Since dozens of writers used Go On Your Own Quest to pound out a first draft of their original screenplay, I decided to start off the New Year with a week-long series on rewriting, to honor their commitment and effort, and to encourage them [and everyone else] on their creative journey.
We’ve all heard the adage, “Writing is rewriting,” right? Perhaps nowhere is that more true than screenwriting. Aspiring screenwriters know this because of the number of drafts they go through to whip their script into readable shape. Professional screenwriters understand this because of the multiple drafts they do on any project, whether on spec or assignment.
Rewriting is just the nature of the screenwriting beast.
But that begs the question: How? What are some keys to the rewriting process? Instead of wandering around in the dark not knowing if you’re improving the story or not, is there a coherent approach to rewriting your scripts?
First off, the same thing applies to rewriting as to writing: There is no right way to write. There is no right way to rewrite. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And every rewrite is different.
That said, this week I will lay out some keys to the process. If they help you, great. Use them with my blessing. If they don’t help you, feel free to chuck them.
Part 2: A Clean Read
What exactly is a clean read?
A clean read is where a writer sets asides their wants and desires, fantasies and attachments, prejudgments and opinions, and reads the script for what it is: a story.
You try to be as objective, clear-headed, and honest as you can about the material.
A clean read is not about you. It’s about the words on the page. What works. What does not work.
How do you go about doing a clean read? Here’s my advice:
- Set aside two full hours for the read. No interruptions. Mark it on the calendar if you must. But be prepared to read your script in one sitting.
- Print out a new copy of your script. Recycled paper, of course. Don’t read it off your computer screen, you need the tactile experience of fingertips on paper.
- Get a good pen. If you’re smart, you’ll snag a new one so you don’t run out of ink. Make sure the tip is thin enough to support writing notes in the margins.
- Find a quiet spot. Not the local coffee shop. Not the living room while your kids watch “American Idol.” A room. With a door. That you shut. To keep people out.
- Turn off all electronics. Every last one of them: Cell phone, computer, TV, radio. The lamp? You can leave that on. Squinting isn’t conducive to a clean read.
Now you are ready. You sit down. You get comfortable. Your script on your lap (I prefer my scripts the old-fashioned way: three-hole punch paper, two 1 ¼” brass brads, one top, one bottom). Your pen in hand. A glass of water at the ready (no caffeine or alcohol, you want a clear head).
Remember what you did when you typed FADE OUT? You heaved a sigh. A big sigh.
Now just before you flip open your script to read it, close your eyes and take a breath. A big breath. Hold it for a few seconds and focus on being here now.
Be. Here. Now.
Then exhale. Slowly. Open your eyes. And you are ready for your clean read.
What to look for in the clean read?
Generally this: What works. What doesn’t work.
The purpose of a clean read is for you to organize your general impressions of the story. That is your primary goal.
If you catch typos, unnecessary scene description, flat dialogue or clunky transitions, note those, too.
But your main focus is on the big ticket items: Characters. Themes. Structure. Pace.
Feel free to write all over the script. Margins. Title page. Backs of pages.
- If there are issues with your Protagonist, or if any characters seems unclear, especially in their relationship to the Protagonist, make note of those instances. On the other hand, if you feel like some moments really nailed characters and how you envisioned them, note those as well.
- If there are themes that you knew you wanted to work in, but they’re missing, or surprising themes that show promise, write down your impressions.
- If you feel like the Plotline takes too long to go somewhere, gets confusing, or wanders, note those. On the other hand, where you feel like the narrative really chugs along or key plot points just flat out work, make a note of those, too.
- If the script feels to move too fast or too slow, or it just clips right along at an excellent pace, write down those instances where it strikes you right or wrong.
You want to give yourself a set of real-time notes as you go through the script. This is invaluable in helping give you both a macro and micro view of your story.
Give yourself that full two hours. If you finish reading in less time, go ahead and review it again, continuing to make notes.
What to do with that mess of reactions and marginalia? I suggest working through each of the four aspects noted above: Characters. Themes. Structure. Pace. All with an eye toward creating a revision outline.
FYI: Tom Benedek will be teaching the next session of Pages II: Rewriting Your Script through Screenwriting Master Class beginning February 18.
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