Carol Phiniotis is a writer/filmmaker from Vancouver, British Columbia
The Art of the Rewrite
Every time I set pen to paper on a new screenplay, I wholeheartedly believe that this time I will give birth to a fully formed, completely integrated masterwork of perfection on the very first try. My delusions notwithstanding, a first draft’s true focus is structure and story—getting everything down in the correct order and ensuring it flows in a logical fashion. Sure, there are character development, dialogue, tone, pace, etc. to consider—but these details are far more flexible and will undoubtedly be reworked in subsequent drafts.
The subtleties, or the art of rewriting, are what I wish to discuss here. Some modifications include: replacing contrived moments, trimming in strategic places, fleshing out character, maximizing scene transitions, and making the generic specific. Allow me to give you some practical examples from films you may have seen.
Replacing contrived moments: Sometimes writers take the easy way out. We need a character to move the story forward, so we use the first idea that springs to mind. At a glance, the idea meets our needs, but upon closer examination, we realize it doesn’t work. We’re driving plot at the expense of character, and unconsciously chipping away at the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.
For example, in Mike Werb and Michael Colleary’s Face/Off , Sean Archer’s (John Travolta) staff learns that Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) has awoken from his coma, but they do not contact Archer per his previous instructions:
The problem is that everyone knows the most important thing in Archer’s life is bringing Castor Troy to justice. In a later draft, Wanda’s somewhat-contrived reply is rewritten as follows:
swamp by now.
By making Archer unreachable, believability is restored.
Trimming: Removing a few words can have a significant impact on pacing. In this example from Face/Off , a technician explains how Archer is to be transformed into Castor Troy:
larynx — a prototype developed for
throat Cancer survivors.
Later, the line is trimmed to:
The latter portion of the sentence is clearly something the audience doesn’t need to know.
Fleshing out character: In an early draft of a scene in Alan Ball’s American Beauty, Lester chats with his daughter Jane and her friend, Angela, as follows:
The shooting script expands on Lester’s dialogue, transforming this brief exchange from ordinary to both hilarious and telling of Lester’s character:
can give you a ride. I have a car.
You wanna come with us?
That’s great, because Janie’s thinking
about getting a car soon, too, aren’t
In the rewritten version, Lester can’t hide his nervousness around Angela.
Scene transitions are often overlooked. A simple line of dialogue at a scene’s conclusion can greatly affect the fl ow of your story. In an early draft of American Beauty, a scene transition between Jane and her soon-to-be boyfriend Ricky played as follows:
By the shooting script, Ball revised the line:
thing I’ve ever filmed?
While the fi rst transition is functional, it falls fl at. However, the second transition not only engages Jane, it also engages the audience. We’re invited to participate in the mini mystery Ricky has woven.
Making the generic specific: Specifics are what audiences relate to. Any time a generic descriptor can be replaced with a specific one it is to your benefit. In Jim Uhls’ early draft of Fight Club, he used the following description:
Uhls later replaced it with:
“Jack watches” can be interpreted in any number of ways, but the latter description is exponentially more evocative and communicates a clearer message to the reader.
While this list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, I hope it will serve as a handy jumping-off point to help you dig into your rewrites. Remember, writing is rewriting. For an expanded version of this article, please visit my site at: thescriptsource.net/expandedarticle.html.
Originally published in Script Magazine July/August 2009
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- Breaking & Entering: The Shredder – Can Your Story Survive Rewriting?
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