Writers on the Web: 4 Questions to a (Somewhat) Painless Webseries Rewrite

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The only thing worse than staring at a blank page is staring at the pages of a script you need to re-write from scratch.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to write.  I’m sure many of you reading this likely have more writing experience than I do. However, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to share my personal process that, for me, has helped ease the potentially soul-sucking, anxiety-causing, binge drinking-inducing, relationship-ruining process of rewriting your first draft.

Okay, I exaggerate.

Well… maybe not.

(Rewriting time is not the most fun time to be in my household. Ask… anyone in my household.)

Here’s 4 questions I ask myself before rewriting, (specific to web series, but can also apply to TV scrips or screenplays):

1) Does each scene in my webisode go somewhere? Is there an arc for each scene, webisode, character, season, and for the series as a whole?

I like to look for 5 levels of arcs:

Scene Arc > Does each scene begin and end differently? Has a change occurred?

Does the scene, for example:

  • Begin on a lighter note and end on a heavier note, or vice versa?
  • Begin with a serious tone and end with a lighter or more comedic tone, or vice versa?
  • Begin in harmony and end with disharmony, an argument, or conflict, or vice versa?
  • Begin with conflict and end with even MORE conflict?

Webisode Arc > Does the webisode begin and end differently? Do the characters go on some sort of journey–is the plot advanced somehow?

Character Arc > Have the characters made any progress toward completing their goals? Or grown or evolved somehow? (Or devolved, in the case of Breaking Bad).

Season Arc > Does the plot advance significantly? Are the characters’ circumstances, environment, and/or emotional growth different from the beginning? Are the characters moving towards or away from their goals?

Series Arc > Have the characters accomplished or not accomplished their goals? Have I answered the question(s) and/or resolved the conflicts I posed in the pilot episode? How have the characters grown and changed as people?

Since we’re on the subject of Breaking Bad (and on the heels of Brad Johnson’s stellar article in Script last week: 5 Lessons Screenwriters Can Learn From Breaking Bad), let’s consider the journey of the characters on the show, and also the progression of their feelings about the main character, Walter White:

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The beginning of Walt’s journey, oh so long ago…

WALT
Teacher, loving father, cancer victim, finds a new lease on life > Drug kingpin, murderer, criminal, dies in the end

SKLYER
Loving, supportive wife with baby on the way > hostage, criminal accomplice, afraid of and despises Walt, widowed in the end

WALTER JR.
Pleasant personality, loving son, admires Walt > angry, confused, and bitter, hatred and disgust for Walt

JESSE
Some level of respect for Walt, loner, student of chemistry > despising, fearing, and distrusting Walt, having a family to care for, teacher of chemistry to others (cooking meth)

HANK
DEA agent, Friend and brother-in-law to Walt > Head honcho at DEA, hunts Walt down to arrest and prosecute him

MARIE
Loving wife, strong supporter of Skyler, shoplifter > Widow, distrust of Skyler, law-abiding citizen

At series end, each character finds themselves at the opposite at the end of spectrum from where they started off.   Your character(s) need to change, or, as outlined in Chris Vogler’s amazing book The Writer’s Journey, if your character is a Catalyst Hero(ine) that doesn’t change much, he or she needs to bring about change in others.

2)  Are my characters likable on some level, or if not likable, relatable? Do they undergo change (or inspire change in others?)

I’m currently script reading for a major production company.  I read a frightening number of scripts where the characters do not change or grow, do not learn lessons, and are selfish and unlikable from beginning to end. Needless to say, these scripts generally find themselves on the receiving end of a big fat PASS.

I think the success of shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter have made people believe that their hero(ine) need no longer be likable and can do deplorable things and still have the hearts and minds of the audience.  I do not believe this is so.

Walter White’s actions may have been incomprehensible, but we relate to and feel pity for the original circumstances that led him to make the decisions he did.  And throughout each episode, we see both sides of Walter—glimpses of the loving, caring father, mentor, teacher, and family provider he once was and continued to try to be.  He wasn’t Heisenberg all the time—there were plenty of times where he was just Dad, and that’s what made his character fascinating.  We were never quite sure which Walt we were going to get.

Dexter certainly takes horrific and immoral actions–but against horrific and immoral people.  On some level, haven’t we all at one time or another wished we could take the law into our own hands? We may not be able to relate to Dexter’s actions, but we can relate at least somewhat to the intentions behind his actions.

Todd_S5b3) Are my characters dynamic and interesting? If they are, can I make them even more so?

Ever since he was introduced, I’ve been fascinated by the character of Todd in Breaking Bad.  The likable, polite sociopath.  With an innocent child-like demeanor all the while, he cooked and sold meth, contributed to the deaths of two DEA agents, robbed a train, shot a child in the face, shot Jesse’s girlfriend in the head, and kept Jesse hostage for slave labor.  At the same time, Todd lowered down a bucket of ice cream as a treat for Jesse while he was caged, showed genuine-seeming regret at shooting Jesse’s girlfriend (“It’s nothing personal”), and gave heartfelt condolences (“I’m sorry for your loss”) to Walt after aiding in Hank’s death.  These multi-faceted and conflicting parts of Todd’s personality kept his character unpredictable and therefore interesting (and terrifying) to watch.

Take a look at your characters.  Can you add in unique flaws and personality quirks that make the character more real, relatable, interesting, or memorable?

4) Are my scripts entertaining? Or are they boring?

This is the most important question to ask yourself.  It may seem simplistic, but if you are bored reading your script, your reader will be too.  It doesn’t matter how well-structured, authentic, thoroughly researched, or meticulously proofread your script is.  Any development exec will tell you, if the script is boring, it will get a PASS.  When I read a boring script as a reader, it gets a PASS.  If your web series is boring, your viewers will PASS. We are in the ENTERTAINMENT industry.  If you’re not entertaining people, then what’s the point?

Ask yourself—can I make my script and series more entertaining somehow?  Among other things, where can I pick up the pace, remove or shorten unnecessary pages, add humor, add suspense, or cleverly hide exposition to make the script more enjoyable to read? And therefore, the series more fun to watch?

If you can answer these questions to your satisfaction, you’ll be far on your way towards having a more painless second, tenth, sixteenth, or twenty-seventh draft of your web series. And, in my case at least, a happier and more harmonious household!

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