going to be in the audience for your film? And even if he is in the audience, doesn’t he just bitch about every physics mistake in every movie no matter what? Why’d you give your screenplay to this guy in the first place? Go write another proof, Einstein.
2. Read the feedback with blurry vision. Seriously. It’s really important to hear what kind of feedback people are giving you in general, but the “in general” part is key. Think about why you’re getting the notes you’re getting. Don’t just look at the note, look at the note behind the note; be a note whisperer. Because while your sister’s boyfriend who works at the mythical video store has an incredibly valuable perspective, he might not know what the he’s talking about when it comes to fixing your screenplay.
3. Don’t be a little bitch. If three or more people are all saying the same thing about a certain aspect of your script, make the change. If you want to be stubborn about it, get really drunk and save it for last. Because usually, the notes that aggravate you the most are the ones that are speaking some truth about your script.
When you’re done with this draft, it’s time for a reading, and that’s actually fun—and not fake fun, like when I talked about how fun rewriting is.
If I’m doing a significant rewrite of a script, I like to host two readings. I know, so decadent! But readings are the ultimate perspective shifters. Just as when you print out your screenplay, and suddenly reading it on paper makes it feel like a different script, hearing your script in actors’ mouths transforms your perception of the work.
I like to have a low-stakes reading and higher-stakes reading as benchmarks in the rewrite process. The low-stakes reading is between a few writerly friends: non-actors reading several roles, laughing as people try out their “old woman” voice or Swedish accent.
Afterwards, host a casual discussion. Sometimes, when people are talking about your script, it’s easy to go into your head and let your ego react to every note that’s given. Don’t give yourself that opportunity, because it’s a waste of time and valuable perspective. As people talk, I recommend that you don’t look at them or say anything in response, just try to write down literally every word they say while vigorously nodding your head to validate them. If you write everything down, you don’t have to completely listen to and process everything all at once, so it’s less overwhelming.
Did I mention you’ll be serving pizza and lukewarm soda afterwards? I told you, this is fun.
After you’ve done another mini-draft based on the feedback from the last reading, you should have a second, fancier reading with actors. This is the reading you want to invite your crush to. Make sure they’re the last to leave. The idea here is to get a better sense of how your script looks and feels as a movie. After the applause, standing ovations, and cries of “Bravi!” have died down, ask your audience (and actors) to be so kind as to write some feedback, anonymously. Giving someone a hard surface to write on lets them know you mean business.
I’d avoid a big group discussion here because those can go on way too long and make the audience feel like they’re being held hostage. Some people may sneak out without writing their comments, promising to email their notes later tonight. This email will never arrive. Don’t read too much into this.
If everyone sneaks out without writing comments, saying they’ll email you, that may be an indication of where the script stands. In this case, you may have to repeat the entire process over again. This brings me to another sad truth about writing. When you think you’re done, you’ve only just begun. But that next rewrite, that will be fun. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2013.