No other word creates such foreboding in the heart of a screenwriter.
This dread has no basis. In the end, rewrites are just part of the development process.
The never-ending script
Let’s think about life. It begins with a birth and ends with a death. Everything else is transitory. Starting school, going to college, winning a job, falling in love, having kids… None of these is an end in itself. They mark the start of a new chapter. Some of those chapters won’t end well. People drop out of college, get fired from jobs, and lose the ones they love. But again, these aren’t true endings. They mark the close of that chapter. Success and failure are part of the flow that makes up life. Some lives will be short, others long. Some will be charmed, others filled with challenges.
It’s the same with a screenplay.
A screenplay isn’t finished after the first draft or the tenth. It isn’t finished when you put it aside for a few years. It isn’t finished when it gets sold. And it isn’t finished when it goes into production. It only ends when the completed film is released to the public. That is when your job is done.
Learning to live with development notes
Let’s be honest: many screenwriters complete a draft and think it’s the best thing ever written. Everyone’s William Shakespeare. And you should feel that way! Self-belief is crucial.
Being a screenwriter means lying on the floor while random assholes take turns to kick you in the teeth. Sometimes they don’t take turns, but get stuck in all at once. So if you don’t believe in your own brilliance, how can you expect to survive?
Of course, as always, it’s a balancing act. Believe in yourself, most definitely – but not to the point where you’re unable to recognize your weaknesses.
After you’ve created your masterpiece, receiving ten pages of development notes can be deeply crushing. The best defense is familiarity: the more you get used to the process of receiving notes, the less it bothers you.
Imagine jumping into an icy pool of water many times over a brief period. The first time is painfully cold. Same with the second and third. But by the time you get to the eighteenth, you’re no longer cold. You’re just plain bored.
Rewriting a screenplay is pretty similar. The more you do it, the less of a challenge it becomes. You’ll never lose that sense of dread, but it becomes fleeting. You’ll see rewrites as a necessary part of the development process. You may even glimpse the other side of the coin – that rewrites are an opportunity to take your beloved script to a whole new level of brilliance.
The three different kinds of rewrites
Generally, there are three types of rewrites. There are those you do as a lone writer. There are those you do with the guidance of your reps. And there are those you do with filmmakers.
By the way, when it comes to rewrites, I’m not just talking about the latest draft of a script. I’m also talking about verbal pitches and written treatments. Each is a distinct entity that must be nurtured until it has achieved its true potential.
Rewriting in isolation – getting feedback
Rewriting is tricky when you have no professional guidance. Still, it’s vital to get a fresh set of eyes on your work.
When it comes to readers, I prefer not to ask friends and family. This is because they lack objectivity. They want my scripts to be good and for me to do well. As a writer, this is the opposite of what I need.
Another problem with friends and family is that they will approach your script from a purely creative angle rather than a commercial angle. For them, the key question will be, “Is this a good screenplay?” The question you need to be asked is: “Is this a good screenplay and is it marketable?”
Online writers’ groups are potentially a good resource. Peer-to-peer review sites based on the old Trigger Street and Zoetrope models can also be useful when it comes to getting free reads.
There are plenty of paid script analysis services. Before using a paid service, however, do your due diligence. Many charge a lot of money for not very much analysis. I remember using one service way back. I paid $200 for eight pages of notes. What I got was two pages of notes and six pages of formatting nitpicks.
Ultimately, feedback is a jumping-off point. Analyze it, scrutinize it, try to understand where it is coming from. Not all feedback is correct. If you blindly follow bad feedback, it can lead you into all sorts of creative dead ends.
Sometimes, feedback can be misleading but still contain a grain of truth. Readers often misdiagnose. For instance, they may raise a specific problem. However, after thinking it through, you realize their specific problem is a symptom of a far greater problem.
Sometimes it’s the other extreme: the feedback is vague. It’s up to you to bring precision to it. I remember receiving the following feedback on a script: “It needs to have more Braveheart moments.” Other than being set in the Medieval era, my script had little in common with Mel Gibson’s movie. So I had to go back and re-watch Braveheart and understand what it was doing right that I wasn’t. It took me a week to figure out, but I got there in the end.
Rewriting in isolation – the loss of objectivity
Vital though feedback is, you also need to learn to rely on yourself.
The loss of objectivity is a writer’s greatest enemy. This is particularly true when you are working in isolation. No matter how hard you try, you will eventually lose that objectivity.
To defend against this, you must be brutally harsh. Stop thinking of yourself as Shakespeare and instead think of yourself as some fool who doesn’t know the first thing about writing a script. Similarly, when your friends love your writing, assume they are all idiots and go hunt down the problems yourself. To do this, learn to trust that little voice in the back of your head; chances are, it speaks the truth.
Time is the other great defense. Don’t finish a draft and then rush into a rewrite. Take some time off – or if you must write, focus on a different project. By the time you come back, you’ll see your script for the wart-covered toad that it truly is! The more you dislike it, the better – it means you’ve got plenty of room to make it better.
Rewriting in isolation – generating development notes
As an isolated writer, you’ll be responsible for generating your own rewrite notes.
Start by reading the existing draft. Make a note of anything that catches your attention in a negative way. Also note things that catch your attention in a positive way. After all, rewriting isn’t just about fixing the stuff that doesn’t work. It’s about taking the stuff that does work and making it even better.
After you’ve completed your read-through, step away. When you come back, go through the script again, keeping a close eye on the notes you made the first time around. This read-through doesn’t need to be chronological. For instance, you may notice a problem on page 48, but then decide the solution should come on page 16. It’s like cleaning a complex machine. You need to examine each tube, coil, and screw. And then you need to check how they all work together.
Here’s a basic checklist:
Themes. Are they clear or are they too submerged? Also, how frequently do they show up in your story? No point introducing a major theme on page 5 and then ignoring it until page 70.
Characters. Are their arcs clearly defined? Are their actions consistent and non-contradictory?
Scenes. Every scene must fight for it’s right to be in your script. If the scene is bad but relevant then it needs to be rewritten. If it is good but irrelevant, cut it out.
Tone. There’s nothing wrong with darker scripts. Nonetheless, exercise self-discipline. This is particularly true of violence. If a character needs to get his head lopped off, that’s cool. But keep the description short and sweet. Yes, Quentin Tarantino can be hyper-explicit. But he’s got the luxury of being once of the most respected filmmakers in the modern era. You and I don’t have that luxury.
Use your eagle eyes to home in on ‘double-beats’. Do you have multiple variations of the same conversation? Sometimes, it is good to repeat a point. For example, you establish the stakes early on, and then re-establish or escalate them later. That’s fine. However, you should not have characters holding the same conversation over and over. Instead, make the point clearly the first time and move on.
If you do the above, the plot should – to some degree – take care of itself. That said, do keep an eye on it and make sure it isn’t meandering or episodic.
Finally, make sure your writing is as efficient as possible. Many writers try to bring down their page count by removing scenes. If a scene is unnecessary, then good riddance. But sometimes the scene has earned its place and is simply outstaying its welcome. It needs a little trimming is all. If you have two lines of dialogue, turn it into one line. If you have four lines of description, cut it to three.
Also, think about sentence structure and your specific choice of words. If there are two words with an identical meaning, but one is significantly shorter, then that’s the one to go with. The exception is dialogue, where you shouldn’t compromise: a character’s choice of words says a lot about them.
Over-writing, or ‘denseness’, is something that industry readers hate. This is partly because it makes the script longer to read. Let’s be fair. Say you’re a development executive, it’s Sunday morning, and you have ten PDFs sitting on your hard-drive waiting to be read. How will you feel when you open up one of those PDFs and it’s a hundred and fifty pages long?
Brevity makes for a quicker read – and also a clearer read. Let’s say you make two points in a description. This could create confusion. Better to give each point its own space – or remove one of them altogether.
Finally, whenever you read through your work, try to step out of your own shoes and into someone else’s. If you are a male writer, view your script from a female perspective. And vice-versa. This is also true when it comes to race, religion, and sexuality. Your writing may be technically brilliant, but if your views are deemed offensive to others, even if it’s unintentional, your career is over before it’s begun.
Rewriting with agents & managers
Doing a rewrite on a spec when you are repped is the same as above – except easier. You’ve got the benefits of writing a spec (i.e. no time pressures), but you also have the support of someone who is an experienced reader. In addition, they are wired into the industry and know what is marketable.
Here’s a good place to discuss the differences between agents and literary managers.
Agents are salespeople. Their job is to go out there and market your work. Agents may read scripts during the development phase and they may give notes – usually from a commercial angle. But it’s not really there specialism. The best way to annoy your agent is to send him or her an endless stream of drafts. Use them strategically rather than tactically.
Managers are different. Sure, there’s some overlap. For instance, managers will also market you and they’ll be involved in deal-making. But unlike an agent, a good manager will take a hands-on approach to script development. Sometimes they’ll become so involved in a rewrite that they can lose their objectivity as much as the writer. That’s not a criticism. It’s evidence of how passionate they are are about your work. Be grateful. And then remind them to get back to their job of beating you up!
Rewriting with filmmakers
We now come to those projects where you are working with a producer, director, or executive. I’m going to focus on producers because they’re involved in every part of the development process. Treat them well and they’ll be your greatest allies – and a writer always needs allies.
The vast majority of producers are intelligent and professional. They want to help you write the best script possible – if only because it makes their job easier. They are also pragmatists. A manager, for instance, might like your idea from a creative point of view and encourage you to run with it. A producer may also like your idea, but they’ll know it won’t fly with whoever is writing the cheques. They will therefore discourage you from running with it.
If you’re working with a producer, there’s a good chance you’re being paid. This isn’t always the case – pitches and treatments are done for free. Sometimes scripts too. However, if you are being paid, you need to learn to tread carefully when receiving notes. By all means debate a point that you disagree with. If you can put forward a valid argument for not going down a certain path, chances are most producers (and directors) will listen. They may even help you find alternative solutions. But if not, don’t turn it into a war. It’s all about knowing when to pick your fights and how to express yourself. No one likes a ‘difficult’ writer.
Now sometimes a producer may give you notes that are plain wrong, and then insist that you deliver a draft incorporating those notes. In such cases… just do your best. There’s no other way to put it. This is often the reason why multiple writers end up replacing one another on a project. It’s not because they are hacks. It’s because someone powerful is making impossible demands that not even the most talented writer can deliver on.
My rewrite process
Okay, let me take you through my own personal rewrite process. Understand this: no two writers are going to follow the exact same process. Screenwriting is a craft, sure. It’s also an art. And one of the things that defines an artist is his or her uniqueness. This includes process. Every writer must develop their own approach. Sure, take inspiration from others, but also have the self-confidence to figure out what works best for you.
So here goes…
I collect my development notes into a single document. Sometimes I’ve generated these notes myself. Other times, they’ve been generated by my manager or a producer. The notes could range from, “Rewrite Act 1 from scratch” to “Correct that typo halfway down page 87”.
Next, I arrange the notes into three groups.
Strategic. This contains the big stuff. As mentioned, it could involve rewriting the whole of Act 1 or re-imagining a major character arc. These are the kinds of changes that will have ramifications for the entire script.
Tactical. This might involve polishing the dialogue in a specific scene. The dialogue kinda works, but maybe I’m not making my point clearly enough. Other examples would include redoing an action set-piece or fixing a minor character. They are important points, but their ramifications are limited
Small Fry. Think of that typo on page 87.
Now I’m ready to start executing my fixes.
I start with the small fry because it’s quick and easy. After thirty minutes, I’ve crossed off half my notes. The fact that these notes only made up 0.5% of the workload isn’t important. Visually, when I glance at my notes, it looks like I’ve done a ton of work and I can feel good about myself. I then take the rest of the day off.
The next day, I focus on the strategic stuff. This is the heavy lifting. It’s going to be painful and time-consuming. It can also be great fun, especially when you start to see the improvements over your previous draft.
If I have a note to cut the first thirty pages, I’ll do exactly that. However, there may be some scenes from the old draft that contain useful material. For instance, perhaps there’s a scene that can be cannibalized. I chuck all this stuff back in, ordering it chronologically. I find this useful because it means I’m not staring at a blank page. Placeholders can offer a great jumping-off point.
If it’s a major character arc that I’m tracking, I’ll highlight that character’s appearances in red for easy visual reference, allowing me to home in on their shenanigans at a quick glance.
Once I’ve done the preparatory work, it’s then a case of doing the hard graft. There’s no way around it. I fill in those first thirty pages, I rework that character arc, and so on.
It’s vital to focus on one problem at a time. I’m too stupid to deal with multiple issues all at once. Of course, there’s no reason why I can’t put one problem aside and focus on another. If it’s a spec, I take as much time as I need. If it’s a paying job, I may have to force the writing – but I can still control the order in which I approach the fixes.
Completing this phase is 90% of the rewrite.
Now I move onto the tactical stuff. Some of this may have been fixed during the strategic phase. For instance, when I was tracking that character arc, maybe I came up against a dodgy dialogue scene and improved it right there and then.
Either way, the tactical phase is fairly easy. I’m homing in on specific areas and looking at ways to improve them. Maybe I’ve already got a functional version of an action set-piece. I can now take the time to make that sequence truly great.
So finally I’ve finished the tactical phase, which means I’m done, right? No, you must be joking.
Next comes the polishing. I go back to the beginning of my new draft and go through it line by line. I scrutinize each and every letter. I look at the scene headings – are they crystal clear? I think about scene transitions. Sure, no one uses “CUT TO” at the end of every scene anymore. But sometimes a “CUT TO” or a “DISSOLVE TO” can really help with the flow of the script.
Once I’ve finished with the polish, and assuming I have’t got some producer chasing me down, I go back and polish it all over again. I’ll repeat this process several times, until I get to the point where there is nothing left to change.
Yes, polishing can be a chore. It can also be the difference between a sale and a non-sale.
Words to live or die by
Let’s finish with an anecdote.
Several years back, I was sitting in a swanky London bar with a very senior producer who had just flown in from Los Angeles. He was about to hire me for what would become the biggest job of my career.
The conversation was relaxed and amiable, but there was one thing he said to me that I’ve never forgotten: “Alex, you need to understand something. The most successful writers aren’t the best writers. They’re the ones who know how to give people what they want.” By “people”, of course, he meant individuals like himself. The sort of players who can start or end a writer’s career with a click of the finger.
So whenever you approach a project, whether it’s a first draft or a rewrite, whether you are one guy in a room, whether you are repped, whether you’re doing a paid job, pause and think: “Am I giving people what they want.”
Hope some of this helps. As always, if you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to leave a comment below!