I teach a course at NYU titled How to Rewrite Your Screenplay in 8 Weeks. This is a class that I have taught for over 10 years. During the short time frame of the course, each student is able to complete a new draft of his or her current script. As with the other courses that I teach, this course is also based on my trademarked writing system. There are many reasons why my writing system is able to help students achieve a full rewrite in such a short time, and here are three ways to augment your own personal process, based on my system.
One of the basic principles of my writing system is to accept that what you think you should do is not necessarily what you need to do. Albert Einstein wrote “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The following exercises are ways of changing your thinking so you can get your script finished efficiently.
1. TAKE A REST
Before you tackle a revision, you must accept the fact that you need time away from the project. Even with a hard deadline, you must find a way to mentally forget what your script is supposed to be about. My colleague, Brian, a well-known artist, teaches outdoor painting at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park for New York University. At the end of each class, he often finds that some of his students who had begun enthusiastically end up in despair and want to destroy their work. He insists they wait a week before beginning the bonfire.
When the students return to class, they are always surprised their work is not as bad as they previously thought. When they ask why, Brian always smiles and says, “You just had to wait until you forgot the idea you had about what you wanted to paint, so that you could appreciate what you actually did paint.” By putting the screenplay aside however briefly, you will change the way you are thinking about the script because you will be able to see what you actually wrote, not whether it matches your idea of what you were planning to write.
Here’s the exercise:
Step 1: Force yourself to put the script aside for 24 hours.
Step 2: During that time, do anything necessary (as long as it’s legal and safe!) to avoid thinking about your story. I like to go tango dancing.
Step 3: The next day, set your alarm 2 hours earlier than normal. Begin rereading as soon as you wake up without stopping to make notes. You will be able to appreciate what you wrote and think of the revision as an improvement rather than as surgery.
2. READ A SHORT STORY OR NOVELLA THAT WAS ADAPTED INTO A FILM
Reading fiction after you have spent a long time writing in screenplay mode will help you change your thinking because the forms are so different. Looking at the source material for a successful film such as The Shawshank Redemption or Brokeback Mountain and then writing about your own story as if it were fiction will stimulate your brain to retell your story in a different way.
Here’s the exercise:
Step 1: Read a short story or novella that was made into a film.
Step 2: Set a timer for 15 minutes.
Step 3: Have your main character tell the story in first person tense as if it were fiction. The first line of the exercise is, “Well, what happened was…”
3. CREATE AN OUTLINE OF A PRODUCED MOVIE SCRIPT
This is a powerful exercise. By outlining another writer’s work, you will stimulate yourself to think differently about the structure of your own screenplay. Getting the structure of a script right is a fundamental step to completing the project, but it is perhaps the hardest aspect of the process to self-critique. I recommend outlining a produced screenplay similar to the story of the script you are writing, which will provide a basis for comparison.
Here’s a Bonus Tip: Try to read as a fan, because it’s the appreciation of a fellow writer’s craft that somehow magically allows you to correct your own mistakes with ease.
Here’s the exercise:
Step 1: Read and outline a script similar to your own.
Step 2: Outline your own screenplay the same way.
Step 3: Compare the outlines and improve your own by watching the film that was made. Ask what scenes did or did not make it onto the screen and figure out why.
While there are many more exercises that I use to teach effective rewriting, these three techniques are fun, time efficient, and easy to use. I hope you will give these exercises a try, and let me know how they worked for you.
- More Script Tips from Marilyn Horowitz
- Rewriting is Writing by Ray Morton
- Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR
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