Does your script need a rewrite?

February 11th, 2013 by

If you have a script and you know it needs work, guess what? You’re in the same boat as professional screenwriter Tom Benedek. Check out what he has to say about a project he’s working on and his thoughts on rewriting:

I just finished the first draft of a script that I have been talking about, thinking about, structuring, restructuring, doing research around for way too long. It is still a great feeling. With these pages, I feel like I solved many problems and did interesting creative work. I know there are flaws. I am sure I repeated myself, built some serious inconsistencies, wrote hollow on some days. However, I won’t have a complete picture of any of this until I sit down and read carefully what I wrote. So two weeks and three days after typing THE END on page 139 (Yes, way too long!) I am going to print out the draft. I have it on my IPad, my laptop and my home computer but I will read printed words on paper this time. With a pen in hand. I will go to a place which is not where I wrote any of this – a library, a coffee shop, a little of both maybe – and I will quietly and carefully read what I wrote. I am excited. And a little terrified perhaps. But this will be easier than staring at blank pages for months. Once I arrive at some conclusions, I anticipate that I will be able to have some fun with problem-solving, cutting, pasting, adding words, putting things aside (throwing them out). The truth is – I like rewriting. I get to be with my characters and story, inhabit the world I created. Once immersed, in full concentration, I can do little things that make huge differences. Sure. I can also ruin things with the wrong adjustments. But if I know what I am looking for, I generally will recognize I have it right (or okay for now) when it is actually that way. So onward for me with Love at Goon Park. Wish me luck.

Amazingly, the Screenwritingmasterclass.com schedule has me presiding over Pages II, our 10 week rewrite workshop, during this same time frame. So I will be doing the exact same work as our class members starting on February 18. (I will make myself start the process on my script today (or tomorrow). I cannot procrastinate until February 18. But that is when the Pages II class is starting. Do consider joining me.

I now hear the sound of my printer clacking out those 139 pages for me. The joy. The agony. Onward.

Here are a few more thoughts about the rewrite process.

ON REWRITING

Oh, you say to yourself, this draft sucks.  And He said, “Let there be rewrite.”

You have to love rewriting.  You can hate it some of the time.  But still, you have to love it.  You have your story, settings, characters.  Large kernels of everything you wanted your movie to be.  It just needs thought, a plan, and then for the writer to get back on the keyboard or the pad and pen to make it great.  If you’ve already written a first draft, the best draft is close. Rewriting is THE writing.  It is the fun part and the agony, THE creative process in screenwriting.  Sadly, there are very few automatic writers.  Most of us have to start with a rough draft which we ought to celebrate before we analyze it, criticize it, and then rewrite it at least once, maybe several times.

FACT OF LIFE: Plot and character development may seem effortlessly embedded in the best movies, but, most probably, the writer and filmmakers carefully constructed these elements over many drafts through the rewrite process.

Even with the most carefully structured beat sheet or story outline, it is almost impossible to write the best version of the script on the first pass.  There may always seem to be missing dramatic scenes, incomplete sequences, unresolved character issues and emotions that beg to be explored.

“The first draft of everything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

Chill out, Ernest.  It’s not that bad.  THERE IS A PROCESS TO REWRITING BUT ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL.  You will discover what works best for you.  There are guidelines and a few requirements.

First rule of rewriting.  Don’t talk about rewriting or your finished draft.  Quiet that part of your brain for a while.  Put your script away, far away, for at least two weeks.  More if possible.  Don’t talk about it.  Don’t think about it even.  Reward yourself appropriately for finishing the draft.  Celebrate the milestone.  Savor the aftermath and pick up other toys to play with for a while.  Take a walk.  Talk to your loved ones.  Read a book.  Watch some movies.   A fresh perspective  will come.  You will eventually be able to see the draft with fresh eyes so you can approach the next phase of creative development and writing with energy, clarity and equal measures of compassion and critical honesty.

“I am a rewriter. I rewrite a number of times. Imaginative richness is born in rewriting.” — Bernard Malamud

“I may be the world’s worst writer, but I’m the world’s best rewriter.” — James Michener

Personally, I tend to enjoy rewriting.  Some of the time.  Of course, it is not always fun to hear criticism from friend-readers, to see the glaring problems — bad dialogue, typos, thin description, incomplete characters, plot problems.  But once you figure out how to solve the problems and have let all those  critical voices quiet down, the writer in you (not the critic-story analyst) slides into the helm.  It should always be that way.  You rejoin your beloved characters and journey again with them through story.  You are back inside your movie, making it better, more real, more dramatic, more of what you intend it to be.  Once you’ve gained some momentum in the rewrite process, you will see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  And it may approach more rapidly on a rewrite draft than on that first draft you labored over.  If you are on the right track, if you have set the co-ordinates for your rewrite journey well, your script will be getting better and each successive rewrite pass will be completed with greater and greater fluidity.

Setting those coordinates, the goals for the next draft, is a crucial phase, just as important as the actual writing.  This process of problem solving,  gathering concepts to address in the rewrite is what we will discuss next.

READ IT AND DO NOT WEEP

Here is some great news.  You are not just the screenwriter.  You are also the most important critic and evaluator of your draft.  You will read it first and last.  You will seek opinions from other readers and listen to them carefully.  They may have some excellent ideas for you.  But it is up to you to set the agenda, to use their reactions to form your plan for how to proceed with the next draft of your script.  So after some quality time away from your first or rough draft, it is time to give the script to Reader #1.  You.  Go ahead.  Pick up the pages and read them carefully AND openly.  Give it a discerning yet fair and compassionate reading.  That means keeping an open mind.  Cut the writer some slack.  You cannot fire the writer.  Don’t even think about it.  Because the writer is irreplaceable.  You need that person back in the trenches for the rewrite and beyond.

Try to see the movie you put on the page as you read.  Make notes, reflect on the changes you believe need to be made.  Write down quick reactions, new ideas, questions, concerns, complaints, goals on a separate sheet of paper. Put an exclamation point next to things that please you:  Surprising things.  Personal bests.  Dialogue that works well.  Description you appreciate.  Scenes that really work.  And let yourself celebrate the successes.  Reinforce the positives.  Maybe even force yourself to smile to yourself.

Of course, there will be bad news, too.  For every writer.  There may be fundamental issues of plot structure, character development, any number of things that you will have to address.  The writing work may only be half done (or less) in certain areas.  Xs and questions marks in the margins of the above.  Be selective.  Try to isolate problem areas  When you get to the end of your first read, you should have a few pages of notes and a heavily marked-up script.  This is a start.  Writer-Critic needs to be filtered and interpreted just like all others who may read the script at this stage.  The good news is that once you understand what it is you need to do, the rewrite agenda will start to fall into place.  If you have a solid plan, rewriting script pages is usually easier, more enjoyable and gratifying than working from blank pages, writing that first draft.  I swear it’s true.

THEY’RE MY FRIENDS, THEY’RE MY CIRCLE OF SCRIPT READERS, THEY’RE MY….

The time has arrived to widen the circle and bring in a few other readers for reactions, thoughts, applause.  Some say friends do not give friends first or rough drafts of screenplays to read.  This is partially true.  They need to be more than friends.  They also should be compassionate, interested, reasonably well-informed readers.  But, even if they are not all of those things, they still may have some interesting things to say about your work.  And you ought to value the people in your life who are willing to read your work clearly and openly express some honest opinions and feelings about it.  These interactions can be valuable, bonding, uplifting experiences.  They can also be a huge emotional drain.  This goes with the territory.  Creative work requires blood, sweat and even tears.  Getting feedback can be an easy, straightforward, vibrant experience.  It can also be painful and even chaotic at times.  You cannot control it.  But you can shape the process wisely.  The main thing is to get some feedback, filter the ideas and opinions you receive, use them to inform a few of your own, as you create an agenda for your rewrite.

So go ahead and widen the circle.  Find a small crew of readers who trust.  One size does not fit all.  Friends do not always ask friends to read their scripts.  One may be great with story or characters and understand how movies and screenplays work.  One may be an avid moviegoer and fantastic for gut reactions but not for anything the least bit diagnostic.  One may be a wonderful spell- checker.  And another may love you very dearly and yet be highly critical so that it almost seems, shockingly, that they are somehow weirdly rooting against you.  (Hmm.  That would make an interesting sub-plot in a screenplay.)  In a workshop or writing class, reader responses are moderated.  There are demands on civility.  Brutal honesty is permitted but not brutality.  So, when you are putting together a circle of readers for your work, be selective.  You want honest, constructive reactions.  You want a measure of sensitivity to the creative process.  If you want undying praise, blind to all faults, give it to someone who will give you that also.  But, trust me, your mother(or mother-figure) may surprise you.  The loved one may put the harsh critic’s hat on.  And the friend you consider your harshest critic in life may turn out to be kind and helpful to your printed words.  Interesting things happen when creative work is shared with colleagues, friends, family.

But this is all gold really.  If they read it and give you some thorough responses, that is a great gift.  Listen carefully.  Note down their responses.  They may not get things that tiny edits will cure.  They may have answers to the story problems that are dead wrong, and that go against the grain of what you really want your film to be.  But their ideas about the story, characters and plot will be useful anyway.  They may have good advice.  And they may have bad advice.  You want compassion, empathy, kindness.  Sure.  We all deserve that all the time.  Mainly though, for this read, we want data.  We want to know what is working, what is not working.  Not necessarily why.  You use their responses to figure out what is and isn’t functioning right and why.  Gauge the responses.  Find the trends.  Carefully consider the good ideas.  And try to understand what issues the bad ideas are trying to redress.  Do thank them for taking the time and effort to read your script thoughtfully.  And if they did not read it thoughtfully, dock them from your pool of readers.  Or just put a mental asterisk next to them in the My Screenplay Draft Reader Master List because you never know where the next great idea, great insight about your writing may appear.

Tom has taught a rewriting class at the University of Michigan, the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, and brings his years of experience and methodologies to Pages II: Rewriting Your Script, offered through Screenwriting Master Class. For more information and to enroll in this unique 10-week rewriting workshop, go here.

4 thoughts on “Does your script need a rewrite?

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    Tom! What a treat to find a guest post from you here. Congratulations on finishing your draft!

    Oddly enough, I was just taking a break from rewriting (my sitcom pilot) to check in at GITS and refresh my brain. Thank you for the very timely post.

    Does spring turn a young man’s thoughts to rewriting? Because we’ve been having some rousing discussions on rewriting at the forum lately, too.

    I’m with you: I love rewriting. And it is SO MUCH EASIER than getting a first draft on the page.

    Dinner’s here but I want to come back and read this post closely. Thank you again for the guest post!

  2. Shaula Evans says:

    Okay, back from dinner.

    > “The first draft of everything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
    > Chill out, Ernest. It’s not that bad.

    Just so you know, this made me do a spit take. (Note to self: put down tea before reading Tom’s posts.)

    > But it is up to you to set the agenda, to use their reactions to form your plan for how to proceed with the next draft of your script.

    Amen. When I started writing, I GUTTED my work in response to notes, and wound up with a dog’s breakfast. I finally learned that I own the work, and I needed to react to notes with discretion. I’m more confident in my ability to find what’s useful in notes and what serves my vision now than when I started. (But I still have good days and bad days with this as I suspect we all do.) The positive side of that experience is that I go out of my way to verify my understanding of the author’s intentions when I’m doing notes for friends and give notes on THAT project, not the imaginary, divergent version I cook up in my own head.

    > Try to see the movie you put on the page as you read.

    I find some people do this naturally and some people seem to struggle with it–and it’s certainly reflected in the notes they give. Is it something you’ve been able to do innately? Do you have any advice on how to cultivate this skill? (I’m a visual reader myself, and I think you especially need to be for comedy, but I find I have the “how do you read that way” conversation with people fairly often.)

    I appreciate your point that reader-friends have different strengths. I know a lot of writers, but not all of them can read comedy. In fact I have a genius writer friend and every script I’ve ever shown him, he sends back with a note that says, “Is this supposed to be funny? I didn’t laugh.” (I keep him around to make sure I don’t get too big for my britches!) But when a friend is kind enough to give me notes (and I’m cashing in a lot of notes favors this month so I mean this from the heart), I really appreciate whatever strengths they do bring to the read.

    A question: how far do you get on your own in rewrites before you feel it’s useful to get notes from other people?

    Second question: do you ask readers questions about the script up front (e.g., “Do you think the set piece on page 22 falls flat?”) or do you just send the script out cold? Or does it depend on the project and the reader?

    Thanks again for the great post, Tom.

  3. [...] Of course it does – writing is rewriting. Professional screenwriter Tom Benedek talks about a project he’s working on and his thoughts on rewriting: I just finished the first draft of a script that I have been talking about, thinking about, structur… [...]

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