If you listened to the previous episode of this podcast, you have probably developed a pretty valuable approach for how to revise your screenplay. And you know that approach focuses on these 5 simple tips for revision:
#1 – Never Rewrite Without a Goal
#2 – Follow Your North Star
#3 – Concentrate on What’s Working
#4 – Stay Away From Quick Fixes
#5 – Beware Written Notes
So this week, we’re going to work on taking your revision process to the next level, with five more helpful tips about revising your script.
REVISION TIP #6 – Use Your Theme
If you’ve ever been part of an unmoderated writing group, you already know what it’s like to lose control of your revision.
Without a strong unifying voice to make order out of the chaos, it’s amazing how much turmoil even a small group of well-intentioned writers can bring to your screenplay, pushing and pulling your revision in so many different directions with their “brilliant ideas” that before long you don’t even know what you’re writing anymore!
And as anyone who has ever worked professionally as a screenwriter can tell you, the more you grow in your career, the more challenging it becomes to maintain a point of creative focus for your revisions.
Succeeding as a professional writer means learning to navigate the twists and turns in the development process, often balancing the demands of half a dozen different producers, all with their own (often conflicting) agendas for the project, without losing your own creative voice.
Which means that, if you want to succeed in this industry and actually see your movies make it to the screen, you need to start building those skills in yourself now.
That means not only developing the skills you need to navigate the often contradictory feedback you get from other people (friends, classmates, coverage readers, producers, teachers, agents, managers), but also learning how to steer the course through the shifting winds of your own feelings about your writing and the perilous waves of “brilliant ideas” that tend to crash across the bows of our own creative ships.
The real terror of the blank page is that anything is possible; and the real terror of a rewrite is that everything becomes possible all over again. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort and just keep asking “what if?” you can develop Thelma and Louise until it turns into The Wrestler (think about it).
But along the way, you’re going to drive yourself absolutely out of your mind. And if you’ve ever worked on a revision, you’ve probably found yourself going down that rabbit hole.
So how do you make sense of all the thousands of ideas vying for your attention? How do you bring order to the chaos, wrangle all these crazy notes to the ground, hold your own in a development meeting, and feel confidence in each decision you make in your revision?
That process always begins with theme.
There are very few people in the world who are truly good at developing scripts, but those who are all have one thing in common. Before they start trying to come up with a single idea or solve a single problem, they always ask the same question about the script: what’s it about?
And that doesn’t mean “what could it be about?” or “what was the conscious plan the writer had for the script when they first sat down to write” or even “what could I make it about?” That means seeking out what already has been built, whether consciously or unconsciously, in the pages that already exist, no matter how problematic they may be.
What are the ideas that keep on coming up again and again, page after page? What are the questions that seem to tie together the most visceral and exciting scenes in your movie, or the turning points in your character’s journey? What makes this screenplay matter to you as a writer? What is really being built here? And how can you boil that all down to a single guiding theme so simple that you can remember it at every phase of your rewrite without even thinking about it.
No matter how good your draft may be, there’s no doubt that huge changes are going to happen in your revision. But until you know the one simple thing you’re building, you’ll never know which changes will serve your story, and which will simply distract from it.
Any note (and any idea) is only valuable in the context of what you’re building. If you were an architect working on a new cathedral, an idea for a breathtaking stained glass window might be a great place to put your energy. But, if you’re building a bomb shelter, that same stained glass window becomes a total hazard of potentially falling glass!
In the last installment of this podcast, we talked about following a North Star for your revision– a goal to focus on as a writer. Well your theme is like a North Star for your whole script, and every scene and every character you create. No matter how lost you get, it will always guide you in the right direction. And the great thing is, you don’t even have to make it up!
Once you learn how to look, you’ll be amazed to discover that your theme already exists in almost every page of your script, often buried under the surface, sometimes disguised or masked by undeveloped craft or hidden behind piles other unrelated themes and ideas. But present nonetheless. Because the theme is that subconscious, broken and beautiful thing in you that’s driving you to do this crazy act of writing in the first place.
That doesn’t mean that every idea that fits your theme is going to work. But it does mean that, by identifying your theme, you can cut through all the clutter and distractions. It means you can know what to say “yes” to, and what to say “no” to at each phase of your revision. It means you can focus your energy on the ideas that best serve the one unifying theme of your story, rather than getting distracted by the many red herrings that don’t.
Most importantly, as you grow in your professional career, if you can learn to agree on a theme with your production team before you start revising, it will allow you not only to wrangle your own ideas, but also to focus the energy of all those crazy producers, directors, managers, agents, and movie stars on the ideas that best serve your main intentions for the project.
REVISION TIP #7 – When in Doubt Cut It Out
Many writers make the mistake of thinking that rewriting is primarily about finding that “something missing” in your scene, adding that perfect line of dialogue or discovering that perfect image to take your script to the next level. And it’s true that these are major parts of rewriting. But oftentimes the best (and easiest) rewrites begin not by adding anything at all, but simply by stripping away the stuff that’s obscuring the real heart of the scene.
It’s natural that early drafts tend to be overwritten—after all, it’s in these early drafts that you’re supposed to be exploring the limits of what your scenes and your story can be. But once you’ve discovered the core of what the scene is really about, you’ve got to cut away all those extra layers, so other people can perceive that essence in its most pure and beautiful form.
This always begins with theme. Ask yourself “what is this scene really about?” And then see what happens if you cut away anything that doesn’t doesn’t work to serve that primary intention.
You might find yourself pleasantly surprised to discover that the more you cut, the stronger your scene becomes.
That’s because the best scenes function like a collection of greatest hits, catapulting the audience and the character from one compelling moment to the next. When you cut down your screenplay to its most essential elements, it allows readers to get right to the meat of your scene, without having to sort through all that garnish. From a commercial perspective, it also allows your scene to be read and understood more quickly, which will pay off big time when it’s being skimmed by a time-crunched coverage reader.
Making these kinds of cuts is quick, easy, and extraordinarily effective. But it’s also emotionally challenging for two reasons.
The first is that we tend to like what we’ve written, and cutting away good writing, even if it doesn’t serve our story, can be incredibly painful.
The second is that we don’t tend to trust ourselves.
We imagine that if we just got right to the heart of the scene, keeping only our very best lines and our very best actions or images, the audience would never understand. Or even worse, we fear that if we cut that 5 page scene down to one brilliant half a page, we’d suddenly have to come up with so much more story to fill those extra pages!
But the truth is, if you really want to take your script to the next level, you’re going to need those extra pages! Cutting out the wasted space in your script (getting to the best stuff faster and faster and faster) opens up room for you to take your story and your character’s journey beyond what even you imagined when you first sat down to write.
And this is exactly what you really need to do if you want to break in as a writer.
While professionals with impressive resumes and extensive relationships may be able to get away with phoning in scripts that play by the rules and simply meet the expectations of the audience, to get a producer to take a chance on you as a writer, you’ve got to deliver even more than they expect. You’ve got to blow them away.
So next time, before you start adding to your scene, see what happens if you try to tell the whole story of the scene with the fewest lines possible. Cut it down to the very minimum. And then cut it even further. Cut everything boring, everything lackluster, everything redundant and everything that doesn’t serve your theme, until you’re left with only your most vibrant, vital and visceral writing.
See how quickly you can make it happen. Then read it to yourself. And notice not only how much better the scene becomes, but also how clearly you can now see exactly how to amplify or take it further.
REVISION TIP #8 – Follow Your Character’s Want
So now it’s time to start thinking about structure.
Oftentimes, in early drafts, we’re so concerned with what happens in our story (the plot) that we end up with stories that drive our characters, rather than characters that drive our stories.
The problem is that plot, on its own, is never interesting. Check out the synopsis of your favorite movie on IMDB.com and you’ll see what I mean. When boiled down to “what happens,” even a masterpiece like The Godfather becomes deadly boring.
People go to movies seeking an emotional experience. And delivering those emotions begins with delivering a character people can care about, root for, laugh or cry over. That doesn’t mean that your character has to be “likeable” (remember how we all rooted for Walter White in Breaking Bad). But it does mean that they have to be more than just an empty vessel hurled downriver by the rapidly flowing waters of your plot.
We need to see them make choices in relation to that plot that only they can make, fighting their way against the rapids and clawing their way up the rocky shore of their desires before they ever surrender to the current.
We need them to earn their happy endings, and their tragic defeats, by making daring choices neither we nor they could ever have imagined when they first set out on the journey.
We need to believe in them, so that we can see ourselves in their shoes, and feel what it would be like to make those kinds of daring choices ourselves. That means they must be more than just victims of tragic circumstances, or spoiled children favored by the winds of fate.
They must be people like us. People who want things. Because without that want to drive them, there are no choices to make.
The definition of a character is someone who wants something. Because the definition of a person is someone who wants something.
Structure in a movie is like the structure of life. It grows naturally out of the decisions you make (or fail to make) as you pursue the things you most desperately want.
The only difference is that, in a movie, those choices must happen quicker, taking place over a few pages, instead of a few years, so that our characters can go on the journey of a lifetime within the confines of 100 pages.
Which means that for a movie to move, we’ve got to turbocharge those wants and those decisions in our characters, allowing them to become so strong and so life-altering that they can carry us briskly from one scene to the next, allowing our characters to change in some small way in relation to the theme with every step they take.
Depending on your learning style and your experience as a writer, there are many ways to think about structure in a rewrite.
More intuitive writers often prefer an instinctual approach, following the deeper emotional needs that drive their characters at the subconscious level, rather than thinking intellectually about how their stories are built.
More analytical writers often find their structure through craft, using theme, objectives, obstacles, image systems, dialogue, vignettes, charting, cuts, completions, hook, and other elements of structure to give shape to the raw material of their intuition and track their character’s journey in each scene, act, and moment of their movie.
But really, as we teach in our Write Your Screenplay classes and in our Protrack Mentorship program here at the Studio, real writing, and real rewriting is a fusion of the two: a dance between the subconscious and the conscious, the art and the craft.
That’s why the most successful writers must learn to bounce effortlessly between the intuitive and analytical parts of their minds, integrating analytical tools such as outlines, loglines, 7 Act Structure, and advanced writing techniques, with the intuitive moment to moment work that leads to your best writing.
But wherever you are in your own journey as a writer, the process of discovering the structure of your movie always begins with your main character’s objectives: the specific things they desperately want that drive every action they take in the story.
Just as you should never write without a goal, your character should never enter a scene without one. And just as you should always intuitively feel the underlying need that drives the goal of your rewrite, your character should intuitively feel their own emotional need as they enter the scene.
So take a look at each scene in your movie, and ask yourself this simple question. What does your character want?
Sit with them for a moment and see if you can feel the emotional need driving that want?
And then ask yourself if they’re trying everything they can to get that want fulfilled at every moment in that scene.
If they’re not, you know what you have to do. It’s time to write that scene again, in a way that’s driven by your character, rather than being hijacked by the characters and events around them.
It’s time to let your characters enter the scene driven by the energy of these desperate desires, to let them fight it out for the things they want against the biggest of obstacles, and not to let them stop until they either get it or until their greatest hopes are completely dashed.
Then notice how the completion of that first want and the need underneath it propels both you and your character into the next scene. And you’ll have taken the first and most important step to finding the real structure of your movie and solidifying the underlying backbone of your screenplay.
REVISION TIP #9 – Rewrite From The Blank Page
When it comes to revision, one of the biggest problems facing every writer is the problem of attachment.
For that matter, it’s probably safe to say that the problem of attachment is the primary obstacle to all positive change.
You want to get in shape, but you don’t want to let go of your old routine. You want a relationship that inspires you, but you don’t want to let go of all the good things in the one you currently have. You want to write a great new draft, but you don’t want to let go of all the stuff you’ve already written—whether it’s actually serving the story or not!
And that’s why it’s so important to rewrite from the blank page.
Rewriting from the blank page doesn’t mean letting go of everything. It doesn’t mean totally reinventing every aspect of your script or sacrificing all of your great writing.
It means recognizing that, as thankful as you are for all the great stuff you’ve written, the only way to make real change is to trust yourself to remember what’s really important and to forget the stuff that’s no longer serving your script.
For most beginning writers, revision often turns out to be a process of incremental change, cutting and pasting within a document, fiddling and tweaking line by line. If you’ve ever been part of a writer’s group, you’ve probably seen the results—the poor writer who works for a year on a “major revision,” only to present a draft that seems no different from the last one to everybody in the room.
And we’ve all seen these people in life as well, who “reinvent” themselves again and again on the surface, without making any of the real structural changes that would allow them to escape the same old cycles.
So how do you avoid being one of those people when it comes to your own revisions—whether in writing or in life?
Start by recognizing that attachment is a natural part of being human that nobody escapes. But you also have a natural filter to protect you from it—the filter of your memory.
Your subconscious mind is an amazing machine.
When set free to explore on the blank page, it has tremendous powers to intuitively hone in on the things that are really important and completely forget the ones that are not.
But, when editing within a document, it becomes like a child with too many toys – overwhelmed by the desperate need to hold on to all of them, whether the child is actually playing with them or not.
Allow that child to play on its own terms and he or she will quickly hone in on just the right toy and play with it for hours, oblivious to anyone or anything else.
Clear out all the unused toys in the room, while that child is playing somewhere else, and the child will barely even notice.
But try to remove the most neglected toy on the shelf while that child is watching and suddenly that toy becomes the most important toy in the universe.
And, of course, this is exactly what happens when you cut and paste within a document – manually excising each word and suffering the pain of each and every loss no matter how tiny, until the agony has grown so strong that you end up putting it all back in.
Just like a child in a playroom, the pain you experience with loss often has little to do with the actual value of the writing. The subconscious mind is like a child. And, like a child, it can suffer intense pain over the most trivial of objects.
A part of you may know that things you are cutting are just a distraction from the real story. But the childlike, subconscious part of your mind just knows that something it likes has been taken away, and it wants it back!
That’s why it’s so important to clear the room before you start to rewrite, starting with a blank page, and allowing your subconscious mind to populate it only with the toys it truly wants to play with, remembering the elements that are vital enough be remembered and forgetting those trivial elements that are no longer serving your story.
Once all those useless toys are out of sight and out of mind, you’ll be shocked to see how easy it becomes to let go of all that attachment. Like a child running off to some far more exciting game, suddenly the tears are gone and your subconscious mind is free to make the real changes that make your script dramatically better, rather than the micro changes that are imperceptible to anyone but you.
So what do you do, if this is all too scary for you? Try it anyway! Writing is supposed to be scary, and making it hard for yourself as a writer is going to make it so much better for your audience.
Remember, you’re always going to have that draft to go back to, so the truth is, you’re not really losing anything. So read and reread those pages as many times as you need to get them in your head, write down every note and every thought you have, and then throw them all away. Rewrite from the blank page and watch the magic happen.
At the same time… sometimes we do reach a point after many drafts where rewriting from a blank page yet again is just too much, or starts to show diminishing returns. And sometimes as we get close to the final draft, it doesn’t make sense to completely rewrite a scene for just a few small tweaks.
So if that happens to you, make sure at the minimum to print out your pages and retype the scene. This way at least you’re forced to re-examine every choice, and truly read your pages as you write them, rather than skimming through your old choices as you cut and paste.
Almost without question, you’ll find that you end up making much bigger changes than you planned, and that these changes end up serving your story in ways you never even imagined when you first sat down to write.
REVISION TIP #10 – Don’t Stop Until You Reach “The End”
It’s a natural part of any revision that you’re going to reach a point where you think you’re never going to make it. No matter how brilliant your idea, at some point in the process you’re going to convince yourself that it’s the worst idea ever, completely uncommercial, impossible to execute, just downright bad. And likely when this happens you’ll find your mind suddenly swimming with thousands of other “better” ideas, all so much more promising, “if you’d only had the foresight to work on them rather than this horrible project you have chained to your neck like an albatross.”
Don’t believe these misleading siren songs—these new ideas may sing sweetly, but if you abandon your screenplay to follow them, you’ll soon find yourself dashed upon the rocks.
And even if your idea truly w bad— remember that even the worst ideas can turn into brilliant movies if we’re willing to keep pushing on them. Remember Lars & The Real Girl is really just a better executed version of Mannequin.
I started out my career at a huge production company working with professional writers who were in trouble with their scripts. My office was the office you ended up in just before you got fired. And it was my job to make sure we didn’t have to fire you, because paying me to help a writer fix their script was always a lot cheaper than hiring a new writer to come in and replace them.
Many of those scripts did not come from the place of love and passion from which your screenplay originated. They came from professional writers writing for money—saying “yes” to for-hire projects because it was good for their career, or good for paying off their mortgage, whether or not they had any emotional connection to the project.
And let’s be honest, many of these ideas weren’t even good ideas to begin with.
But what I found working with these professional writers was that no matter how disconnected, lackadaisical or downright terrible a draft might be, simply in the process of writing it, somewhere, maybe just in one line or one moment, and maybe without even being consciously aware, the writer would end up putting something of themselves into it.
And if I could identify that one thing, and show the writer how to build on it, we could rescue anything. We could turn even the worst idea into a screenplay that both the writer and the audience loved, without sacrificing the demands of the studio, the needs of the producer, the budget, casting or any of the other commercial concerns of the script.
If you’ve followed the steps described in this podcast series, then by now, you should know what that one thing is in your screenplay. And if you don’t have enough training or perspective on your script to know what it is, or how to identify it, or how to build around it then you need to find someone who can show you. You can take a class with us in NYC or Online. You can join our Protrack Mentorship program and meet one-on-one with a professional writer every week or every other week. You can seek out a professional writer in your community. But you’ve got to find that one thing.
And once you’ve got that one thing, you’ve got to follow it until the end.
Stay tuned next week when we’ll have a special guest, Sebastian Stan, star of I, Tonya, talking about his role in that film, the connections between the acting and the writing process, and what an A-list actor looks for when they read a script by a new writer.