Thursday, August 9, 2012

Screenwriting Article - How to Rewrite

So I put the question out there to you guys - What would you like to see a Thursday article about?  I got a lot of suggestions, but by far, the one readers wanted most was an article about rewriting.  Apparently the claim last week that you should write ten drafts before showing your script to anybody scared a lot of people.  Many of you are just starting out and hardly know what to do on a second draft, much less a tenth.

This stems from the beginner assumption that once you've written "The End," you're done.  I mean you put all that work into it!  Like four weeks!  Why in the world would you need to change anything?  I'll tell you why.  Because first drafts suck!  Even if you outline, you oftentimes get to the middle of the script and start changing things up, adding new characters, new subplots, paying off stuff you didn't set up cause you thought of it after-the-fact.  The first draft is a draft of discovery. You're figuring things out. Therefore when you're finished, you usually have a roaming patchwork of good and bad, something that needs major surgery.  Rewriting will get you there.  But how does one go about the rewriting process?

Well before we get to that, let's just make clear that everybody writes differently.  There are writers who take the "discovery" aspect of the first draft literally, unafraid to follow any little rabbit hole they find.  Then there are writers who outline meticulously, so they know exactly what they're going to write down to each line of dialogue.  The point is that different writers are further along after a first draft than others, which makes it difficult to come up with a "one size fits all" method for rewriting.  Having said that, after talking to hundreds of writers, this approach seems to be the most often used.  Here are the general steps the majority of writers take.

1) OUTLINE - One of the most common mistakes young writers make is not outlining.  Therefore they have no idea what's going to happen from one scene to the next.  They just go with what their gut tells them.  This can be an exciting way to write, since you essentially become the reader, discovering the story as it happens.  But these drafts are easily the messiest, and it often takes five to six EXTRA DRAFTS just to rein in all your crazy ideas, story tangeants, unnecessary characters, etc.  By outlining, you're structuring (most of) the story ahead of time, which means at the very least, the structure will be in place.  Since changing structure is the hardest thing to do (with every structural change, you might have to rewrite up to 30 pages), you'll save a lot of rewriting by getting this down ahead of time.

2) 1ST REWRITE (STRUCTURE) - When you finish your first draft, you'll often feel like you've just finished your masterpiece.  The adrenaline will trick you into believing you need to practice your Oscar speech - NOW!  That is until you read it a week later.  You realize there are huge gaps of randomness, lots of repetitive scenes, and that the characters aren't very deep or interesting.  Welcome to the beginning of rewriting. There are lots of ways you can go about your first rewrite, but I advise getting the structure fixed first.  Even if you outlined, the draft never seems to turn out exactly the way you planned.  So make sure your first act turn, your midpoint, and your 3rd act turn are all where they need to be.  Make sure your characters always have clear goals and are pursuing those goals.  Scripts die when goals are unclear or there are large gaps between the end of one pursuit and the beginning of another. Make sure every 15 pages or so, something important happens, something that raises the stakes (if possible), keeps the script moving, and keeps it interesting.

3) REWRITES 2-6 (TROUBLESHOOTING) - Now it's time to do some heavy lifting.  If you have the time, I advise putting your script down for a couple of weeks.  You're going to need fresh eyes.  Once you have that distance, read the script again, taking note of everything that bothers you.  Maybe you think a character sucks.  Maybe pages 20-35 are boring for some reason and you can't figure out why.  Maybe you hate a set-piece or you think a crucial scene doesn't hit the emotional beat it needs to.  You'll likely have somewhere between 30-40 issues that need to be dealt with, some big, some small.  For that reason, this will be the most time-consuming portion of your rewrite process.  It could take a month.  It could take a year.  All depending on how much time you have, how bad the problems are, and how good you want to make your script.  Some writers are okay with subpar solutions to problems.  The good ones, though, won't stop until they're happy with everything that's on the page.

Basically what you do is you start with the biggest problems, jot down potential solutions for those problems, and apply the best solution you can come up with.  Let's take yesterday's script, Dead In The Water, as an example.  In that script, Carrie's segment starts getting repetitive.  Her and her group keep running into zombie after zombie.  There's nothing new there.  It feels like every other zombie movie.  So the question I might ask is, "How do I make this less repetitive?" or "How do I make this segment more unique?"  I'd then force myself to come up with ten solutions.  Some of them might be bad, but I find that bad solutions spark ideas that lead to good solutions.  So just brainstorm and write down whatever you can think of.  Now if you remember, the script was divided up into three segments - one that follows Carrie, one that follows husband Brian, and one that follows Suparman.  Well, the first solution might be to come up with a FOURTH person.  This would cut down Carrie's segment, getting rid of some of those repetitive scenes.  Or, if we wanted a more creative solution, we could include a scene where one of the characters falls into the ocean and the group has to save him, all while zombies are approaching.  Not an ideal solution, but if I brainstormed it for an hour, I might be able to come up with a pretty cool scene that ISN'T your traditional "characters in a dark room with zombies nearby" sequence.

This is the hardest section of rewriting because it takes a LOT of thinking.  Creativity gives way to brute brainpower - just trying to come up with enough solutions that something cool eventually pops up.  You'd do this for the 5-6 main problems, fix them, then you'd start over again for the next couple of drafts, address the 15-20 medium problems and try to come up with solutions for them.  After that, you'd do the same for the small issues, until you've happily solved all of your script problems and have story solutions you're proud of.  Now if you've convinced yourself that you don't have at least 20 script problems after your first draft, you're either lying to yourself or you've set the bar incredibly low for yourself. Part of rewriting is being honest with yourself about your work.  Don't be satisfied with "okay." Make sure everything you've written is the best you can possibly do.

4) INTERMEDIARY DRAFTS - Intermediary drafts occur because during the rewrite process, you get new ideas. You might realize that the main character shouldn't be a chef, but rather a ninja warrior!  Or it might hit you that there have been 10,000 zombie movies released in the past six months, so maybe it's better if you make your bad guys aliens instead.  Or that coming-of-age movie that takes place in San Francisco?  You realize it'd move faster as a roadtrip movie.  Whatever the case, these decisions often require massive rewriting, sometimes changing up to 70% of the screenplay.  My advice to you is, don't make a change that big unless you're POSITIVE it makes your script a lot better.  Rewriting takes a lot of time, so you want to make sure that every choice is worth the time it takes to incorporate it.

5) SEVENTH REWRITE (CHARACTERS) - You don't have to wait until the seventh draft to start rewriting your characters.  You could do it right away. You could also include character fixes in the "Troubleshooting" section of the rewrites.  But I think characters deserve their own rewrite segment as they are the most important part of your screenplay.  Lots of professional writers will even dedicate single rewrite drafts to each key character in the script. Yes, that's why you hear about scripts going through 30-40 drafts.  The idea here is to make sure that the character is as interesting as he/she can possibly be.  Are they likable?  Are they active?  Do they have a flaw they must overcome?  Do they have personality?  Do they have an unresolved issue with another character?  I read so many boring characters in scripts so make sure your characters are dynamic and interesting.  Here's a good place to start.

5) EIGHTH REWRITE (SMOOTH IT OUT) - The thing with rewriting is that it's a very segmented process.  You work on individual segments to make them better, whether it be a character, a scene, or a portion of dialogue.  Then, when you go back and read the screenplay as a whole, it has no flow.  All the parts look pretty, but you haven't connected them yet.  That's what this draft is for.  And it can be really annoying because it's the least creative stage of rewriting.  For example, you may have a scene where a character gets attacked while walking from the grocery store to her car, only to realize that the same character was at the grocery store just three scenes ago.  So now you have to put her at another store (and come up with a reason for why she's there) or move those scenes further away from each other so the second grocery store trip makes sense.  There are tons of little annoying things like this but if you don't figure them out, then smooth them out, your script will feel choppy and lazy.

6) NINTH REWRITE (DIALOGUE PASS) - Yup, you're waiting ALL THE WAY UNTIL NOW to do your dialogue pass.  Why now?  Because very few scenes from your original draft actually remain in the final draft.  Which means you spent countless hours perfecting dialogue for scenes that aren't even around anymore.  I don't know what you call that but where I'm from that's called 'wasting time.'  You want to wait until your script is as solid as possible before doing a final dialogue run so that you know all this dialogue is actually going to be in the script.  Also, we tend not to really know our characters until we're almost finished.  Therefore, we have a much better feel for what they'd say or do late in the game.  Hence the dialogue should be more authentic and fun.

7) TENTH REWRITE (SPELLING, GRAMMAR, TECHNICAL) - The easiest way to tell you're dealing with an amateur is to read a script where the writer doesn't give a shit about these things.  So make sure there are no mistakes here. "Technical" refers to things like sluglines and name changes.  You might have originally put "DAY" in your slugline but changed the scene to "NIGHT" at some point and forgot.  Somewhere in the rewrite process "JOE" became "RANDY" and you still have both names scattered about (this will drive a reader crazy btw, so make sure you fix it).  Or your protagonist may be working at a store called "INITECH" but you have all your characters referring to it as "INICORP."  These things happen over the course of months of writing.  So make sure all that stuff is fixed!

What I've written above is just a guideline.  Everybody has their own process that works for them.  Some write less drafts.  Most write more drafts.  But if you don't have a process yet, this is a good template to start with.  The main thing I want to convey is the idea of breaking down the problems in your screenplay and really making an effort to come up with solutions for them.  This is where a bad script can turn into a good one, or a good script can turn into a great one.  The more time you dedicate to rewriting, the more time you dedicate to coming up with the best possible choices for your story.  I'm sorry, but one or two drafts just isn't going to cut it in the competitive professional world of screenwriting.  Good luck guys.  Now go rewrite that jumbled mess of a first draft!