As I embarked recently on a major rewrite of a feature script, I bumped into a big wall of resistance. While I didn’t think my script was necessarily perfect, I was attached to my story in its then-current form. So even though I was getting feedback about the need for significant structural changes, I was struggling with the idea of letting go of much (okay, anything!) of the story.
I knew my attitude was going to be a major obstacle, so I reached out to some pros for advice about the right mindset when undertaking rewrites.
Your script owes you nothing
As I was getting started, I asked screenwriting mentor Chris Soth, screenwriter of Firestorm, and author of Million Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini Movie Method, for advice about approaching a rewrite. He said:
“Put yourself into a mind space as if nothing has been written so far and you just had the idea yesterday. Know that your idea, the Universe, and the screenplay owe nothing to you. Arguably, you owe the Universe for the idea the best execution that you can bring to it, and it’s out there in some form, and all you can do is your best to find it. You have to be willing to throw away everything to do that, as if you are hacking away at a block of marble creating Michelangelo’s David.
“You only need to dedicate yourself to the best possible version of the idea. You’re going to think that’s what you’ve already written. You have to challenge that preconception and dig down into the actual idea and ask, ‘Have I both delivered and over-delivered on the promises of this idea?’
“As a writer you’re told to outline thoroughly, then put the outline away and be prepared for inspiration to come as you’re writing the script. You should treat not just your outline but your first draft this way as well, and indeed any subsequent draft the same way.”
Rewriting is not polishing
“Don’t confuse rewriting with polishing. Rewriting means ripping apart scenes and sequences and rebuilding them piece-by-piece. Polishing is finding ways to make the writing subtly better: changing words, moving commas, and breaking up sentences. Both jobs are crucial, but don’t polish until the scene accomplishes its function.”
Why should we rewrite?
Carson Reeves of ScriptShadow says, “If you’re a new screenwriter, don’t show your script to anyone unless you’ve done at least ten drafts. You heard that right. Ten drafts. Every draft should be better than the previous one. A lot of work? Yeah. But you’re going up against professional writers who know how to craft a story a lot better than you do and they’re putting in twenty drafts.”
In response to protests from his readers, he says not wanting to face rewriting “stems from the beginner assumption that once you’ve written ‘The End,’ you’re done. I mean you put all that work into it! Like four weeks! Why in the world would you need to change anything? I’ll tell you why. Because first drafts suck! … The first draft is a draft of discovery. You’re figuring things out. Therefore when you’re finished, you usually have a roaming patchwork of good and bad, something that needs major surgery. Rewriting will get you there.”
You have to love rewriting
Doug Richardson (Die Harder, Bad Boys, Mooseport) says that as a screenwriter “you have to love rewriting or you should get another job. It can be painful, but it can also be revelatory. But as hard, as painful, and as much work as it is, at the end of the day, you have a better product. If it’s not better, that’s how you learn.”
When it comes to working with producers, rewriting is a practical part of the process. It’s up to you to fulfill the vision, better the work, and fight for what you love, all while getting closer to production. He points out, “It’s normal to cut the stuff you love. You’ll lose your favorite line of dialogue and the funniest scene, and sometimes you can fight and win them back, but you might lose ’em anyway.”
If you want more control over your writing, he says, “you should be writing books.”
Rewriting is the path to success
Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU says when it comes to rewriting:
“Most scripts are turned down by producers because of structure issues, plot holes, character problems, dull scenes, and missing subtext. The real gold lies beneath the surface. Writers who truly look beneath the surface will almost always find a bigger rewrite than they’re doing. Remember: If you can see a problem, you can solve it.
“Writers who are willing to do the work get tremendous amounts of respect from producers. Writers who are not willing to do the work can’t seem to understand why their scripts get turned down over and over again. Anytime you can find a major problem in your script, celebrate it, because it means the script will be 100% better when a producer sees it and you’ll have a better chance of selling your script.”
When Hal runs into a writer having trouble letting go of a specific line of dialog, scene or word, he asks, “Five scripts from now, are you really going to care what’s on page 37? Give yourself the freedom to make the script the best it can possibly be.”
The bottom line
As I’ve navigated different iterations of my feature, developed a new outline, and moved into the actual rewrite, what fascinates me is that despite significant character, structure, and plot changes, the core of my story is coming through more strongly and clearly now that it did in my original draft. At the end of day, as Doug Richardson says, I have a better product. Even though I’ve “lost” many aspects of the story details I’ve loved, what shines through now is the deeper essence of the story. That’s worth the price of admission.
Tools to aid you in your rewrite:
- The Dreaded Rewrite: Step-by-Step Instructions on Tackling a Rewrite
- Rewrite by Paul Chitlik
- Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
- Meet the Reader: Critical Thinking
- Balls of Steel: Putting Your Script Out There
- Rewriting is Writing