Meet the Reader: Deck Chairs

A while back, I received a rewrite of a script by an aspiring screenwriter that I have been working with for a while now. The first draft was based on a very cool idea and had some terrific elements in it with an enormous amount of potential, but the overall piece had some tremendous problems that kept it from fulfilling that potential. I had given the author pages and pages of notes that identified these problems and offered a number of suggestions for fixing them. It didn’t matter to me if the author took my particular suggestions or not, but he did need to fix the identified problems in some way or else the script was never going to work. Unfortunately, he addressed none of them.

As I made my way through the rewrite, I realized that, while the author had made a few minor changes – moved one or two scenes around and tweaked some of the dialogue – he had done nothing to fix the very serious flaws that were bringing the script down. I gave him a new set of notes that were essentially the same as the first set. He was back a week later with a new draft that was almost exactly the same as the one that I had just read – having once again made a few minor cosmetic alterations, but doing nothing to address the piece’s major issues. This went on for several more drafts until I finally had to tell the writer that, if he wasn’t willing to make any significant changes in his piece, there wasn’t much else I could do for him.

Of course, this writer is not unique – I’ve worked with many scribes who, when it comes to rewriting, spend all of their time and energy on nonessentials and almost none on bedrock issues. These writers’ intransigence reminds me of that classic saying about the tendency of some people to focus on insignificant problems while ignoring major ones: “It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Rewriting has to be a ruthless process. When it comes to revising your work, you can’t just fuss a bit around the edges – you have to be willing to tear your piece down to its bare bones; rework, refocus, and restructure it; and then build it back up all over again. If you’re not, then all you’re doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Here are a few tips to help you avoid that:

  • There are usually two main reasons why a screen story doesn’t work. The first is that it doesn’t have clear premise (it either doesn’t have one or it has far too many). The second is that the story is poorly structured.

So, when you begin a rewrite, the very first thing that you have to do is make sure that you have one single, clear, strong premise. To do this, write the premise of your script down on a piece of paper in one single sentence. If your premise is working, you will be able to do this. If you can’t, then keep refining it until you can. Once you have it, stick it up on the top of your screen and never let it out of your sight the whole time you are writing.

  • Once you have a solid premise, you must then make sure that the story is properly structured. As I mentioned a few columns back, a properly conceived dramatic story should unfold as follows:
  • ACT ONE: A protagonist is introduced and develops a very strong goal. At the end of the first act, the protagonist sets out to accomplish that goal.
  • ACT TWO: The protagonist – usually working against a tension-generating, “ticking clock” deadline — attempts to accomplish his goal. In the process, he encounters a series of obstacles – including opposition from a formidable antagonist – that conspire to prevent him from attaining his goal. The protagonist uses his inner and outer resources (which can include special abilities and help from allies) to overcome these obstacles, but as the narrative progresses, the obstacles become bigger and more difficult to deal with until the protagonist is finally faced with an obstacle that is so big that it appears that he will not be able to overcome it. The second act ends with the protagonist seeming to have failed in his quest to accomplish his goal.
  • ACT THREE: The seemingly-defeated protagonist finds a way to rally and then progresses to a climactic confrontation in which he/she finally overcomes the formidable obstacle (usually by defeating the antagonist) and finally accomplishes his goal. In the process, he undergoes some personal transformation (his arc) that will change his life from them on.

If your initial draft does not conform to this general pattern and does not contain the necessary elements (especially a clear and definable goal for your protagonist, something that is frequently missing from many, many spec scripts), then you must rearrange and augment the narrative until it does.

  • Once you have properly structured your story, you must make sure that every element in the script can be incorporated into this framework. Any element that does not fit doesn’t belong and must be eliminated.

And that’s the most important thing – you must eliminate the things that do not fit. A lot of writers can’t bear to part with any of their ideas and so go to incredible lengths – often bending themselves and their narrative into incredible knots — to stick them in, sneak them in, shove them in. And it never works: if a piece doesn’t fit, then it doesn’t fit, and if you keep it in, your narrative is never going to work — period. There’s an old saying pertaining to this kind of writing problem – “you have to be willing to kill your darlings.” If you’re not, then you will never be a successful screenwriter.

You have to be just as ruthless with all of the other elements in the script has well: if a character isn’t working, you must rethink it; if a speech isn’t working, you must revise it, trim it, enhance it, or cut it. Most of all, you must rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again until you have addressed every problem to the best of your ability and made every element as good as it can possibly be.

If you follow all of these tips, then all you will need to do with those deck chairs is sit down in one of them and relax.

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