Edited screenplay draftRewriting is a huge part of the writing process, which itself is a long and winding road to creating a superior screenplay, or any other type of fiction writing medium, for that matter.

Yet many writers damage the quality of their work simply because they take short cuts to reach the end product. They do this by ditching the rewriting stage of that process.

Writing is rewriting. We know, it’s boring, hard work, and that’s why most people skip this process and end up failing to find publication or production. The reason? Well, Ernest Hemingway said it best:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

Thanks for that, Hemmy. Seriously, he’s right, the first draft of your screenplay will always be shit. Guaranteed. No exceptions. The only way out of this is to go through the rewriting process, because that’s where the story is made. Don’t believe me? Okay, listen up.

Terence Malik’s The Thin Red Line was a film filled with big-name actors: Sean Penn, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, George Clooney, Jim Caviezel and Bill Pullman to name only a few. What, you didn’t see Bill Pullman in that movie?

That’s because when Malick got his footage into the cutting room for editing, he decided to ditch Pullman’s role. A myth soon emerged that Pullman had been the main star, and that Malick had changed his mind during the editing (rewriting?) process because he preferred Caviezel’s performance, so he cut him out of the movie entirely. Whether or not this is true isn’t the point; what it proves is how much a story can be altered through a number of rewrites.

Still not with us or Hemmy on this? Okay, fine…

The great William Goldman said, “A good writer is not someone who knows how to write – but how to rewrite.”

E. B. White said, “The best writing is rewriting.”

We found Joyce Carol Oates’ words to be the most interesting when she said, “The pleasure is the rewriting: The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written. This is a koan-like statement, and I don’t mean to sound needlessly obscure or mysterious, but it’s simply true. The completion of any work automatically necessitates its revisioning.

So rewriting is where the writer forges the story, gives it logic, sense and understanding, where the thing is given life. Professional writers understand this, but it’s something that amateur writers need to take on board and learn, particularly if they wish to progress to write as a career. Most professional screenwriters attempt to adhere to a certain process of writing:

  • Plan and outline
  • Write the first draft
  • Rewrite, usually a minimum of 3 passes, but go with how many is required to get the job
    Stephen King Interview Rewriting
    Stephen King, The Art of Fiction No. 189
    done (as the image to the right shows, Stephen King King takes rewriting to a whole new level by printing his finished novel, opening up a new file on his computer, and physically rewriting every word as if it’s a new book).

Once you have completed your initial planning and you move onto that exciting phase of writing the first draft, and nothing should detract from getting it out of your head and onto paper. The story is an abstract beast whilst it’s inside your head, a vapour, an incomprehensible fog. But once it’s out and on paper it becomes a different animal; it exists… it’s tangible. This means that you can take hold of it, ply it, mould and fashion it to any shape you desire. This is the beauty of editing. This is when writers create the best stories in the world.

But how do you do this? How do you rewrite your masterpiece? Well, firstly, regardless of medium (novel, screenplay etc), you can’t rewrite everything in one go. Conventional professional wisdom suggests a minimum of four rewrites.

REWRITE 1: Structure and character

Most new writers would consider these three things as separate rewrites, but in our experience, you cannot rewrite one without having to alter the other. This is because character and structure are so intertwined as to be one – character is structure.

This will be the biggest and most complex of the rewrites you will undertake. The biggest problem and the most difficult to correct is confusing and illogical character actions / plot events, and undramatic scenes and sequences. During this rewrite, you should only work on these aspects.

Try to get a macro level overview of your story and identify the plot holes and the characters that carry out actions for no reason and correct them. Look at the structure – have you structured the main plot points as dramatically as possible? Are the plot points character-driven or are they simply plot mechanisms? Do the subplots add further meaning and depth to the plot, characters and theme? Do they all tie up at the end?

Then narrow it down to a micro level.

Does each scene move the story forward, reveal character and say something about the theme? A scene should preferably do all of these, but at the very least it should progress the story. If you find a scene that does none of these then it’s a rock that will scuttle your screenplay. Either rewrite it or put it out of its misery.

Conflict is the engine of storytelling; it’s what hooks an audience and keeps them in their seats until the final credits. No conflict means no story.

Is each of your scenes (even bridging scenes) written around a nucleus of conflict? Conflict is the engine of storytelling; it’s what hooks an audience and keeps them in their seats until the final credits (and it’s all about the audience, kids). No conflict means no story. From this perspective, every scene should be written around some kernel of conflict in which the outcome will further the story and reveal something about the characters involved (more on this in another post soon).

Start late, get out early.

Do your scenes start when the conflict starts, and end when the conflict ends? One of the mast basic rules of scene construction is start late, get out early. In other words, start your scenes when the conflict starts, and end them as soon as the conflict ends. Simples.

Do you have too many characters or not enough? Is your main character ‘the’ main character? In other words, are you telling the story from the point of view of the character with the best, most dramatic story? If your antagonist (bad guy) has a better, more dramatic and therefore more interesting story than your hero, then you have a serious problem.

REWRITE 2: Dialogue

Does the dialogue reveal character and move the scene forward? Does character dialogue revolve around the conflict of that scene? If not, then what’s the point of it? Rewrite it.

Is the dialogue believable? Does each character have a distinctive voice? Do the voices of each character definitely delineate them from one another? If they all sound the same, then you have a serious problem.

Does the dialogue have subtext? People very rarely say what they mean in real life, and that aspect is heightened even more in fiction. There are many levels of subtext, from basic Characters who say what they mean are boring and do not engage an audience (again, more on this in upcoming posts).

REWRITE 3: Polishing

You’re nearly there. You can see the light. But, although this may be the simplest and quickest of the rewrites, it’s not over yet.

Screenplays are renowned for their brevity. Although they share many similarities with novels (particularly popular fiction), in terms of narrative and character, the written medium couldn’t be any more different. You have 110 pages to tell your story, which usually means 15,000 to 20,000 words. Novelists have as many pages as they require and usually rack up 80,000 to 110,000 words per novel! Therefore, screenplay pages are as rare as astatine, and need to be protected as such.

So your sentences need to say what they need to say in the briefest manner possible. This means you need to kill the passive voice and start writing in the active. A simple google search will teach you all you need to know about this.

You also need to cut out adverbs and choose verbs that transmit an exact image into the readers head. So, instead of writing John walks slowly along the road, you would write, John meanders along the road. Walks slowly doesn’t give you an exact image – how slowly is slowly? But meanders gives you an exact image, and uses one less word. One word doesn’t seem like much, but multiply that by the amount of sentences in your screenplay, and that can add up to at least 1,500 words gone, which is roughly 11 pages of extra screenplay that you can fill with more story.

Once these rewriting stages are complete you will have your official First Draft. Hug it and then say goodbye as you send it out into the big wide world.

Writing a story is like giving birth to a naive and vulnerable animal that you nurture and raise the best way you know how. But once it’s mature enough you have to free it to fend for itself amongst all those carnivorous agents, publishers and producers… a sad moment, yet simultaneously uplifting. Shed a tear, forget about it and then begin the writing process all over again with your next story. This is the very definition of being a writer.

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Mark Randall
Founder of the Film Rave, Mark Randall is a teacher of English Language, Literature and Film Studies, who also works as a writer and editor. He loves watching movies and reading novels, particularly horror, science fiction, and that sublime space between them known as speculative fiction. He is currently working on a collection of short horror stories, a horror novel, and several horror and SF screenplays. He lives with his partner, and two cats.

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