I’m neck deep in a rewrite at the moment, so this post, first published on the 21st May 2008, is very appropriate. I’ve tweaked and updated it a little. Enjoy!
Rewriting is a pain but also a necessity. It’s when the majority of the work is done and where your screenplay is made or broken. There is always a danger of doing too much, losing your focus and turning your script into a mindless pile of wank, if it wasn’t one already. What is needed is a little structure to those rewrites. Split them down, concentrating on different aspects of the script one at a time. By doing this, you won’t get bogged down and confused as to what you’re trying to do. Focusing on smaller tasks makes the entire job a lot easier. Here’s how to break it down.
Draft One: The ‘get it done’ draft, AKA the ‘vomit draft’.
You’ve done your outline, your treatment, polished your characters, so now it’s time to write. So write. Resist the temptation to go back and edit as you go. If you need to make notes, then make them, but what is more important at this stage is getting that screenplay on the page. It doesn’t have to be brilliant; it just needs to be done. When you’ve finished the first draft, put the screenplay in a drawer and leave it for a couple of weeks. Don’t be tempted to go back to it sooner.
Draft Two: Structure.
When you come back to your rough first draft and reread what you’ve written, it’s going to look pretty bad. Don’t worry, draft two is designed to iron out any inconsistencies, any gaping holes in the plot, and to make sure that all your setups and payoffs are all there. Don’t be tempted to work on anything else at this stage that’ll come later.
Draft Three: Characters.
Do you know your characters? Are they believable? Do they have flaws the audience can identify with? Do they act true to their nature, or do they do things just because the plot requires them to do so? Characters need to be believable and to engage the audience. If they don’t then you need to take a closer, more analytical look at them. Don’t forget, even the most celebrated hero has motivations driven by his selfish desires. No one is all good, nor all bad. People are a mixture, with their individual likes, hates, fears, and desires.
Draft Four: Dialogue.
Could you identify your characters by their speech alone? Everyone speaks differently. Go to a public place and listen to people having conversations, what they say, how they interact with others. This exercise will help you individualise each characters’ speech. Avoid writing regional accents phonetically, it makes them hard to read and will put readers off. And don’t forget people are not always kind to each other, including friends and family.
Draft Five: Imagery.
Look for repeated words in your action description and find new ones to replace them. Look at your action description. Could it be shorter, more direct? Is it flat and dull? Could it be punchier? This is the draft that could make a lot of difference to your script, so take your time with this one, even if you have to spend several days searching for just the right word to describe something. Remember screenwriting is all about imagery; TV and film are a visual medium. Make your scenes stand out in the mind of the reader.
Draft Six: Restructure.
Would your script benefit from telling it in a different way or order? Take Memento for instance, an excellent film told backwards. The film could work both forwards and backwards but it adds an extra level of poignancy to it by being shown in reverse. Look at your script and decide if a liner plot is the best for your story. To be honest, I’m always sure about the way I want to write a script when I start, but it never hurts to take a second look.
Draft Seven: Conflict.
Conflict is the essential part of a story. If you have no conflict, then all you have is a script to go to sleep by. Look at each scene, is there conflict, even if it’s between friends. Don’t forget there are different levels of conflict, you don’t need two people beating the crap out of each other in every scene. Conflict comes from different goals, from different points of view clashing. You should already know what each of your characters wants in each scene; this is the moment to make the most of it.
Draft Eight: The Opening Pages.
The first five to ten pages are critical. These are the pages a reader will look at and decide if it’s worth investing further in. If they don’t like what they see they won’t read any further. So make sure your opening pages contain a great hook and are the best they can be. It’s worth spending a bit of time on these pages to get them right.
Draft Nine: Back To Your Characters.
Yep, more character work. Make sure each of your characters’ arcs are believable and satisfying to the reader. They can have either an upbeat, or a downbeat arc, or a bittersweet one. Remember, they have to be satisfying to the reader.
Draft Ten: Proof Read.
As I always say to my wife, “I’m a writer, I never professed to be able to spell. That’s why they invented spell checkers.” I’m a crap speller, so I give all my work to my wife to check over. If you’re spelling and grammar is as awful as mine hand your work over to someone you trust and give them a big red pen. Red is such a lovely colour.
That’s it… or is it? Well no, now’s the time to send your screenplay out to others for their opinions. Once you’ve got that feedback you can start the rewrite process again. Remember, writing is all about rewriting.