A tumbler of @KitMoxie’s highland scotch and some Peanut M&Ms. Yeah, it’s that kinda night.
All right you gorgeous monsters, REWRITING. Here we go.
The beauty of rewriting is the fact that, by definition, you’ve already filled the page. Arguably the hardest part is done.
But it’s still a beast in its own right, and comes with its own troubles, in my experience.
I separate rewriting into three categories: 1) someone else’s work, 2) someone else’s notes on my work, and 3) me fixing my own work.
If you’ve ever offered critique or notes on someone’s script, maybe you’ve had that rush of “Hey, I know how to fix this!”
That professional distance often allows a writer some clarity on a script that the original writer can’t see. Intimacy makes us blind.
But there’s also a litany of R&D drafts the new writer hasn’t burned through. So talks go like, “You should try–” “Yeah, did that before.”
So here is what I want to say about stepping in to rewrite someone else: Talk to them first. Even if you already have the gig. Reach out.
It can feel awkward, but consider the respect you’d like to be given, and make sure you act as if. Plus, learn the pitfalls of the project.
I’ve gone as far as to read a writer’s early draft, to discover material that producers or execs cut away, and so I put it back in.
Consider the rewrite assignment something that melds your voice with that of the project’s. TV writers do this all the time.
As I’ve said many times before, getting hired to rewrite someone else is a bit like borrowing their car. I gotta bring it back topped off.
But let’s get into the other categories of rewriting, where all of us have to work. That’s where the real monsters live.
The way you take/respond to notes will determine if you’re in this for the long haul or if you’re not a career screenwriter. I’m serious.
If you cannot help but defend your choices to someone offering you feedback — even if it’s not constructive — find another career.
And there will be times where it will sting. Where it will be unfair. Where there will be insult wrapped around it. Keep your mouth shut.
Because: 1) They’re RIGHT. Even if laced with cyanide. 2) They’re CLOSE, and you see the note behind it. Or 3) You get a new idea from it.
This is not me saying, Bend Over And Surrender Your Power. No. Just don’t be a child. Know that you can bitch later, always.
And when you get the Really Bad Notes — the ones that require immediate response — frame it in positive language. Not as counterattack.
And also, avoid using “I” and “me” when discussing it. Talk about the script as a thing; a product that isn’t you. It’s this material here.
“The intention in this scene is for the audience to realize the hero’s action is a callback to the scene at the start. Hence that line.”
Like so. Get that professional distance in, frame it like that, and you control the meeting. The notes-givers will stop pointing at you.
Next tip: Barely listen to the suggestion for a fix. Take it in, but be ready to throw it away, mentally. Listen to the PROBLEM, though.
“You need a giant spider in this scene, there isn’t enough action at this point.” Slow your roll, Jon Peters. Let me find the action.
Even if you can’t stand it, TRY working with a note at least a little.
Because here’s the thing: If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to what you have. It’s right there, in another saved file.
You are writing a thing for someone else to go and use, unless you’re the rare writer/director. It’s like you’re making a tool. (1/2)
So say you’re left-handed, you make the grip for you. Director or producer is right-handed, asks you to change it. YOU NEED TO. (2/2)
With rare exception, we aren’t building the things we’re going to go drive around in, we’re building it for others. We aren’t novelists.
I repeat: Screenwriters are not novelists. If you want a fan base, an audience of readers, go write prose.
Sometimes, the stupidest solution to a note is the one that gets past the goal line. There’s a story William Goldman tells of one note…
Exec: “The lead character isn’t likeable!” (changes one tiny thing at start of script: “Our HERO, a likeable man…”) Exec: “It’s perfect!”
If you’re having trouble speaking the same language as someone who’s paying you to write, ask them to send you their fave scripts.
Looking at what your producer/exec considers great material is a revelatory moment that tells you their reading level and style preference.
And if you’re getting paid by this person, then guess what, you better learn to fit into that dress and wear it. (Again with rare exception)
This is contract work. You will come out the other end richer, wiser, and with new muscles and skills from it.
And take some solace in the adage a TV writer/producer told me: “It isn’t a real script until the blues.” Blues = production draft
There’s a scene in APOLLO 13 where Gary Sinese has to figure out how to land that ship with very limited resources. That’s you, sometimes.
If you are way into Gothic architecture, and your neighbor is paying you to build them a mid-century, BUILD THE MID-CENTURY.
You can always blend in your own voice while you do so. And if you can’t stand it, don’t take the job. But don’t take it and then complain.
@HIGHzurrer real question. not snark. what if you KNOW what they want will explode if you do what they want?
.@GeoffThorne Excellent question. First: try it and make SURE it explodes. Next: try a new way to give them what they didn’t know they want.
.@GeoffThorne And lastly, don’t ever be afraid to return and say, “I tried this several ways, and it broke too many things.” But! (1/2)
.@GeoffThorne (2/2) Have a new solution ready, or give them some consolation, to see if needs are met.
Also remember that notes can be driven by a million different things. Budget concerns. Casting concerns. Etc.
Often it will feel like, “That’s great, we love it. Now try it standing on one leg… Okay, now can you make it balancing this egg?”
Okay, so I’ll keep answering questions, but before I go too far off, I wanted to rant briefly about that third category: the self-rewrite.
Rewriting my own stuff is just about the hardest form of rewriting. Because it’s custom-designed for my own imagination.
I literally cannot tell what works for other people and what doesn’t, if I’ve been steeped in it. @briankoppelman mentioned time away helps.
Sadly, one of the best forms of self-rewriting for me is also one of the most painful. And it SUCKS that it works so well for me.
When I hit FADE OUT on something and I have a sense it needs a lot of work, sometimes I simply lock it away and write a brand new draft.
This started when I once lost an entire script and had no choice but to rewrite based on memory. The good stuff remained. The bad, gone.
Be prepared to write whole sequences from the POV of another character. Like your villain. Your love interest. A sidekick.
It can sound like a mountain of work to our brains, but it’s also ridiculously helpful. It’s a gold mine. It enriches us/the script.
And we’re writers. Writing is what we do.
Here’s what will help: Reprogram your brain so “THE END” isn’t a giant finish line. You got pages done today. You’ll do more tomorrow.
So that’s rewriting. It’s all part of the work. And it’s okay. It’s a process. You keep at it like you’re a goddamn factory. That’s a pro.
Eric has put together a book that arose from his Twitter exchanges: “150 Screenwriting Challenges” which is available for Kindle here.