Surviving the Rewrite: Part One by Diane Duane

So you’ve finished your screenplay. You’ve spent days or weeks or maybe even months hammering out a story arc strong enough to bear the weight of the story it supports. You’ve built your characters’ backstories in sufficient depth that when they start to move through the story you’ve constructed, their actions will make sense not just to you but to everyone else. You’ve pushed your way past the endlessly repeating terror of the empty page or screen. You’ve erected locations and sets of the mind and nailed drama to them. You’ve written dialogue until sometimes you may have had trouble hearing anything inside your own head but your characters’ voices. And now, at long last, you’ve got a script. 

The satisfaction that goes with those words! “I just finished a screenplay.” It’s as big as the sky. And for all but the very newest screenwriters, it lasts about thirty seconds… because if you’re serious about this kind of creation, you know that now comes the rewrite.

If you’re new at this, you could be forgiven in thinking that you might have gotten it right the first time out… if scriptwriting was the kind of creative work that simply bursts out of your brain full-formed. But it’s not. It’s no accident that people who write film are sometimes called screenwrights. More than any other kind of written creative output, a script is a built thing, like a bookshelf or a skyscraper. It has distinct structural elements that can be pulled apart and put back together. So after your first draft has had a suitable time to rest, it had better be looked at with an eye to disassembly and reassembly. There’s always the possibility that, first time out, you put some of those structural elements together wrong. And if you did, the first time the structure experiences stress – meaning the close examination of a screenwriting professional – it could buckle.

You therefore owe it to your script to strengthen it against the trials that are coming: because if you intend to take it to Hollywood some day, all kinds of other people are going to be climbing its frame to find weaknesses. Save yourself endless stress and embarrassment and find the weak points first, in rewrite.

Every screenwriter evolves her or his own rewrite method over time. Doubtless you will too. For the moment, though, here’s the approach that has worked for me over the last couple of decades. 

After backing away from a script for several weeks, even a couple of months if possible, I come at it again from three different angles:

  1. Personal satisfaction: Make sure you’re clear what story you meant to tell, and that you’ve told it as well as you can.

  2. Format and screen structural issues: Make sure your screenplay is in proper artistic and structural shape.

  3. Screen-specific technical issues: Make sure your screenplay will leave your producer eager to start making it into a movie.

For me, (1) is always the toughest phase because it’s the most subjective, so I deal with it first, when my energy levels are highest. If you’re like most writers, you passed a first draft that was enjoyable for you as creator—a script that made you happy as you explored the characters, slotted them into the physical settings and the emotional situations where they would work best, and found an ending that left you satisfied. But now you have to step back from the simple enjoyment and take your satisfaction to the next level. 

This involves two sub-stages. First of all, you need to examine the reasons you sat down to write this story in the first place–in terms of what you wanted to say, what the theme of the story was, what drama you wanted to share with your potential viewer, what images you saw in the Imax theater of the mind. Then you have to examine your first draft script and ask yourself over and over the question: Does the execution match or surpass the intention? If not, why not? What went right? (For, unbelievably, sometimes things do.) And what went wrong? 

This general approach immediately resolves into more specific issues. Does the story still make sense? By which I mean that you need to check that there aren’t things in it that make perfect sense to you but still need explaining for other people. Such blind spots occur all the time. Do the characters act and interact realistically? Is the ending satisfying? Does the middle sag? (This last being one problem that I see popping up again and again in both my scripts and other people’s. Beginnings and endings are easy. Middles are hard.) Are there other pacing problems? Does the curve of the story arc crest when it should, drop off when it should? And so forth.

While I know that in the present writing environment there’s an almost irresistible urge to find answers to such questions by handing the work to one or more “beta readers”, you must at all costs resist this urge. First of all, you can’t depend on always having willing or perceptive betas around. And second, with all the good will in the world, your beta readers’ opinions about what you’re writing may be wrong. (If I feel strongly about this, maybe it’s because I wouldn’t now be twenty-five years married to a gifted novelist and screenwriter if I hadn’t had to spend a long evening in a pub talking him out of yet another unnecessary rewrite that his well-intentioned [but wrong] friends had recommended.) 

Now, there is something of a paradox here. Though so many other kinds of writing are essentially solitary, screenwriting is not. Every screenwriter is the founder-member of a committee. The committee may be very small or very large, but sooner or later other people are going to get intimately involved in what you’ve just made. However, at this stage of your script and this one only, you are not a democracy. You are a despot. You can be a benevolent despot if you like, but nobody else but you gets to vote on your script right now. (There will be waaaaaay too much voting later, believe me. So enjoy this stage of your script’s development while you have it.) Your job as a growing screenwriter is to develop and evolve your own ability to critique your work unassisted. Think of it as a muscle to be built up. The solo rewrite is how it’s built. 

Also up for consideration now are issues of concrete execution. Is the script formatted correctly? (Yes, check it again.) Is it too long? Cut it. No excuses. Writing-software users: have you been naughty and used your software’s “cheat” function to mess with your page count? Play fair with yourself, your producer, and Thoth (or whatever deity you may invoke while writing) and put it back the way it should be. You may have innocently used this function to make the pages print out more compactly  at some point or another. But I promise you that if you forget to fix your paging before your script goes out, the eagle eye of your producer, or someone in their office, will absolutely perceive the cheat, and they will not think kindly of you. (Those tales of production staffers who could budget a movie simply by riffling through the script’s pages and judging the amount of white versus dark space on the pages? True. Do not mess with these people.)

Now, at this point in the rewrite, your focus must tighten down a little further. Every writer, however new, has tics—bad habits that have crept into their writing, like unconsciously repeated themes, patches of self-indulgence, situations in which dialogue or description are allowed to get lazy or sloppy. Spend some time in self-analysis to find out what your bad habits are, so that you can root them out. And don’t be satisfied after two or three scripts that you’ve necessarily identified everything that can go wrong in your writing. These tics tend to change as the writer grows in experience. (And cockiness. I’m here to tell you that after thirty years of writing for TV and film, on and off, I still have some of the same tics I had when I was just starting out, as well as new ones that come and go without warning. Every new rewrite teaches me something new.) 

A very basic checklist: look out for cliché’ dialogue, words unconsciously repeated in dialogue or description, casually used slang (unless specifically required by the plot), and unnecessarily long, detailed or “purple” descriptions. Getting rid of these problems can seem like a chore at first. But once you start getting into it, the process can become actively enjoyable. I stress the “can.” A lot of the time you do this job simply because it must be done, in the same spirit with which you’d vacuum the living room before inviting your local head of state around for dinner.

Also: writing dialogue is a little too easy, sometimes. Check it to make sure it sounds right, the easiest way: read it out loud to check it for flow and punch. Also, don’t blithely hand your characters long blocks of dialogue when you feel a speech, lecture, or diatribe coming on. Any block of dialogue more than six or seven lines long probably needs cutting. A side issue to this: there may also be places where, while in the heat of composition, you (wisely!) didn’t stop to do fact-checking on concrete data in your characters’ dialogue, or in descriptive material. This is the time to check such data, correct it if necessary, and do any additional research you need to fill in background material that wasn’t handled in sufficient depth earlier. 

(Stay tuned for next Monday, when we post "Surviving the Rewrite: Part Two" by Diane. I can't wait!)

Diane Duane’s first screen work was for Hanna-Barbera in the 1980s, when she and Scrappy-Doo entered the workplace together. Since then she has screenwritten for characters ranging from Batman to Barbie and from Scrooge McDuck to Siegfried the Volsung. She has storyedited in both live action and animated television, and has written for the BBC and numerous other European networks and production entities. Her most recently aired screen work is the November 2010 SyFy movie-of-the-week The Lost Future, starring Sean Bean. Her ScriptFrenzy script, Dead and Breakfast, can be read at DianeDuane.com.