BREAKING & ENTERING: Rewrites – Can This Script Be Saved?

A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.

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What a week! I had the opportunity to do my absolute favorite thing – work with writers! From Iowa to Australia to Los Angeles, I spent time on rewrites with both consulting clients, and a writer working on a project that I’m attached to produce.

In retrospect, it was the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I love making “The Good Script” better in the final phases of rewrites. The back and forth with the writer: spit-balling options; discovering the writer’s intent behind the scene and externalizing it in a way that is distinctive to the story; cutting and tightening, or adding a word or a beat to express subtext. The rewriting stage of honing and refining a script brings the writing and the story up a notch, and increases the project’s marketability.

I get jazzed when I can bring “The Bad Script” forward, to a higher level of storytelling and execution in rewrites. It’s exhilarating to help a new writer gain perspective on how the industry views material; to strengthen their fundamental storytelling skills, add to their screenwriting toolbox, and help them discover an approach to their story that makes it more likely to find an audience. It’s gratifying when a writer is inspired and prepared to roll up their sleeves for rewrites after getting constructive input.

But once in a great while, you are faced with “The Ugly Script.” Ouch. This is a premise is so deeply flawed at its core, that the honest truth is – rewrites won’t help. It cannot be saved. Obviously, it’s best to figure this out early on in the process, through working on loglines and short pitches and “test driving” them on friends, writers, fellow countrymen. But when a doomed premise has gone all the way to script, I feel like the doctor having to tell a patient’s loved ones, “I’m sorry, we did everything we could, but the damage was just too great.” Everyone hurts.

Figure out if your script falls into The Good, The Bad, or The Ugly, and discover the next steps to take in rewrites.

The Good Script – Keep The Rewrites Going!            

The Good Script most likely sprouts from the ground up. Plenty of time has been devoted to the work that goes into creating a story before typing “Fade In.”

You’ve written and revised your logline. You’ve worked and reworked an outline. You’ve pounded out the structure and moved scenes around to create build. You’ve tried out options for scenes that maximize the promise of your premise.

The Good Script - Rewrites That Make It ShineIs it soup yet?

Surely it’s done by now.

You’re a couple of drafts in, and you really want to pronounce it “done” and stop.

This is exactly the point where you need to summon the strength to keep going. Here is your opportunity for rewrites to take your material from good to great; from a promising idea, to a well-executed screenplay. From another average piece, to one that stands out in a crowd.

Take a deep breath. Perhaps give yourself a short break, and then – get back to work!

A consultant can provide reliable, objective feedback, based on a wealth of real world experience. They bring an all-important industry perspective, beyond what your fellow aspiring writers posses. And their unbiased, focused input could provide the inspiration you need to go back and rewrite – yet again – resulting in a new draft that brings your script to the next level.

Before rewriting, ask your consultant (or, if that’s not in the cards, yourself) these questions:

Is the hero clearly defined and rootable? Is their arc established early in the script? Is there a well-developed, plausible progression to their change over the course of the story? Are supporting characters concise yet distinctive? Do they reflect and support the theme?

Are settings vividly, yet leanly described? Do settings make a contribution to each scene – creating atmosphere, underscoring tone, defining character? Does the script delivering on the promise of your genre? Can it be funnier, scarier, more visceral? Is there any extraneous dialogue or description? Are resonant moments given the space to reverberate?

Going through word by word can be a long and painstaking process. But, the payoff is a script that has a strong story and is a great read. That’s what advances careers!

In my “Good Script” meeting, we went though my macro, big picture notes for the rewrite first. We discussed adding dimension to the hero’s arc, refining supporting characters, escalating and varying the comedy, searching for more comic set pieces, and tightening Act One.

Then we went through scene-by-scene and word-by-word. Do we need a parenthetical or gesture to convey tone? Is there a stronger word choice here? Are there repeated words? Is this line of dialogue extraneous? Can we hone and polish new material?

I always emphasize writing for film over prose. It’s easy to cross the line. Can we clarify subtext in description by showing instead of telling? Can we make sure the emotion – in this case comedy – is on the screen and not just on the page? Is description written in active present tense? Are we seeing action and then reaction?

In page notes, I make certain to let the writer know what is working. A strong moment, a good button, a great line of dialogue. I learned early in my career, that it’s well worth it to put in the time and effort to let writers know what does work, rather than just pointing out problems. It brings them added perspective, and reinforces good choices. Without it, the good stuff could easily get cut in the next draft.

But the real magic comes when I gently poke a talented writer who really knows their story, and I discover more about what is in their head for a scene. With this writer, inevitably, I hear something great and together, we figure out a way to get that onto the page in keeping with the distinctiveness of the story.

In this case, understanding what the writer had in her head when creating a scene, lead to a small change to a minor comic scene, but made it much funnier. In addition, led to a “call back” later in the script, which will be more resonant and comedic because of the earlier scene. It’s perfectly in keeping with the piece, and it takes “the funny” up a notch. This is the very definition of effective development leading to successful rewrites.

In this female-driven comedy, we want to tell a great story with heart, but we also want buyers to see the marketability of the hooky, high-concept premise – showcasing the many unique comic trailer moments and the castability of the distinctive heroine. Maybe I feel we have something extra to prove in this genre, but each moment that we can make more comedic, makes it potentially more appealing for an actress to play the role, attracts directors, and shows buyers that the script is marketable.

The Good News:

I’ll know more about this example when I get the new draft, but thus far, every single draft – one through eight – has taken a significant step forward with rewrites. While the development process takes a great many hours, between making notes, then discussing notes with the writer, as well as the time and energy the writer pours into implementing those notes, the payoff is well worth it. Even minor changes add up to make a big impact on the reader and the audience. Your goal in rewrites should be to take your story and its execution from ”good” to impressive.

The Bad Script – What We’ve Got Here Is A Failure To Communicate 

Like Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke, you may see your script as a rebel. Luke doesn’t care about the rules; he refuses to conform to the rules; he’s prepared to die to escape the rules.

You, my aspiring screenwriter friend, are no Cool Hand “Luke.” The rules are your friend. Accept them, and master them before considering breaking or even bending them.

BREAKING & ENTERING: Rewrites - Can This Script Be Saved? by Barri Evins | Script Magazine

Cool Hand Luke – Warner Brothers

At this juncture, professional feedback can help you find the path to moving forward.

Paying a consultant may seem like a costly luxury, but could prove invaluable. After devoting months to a project, writers understandably lack objectivity. Not only are you too close to your story to see it with fresh eyes: this is your baby! Of course, you can’t help adoring it. And often, the story is so clear in your head, that you don’t realize it is not as clear on the page.

When a “Bad Script” needs major rewrites, it may be hard to accept. You have a vision, yet you have failed to communicate it on the page. Too many novice screenwriters get stuck at this point. It keeps them from breaking free to re-envision their story in rewrites.

Are you being held hostage?

You Are In Prison – You haven’t learned the rules – the screenwriting basics – so you don’t know how to follow them and deliver on expectations, from formatting to classic genre beats. You and your script won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. When you don’t understand “The System,” you are locked up in leg irons with barely the ability to walk, much less run. Master the basics, get a good screenwriting program, and get out of jail.

You Are Overwhelmed By The Rules – You’ve read so many books, guides, and gurus on screenwriting that you don’t know what advice is right and what’s wrong. Some “rules” conflict with each other. Others are more like “suggestions,” and you take them too far. Going to an extreme not to violate the advice, such as, “Don’t tell the actors what to do,” can actual get in the way of cinematic writing that conveys emotion and subtext to the actor, so they have something to play. While there are many great educational tools out there, when in doubt, head for “The Masters.” Read great produced scripts in your genre; read scripts with comparable stories; read scripts with similar themes. All three are valuable learning tools. The professional writers who came before you, left you a road map to freedom.

Rewrites - Spin the cube to see new possibilities.

Rubik’s cube by Booyabazooka – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

You Are Locked In The Box – You’ve penned yourself into a single way of telling your story and can’t explore other options, or accept feedback that challenges your vision. Thus, you can’t move forward. You might have to chew off your own foot to get out of this trap. If you’re willing to go that far, it’s a sure sign that you are stuck and going nowhere. If your story isn’t working, you need to be willing to go back to ground zero. Rewriting that starts on Page One requires a lot of rebuilding, from the structural foundation up. (Or perhaps you didn’t lay the foundation the first time?) It’s time to play “What If?” Your story is not carved in stone. It’s fluid; it’s malleable. Think of Rubik’s Cube®. It’s a 3-D puzzle, but rather than making all sides the same color, have some fun spinning, and discover the new patterns that emerge. Twist the cube and explore the options, as one change impacts another. Making it all the same is not your goal. A machine can make all the sides match, and it was built by a nine-year-old! Becoming open to change allows you explore options and can enable you to create a new, and potentially great “picture.” That’s how you get you out of the box.

You Think You Can Escape – You’ve learned what to do, but surely that doesn’t apply to you. You’re going to do it your way, come hell or high water. You are going ignore the rules even if it kills your project in the end. And it probably will, as when the industry looks at aspiring writers, they are looking for mastery of the rules. Remember, escape looked good but, in the end, it was a literal dead end for Luke.

The Good News:

Before I began the consultation with this writer, I wasn’t looking forward to telling him that his first script, which he was clearly personally invested in, was more than a rewrite: it was a teardown. If he was looking for a pat on the back, he wasn’t going to get it from me. He had a great deal to learn about how to write a screenplay.

I’ve worked with new writers, as well as with Academy Award® nominees. I don’t believe writers can make significant progress from their work either being ruthlessly ripped apart, or from coddling and kudos.

My feedback is always constructive, but it is unstintingly honest as well. I believe new writers need to hear the truth, but they absolutely must hear it in a way that both encourages them and guides them to achieve a stronger draft in rewrites. This is why I offer consultation packages that include notes on a series of rewrites. This gives the writer the opportunity to incorporate notes, and then receive feedback on what is working and what still needs work, and a final read to polish and hone the script.

Despite my trepidation, this first time writer blew me away with his openness, and his eagerness to learn. He was self-educated through screenwriting books, but hadn’t read screenplays – and it showed. But he was thrilled to be getting professional feedback. He loved hearing where rules he learned randomly were actually tripping him up. He was enthusiastic about making major changes, cutting out 40 pages to bring focus to the through line, and generate ten new ones in the process of developing characters and relationships, as well as adding atmosphere, subtext, and resonance. He responded almost as positively to learning what wasn’t working, as to me pointing out the moments that did work as proof that he clearly had the ability to write at a higher level; he just needed to be doing it consistently.

At the end of our first consultation, I was excited about the possibilities for the script, encouraged that the writer was going to follow my steps for building knowledge, and eager to see what the outcome is when he submits rewrites for my input.

If you are truly open to growth and change, and prepared to put in lots of hard labor, there’s plenty of potential to break free and make a “Bad Script” better in rewrites. Acknowledge that the rules of cinematic storytelling are far from arbitrary. Be ready, willing and able to take the time and put in the effort needed to master storytelling fundamentals and screenwriting tools. See my article, Writing Exercise Workouts and build muscles to help you become a stronger writer and storyteller.

The Ugly Script – Beyond Rewrites: Dead On Arrival

This real-life rewriting story is almost too painful to write about. A frequent client, know for his clever comedic premises, had stepped into a completely different genre and found himself up to his neck in quicksand.

Fundamentally, this “Ugly Script” was the screenplay version of what doctors refer to as Primary Organ Failure. Rewrites, no matter how many heroic measures he was prepared to take, could not resuscitate this story.

Looking at the four main components of story, each was seriously damaged:

The Hero was hard to root for. Their identity and needs shifted. They became passive in the second half, rather than driving the story. Big issues that could possibly be resolved in rewrite surgery.

The Goal was not tangible. This piece dealt with a contemporary issue, but never clearly defined it. In addition, what was standing in the way of the hero achieving their goal lacked logic. Major reconstructive work required here – maybe too much for the story to survive.

The Conflict definitely included escalation, which is a positive, but it grew random and twists came out of nowhere. Multiple villains played unclear roles. Big picture stakes were unclear. Ugly stuff, but some hope for controlling the bleeding.

The Arc was the most troublesome injury to the story. I wanted to scream “Code Blue” immediately. The main character changed in Act One, changed at the beginning of Act Two, and then, after the climax, changed back to their original position. This backwards or negative arc leads to multi-system organ failure. This systemic problem impacts every single aspect of the story. This meant that the main character had to completely excised, rethought, repaired, and rewritten, with the hope that when they were put back into the story, their heart might just possibly start beating again. Major, lengthy, rewrite surgery, with a poor prognosis.

Are you keeping your script on life support? Ask yourself these tough questions:

Have you done rewrite after rewrite? If you’re in double digits and still reworking a wildly unstable story, as opposed to honing and polishing, this may be a sign to stop and hold compressions. See if the story has any life on its own. You’ve been transfusing liters of o-neg – but it’s just pouring out onto the floor through the holes in your story – and hey, it’s your blood that you are pumping in!

Have you received rejection after rejection? Whether bottoming out in contests repeatedly, consistently getting negative responses to paid queries and evaluations online, or grim exam results from a professional a consultant, too many rejections may indicate deep conceptual problems. You could keep doing CPR, trying to breathe life into a mangled premise, but you’ll get worn out or burnt out in the process. Time to consider moving on to another patient – no matter how much you love this project – and turn to one that will benefit more from your time and energy.

Each time you rewrite, are you just adding more clutter to try to make the story interesting, or are you digging deeper to make the story more impactful? Here’s Dr. Paige Turner’s diagnosis of one writer’s rewrites woes.

Is the script deeply damaged on a fundamental level, as with the “Ugly Script”? It may be time to “call it,” as they say in the ER.

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, it’s time to let go. Call time of death and move on.

BREAKING & ENTERING: Rewrites - Can This Script Be Saved? by Barri Evins | Script Magazine #scriptchat

The Good News:

Once you’ve decided that your script is a “Do Not Resuscitate,” you can begin the process of moving forward and focusing on your career goals. Yes, there will be grieving and mourning. That’s to be expected. But you are free to stop the Sisyphean task of endlessly pushing the boulder uphill with no possible happy ending.

Your DOA might be an organ donor – whether through what you learned by writing this project, or you might borrow from it in a future script. And, without wanting to give you false hope, as long as you’re alive, there’s always the possibility that you may conceive of an entirely new approach to your story, giving birth to a new vision of the script that can benefit from rewrites.

Rewrites: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Before rewrites, decide if your script needs a polish, a teardown, or a Do Not Resuscitate.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, United Artists

Rewrites are hard.

Rewrites are confusing.

Rewrites are essential to the writing process.

You don’t need me to quote a bunch of famous writers on the importance of rewrites.

You’ve seen the memes; now heed them.

When you ask yourself the hard questions, and are honest about the answers, you can make smart choices about when to put your energy into rewrites and when to move on.

Rewrites mean there are obstacles to overcome, but stay focused on your goal.

In the end, as in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, you just may survive and come out with the hidden treasure – a script that gets you noticed. That is the true gold to be found buried in rewrites.

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