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This is a time of year when many of us are thinking about rewrites, both on our scripts and on our lives. So what better time for a podcast about rewriting?
Everyone knows that writing is rewriting. But for many writers, the rewriting process can feel so overwhelming that it’s hard to hold onto that creative spark that made the script worth writing in the first place.
So over the next two podcasts, we’re going to be talking about 10 things you can do to help make your rewrite great! (They work pretty well for your life goals as well!)
Screenplay Revision Tip #1 – Never Rewrite Without a Goal
A character without a goal is like a car without an engine. You can polish it up all you’d like, but it’s not going to go anywhere.
And just like our characters, if we’re going to be successful in our revisions, we’ve got to make sure we’re effective in our goal setting, not only for our characters, but also for ourselves. That means setting a clear, objective goal for each draft of our screenplay, which allows no debate over whether or not it’s been achieved.
For example, depending on what phase we’re in of a revision, we might set a goal like one of these:
- Make sure the main character is driving the action of every scene.
- Find lines of dialogue that feel a little familiar and either cut them or make them more specific to the character.
- Chart out the 7 Act Structure of the character’s change.
- Make sure the action on the page captures each image exactly the way you see it in your head.
What’s great about goals like these is that you can know if you’ve achieved them. Instead of wasting your energy panicking about whether your script is good or not, you can watch it evolve in front of your eyes, knowing that each draft is that much better than the one that came before.
Rather than feeling like you’re trying to juggle a million deadly chainsaws– instead of feeling like you’ve got a million different problems that you simply have to fix in your script all at the same time– you can devote all your focus to the one thing that is most important for the draft you’re working on right now.
Rather than basing your feeling of success as a writer on things that are beyond your control, like having a good writing day, selling a script or winning an Academy Award, you’re basing it on a simple area of focus that will not only grow your script, but also vastly improve your craft as a writer, which will serve you on every script you write in the future.
So if you’re working on a revision of a screenplay, revision of an act, or even just a revision of a scene, take a moment to clear your mind of all the things you’ve been told you have to do, all your fears about getting to the end, finishing, not finishing, selling your script, or having talent as a writer.
Instead, think about what this screenplay is really about for you, and set a clear, objective goal for the one thing that’s most important for you to achieve to take the script to the next level.
In early drafts, or early phases of your career, it may be hard to identify what the most important thing to focus on might be, or to separate the many conflicting things you’ve been told to do from the ones that really matter to you. Trust your instincts, and seek out the advice of mentors with enough real professional experience to point you in the right direction.
What matters is that you choose one goal to focus on, and frame it in a way that you can know if you’ve achieved it, regardless of the shifting winds of your own (or anybody else’s) subjective opinions. That way you can know you are succeeding in each phase of your revision, whether this is your final draft, or just one of many along the way.
Screenplay Revision Tip #2 – Follow Your North Star
Without a clear, recognizable goal that we know we can achieve, it’s easy to find ourselves rewriting from a place of fear: driven by a deep anxiety that our screenplay is just not good enough without the benefit of a tangible vision of what good enough would actually be!
On the other extreme, it’s easy to overwhelm ourselves with too many tangible goals; compiling never-ending (and often conflicting) checklists of things to be fixed and improved in our screenplays as we try to heed the advice of every cook in the kitchen. Cooks including coverage readers, producers, friends, family, writers groups, screenwriting books, structural formulas – and even our own constantly shifting thoughts about our writing – without any sense of how these supposed “improvements” actually fit with our real goals for this particular screenplay, or how they’re all supposed to fit together into a unified whole.
That’s why it’s so important to focus on one goal at a time. Let that goal become the North Star for your revision. The one ring to rule them all. The only action item on your checklist and the only thing your brain needs to focus on in this phase of the process.
This allows you to calm the many anxieties that come with rewriting a script, the feeling that you’re wrestling with something so much bigger than you can keep in your head, where everything is so interconnected that you pull one string and the whole tapestry can fall apart.
It reminds you that you’re not trying to build the whole tapestry all at the same time. You’re just trying to follow this one North Star and see where it takes you, until you understand it so fully that you can intuitively recognize how it fits with all the other stars around it.
So, if you’re working on your dialogue and you suddenly realize that you’ve got problems with your action, your structure, or your formatting, that’s okay! You’re not trying to fix everything right now. You’re just following this one North Star.
The wonderful and ironic thing about focusing on only one North Star at a time is that oftentimes changes in one little area of your screenplay end up leading to vast improvements in other areas of your story. Because every element of a screenplay is so deeply interconnected, a revision focused on the specificity of your main character’s dialogue may inspire all kinds of new insights into who your character is, the nature of their journey, the hook of your movie, or even the way you write the action lines.
And if the screenwriting Gods gift you with such inspiration, by all means accept that gift! Write the scene, rewrite the action, restructure the story, capture that turning point.
But remember, these new flashes of inspiration are only the bi-products of your clear, objective goal. The icing on the cake, but not the cake itself. So, if you’re feeling inspired, chase that inspiration. But if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed or distracted by all the possibilities, look back at your North Star, and remember what your goal is for this draft of the revision.
You’ll have plenty of time to look at all the other possibilities later and, oftentimes, be pleasantly surprised at how a tiny change to the dialogue in Act 1 has suddenly pulled that turning point you were so worried about at the end of Act 4 into perfect focus.
But if you turn out to be not so lucky, at least you can set a new goal, a new North Star to guide you, for the next revision, knowing that the foundation of the previous goal has already been fully explored and established. You now know where that star leads, and can draw upon that knowledge as you follow the next one.
Screenplay Revision Tip #3 – Concentrate on What’s Working
One of the most common mistakes screenwriters make when revising a screenplay is to concentrate on what’s not working rather than what is. This not only sucks all the fun out of your rewrite– it also chips away at the confidence you need in order to get your best writing on the page.
It takes very little skill to look at an early draft of a screenplay and tear it apart. Anyone who’s ever seen a movie knows how easy it is to rant and rave about every ridiculous plot twist or corny line of dialogue in the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
And when it comes to our own work, we’re even more hyper-aware of our many flaws and shortcomings, both real and imagined. We’ve been trained since birth to think critically, censor our strongest ideas, and beat ourselves up over our writing. Thinking about your script in this way is not only unhelpful, it’s downright lazy!
If you really want to push yourself in your revision, stop focusing on what’s not working in your screenplay, and start looking for what is already working, even in your most disastrous pages.
Ask yourself what your story is really about (this may have changed since you first sat down to write) and make a list of everything in your script that seems to serve that thematic intention, no matter how problematic or flawed.
Write down every moment that you like in your script, every line of dialogue that feels connected or real, every image that grabs your attention, every moment that makes you laugh or cry or care.
Set aside your judgment, and think about the opportunities that still exist, even in the most troubling elements of your script. What can be built upon, expanded, explored, pushed further, looked at more closely or amplified in its specificity or intent?
Seek out the powerful moments early in your script that might lead you to the structural twists and turns you need later in the story. And think about the big turning points later in your story that may point the way to what needs to be revised or clarified earlier in the script.
Identify the compelling lines of dialogue that might help you understand how your character really talks in a rewrite of your dialogue? And ask yourself how that understanding might help you add more specificity to your less compelling lines.
Chart out memorable images and actions that capture who your character really is and what they really want. And think about how those elements might come back in different ways later in the story as you build the structure of your character’s change.
For some of you, this may be hard. For many emerging writers, it’s difficult to even recognize the things that are beautiful about their writing, especially in an early draft when those elements are still in their most raw form. In fact, many well-meaning writers end up throwing out their most inspired scenes, having mistaken the natural feelings of vulnerability that come with exposing your true voice on the page for some kind of problem with the script, and responding with intense embarrassment or even shame over the writing that most deserves to be celebrated.
If you need help seeing your own work clearly, then seek some help from someone you trust. Take a class or find a mentor who helps you see the opportunities, rather than the problems, so you can fully appreciate the foundation upon which you’re building, and enter your rewrite full of confidence and excitement about your writing.
Once you’ve found all the things you truly love about your screenplay, and worked to understand what you’re really building and what matters most to you, it’s easy to shift your attention to the things that aren’t working, that need to be improved, or that are getting in the way of your most compelling moments.
But now, rather than using those elements to tear yourself down, you’ll be able to see them in the context of what you’re really building, and better understand which of your concerns are really worth worrying about, and which are merely distractions from the real focus of your rewrite.
Screenplay Revision Tip #4 – Stay away from quick fixes
Despite all our best-laid plans to set clear goals, follow the north star, and concentrate on what’s already working as we embark on a revision, there’s no denying the anxiety we all feel when working on a rewrite.
There’s often such shame about the perceived failures of our writing and such pressure just to finally get to the end of this revision so that we can get on with the business of selling our screenplays, quitting our jobs, and finally having the lives about which we have always dreamed.
This shame and pressure can sometimes prove to be so overwhelming that, rather than allowing ourselves the journey of creative exploration through which we find our best writing, we end up racing to patch up the gaps and flaws in our stories using the first solutions we find, covering the holes with the writing equivalent of duct tape and chewing gum and smoothing out the rough edges with the same old formulaic clichés.
As a result, we end up cutting ourselves off from the full power of our voices, and robbing our screenplays of the very writing that can actually get us the success we dream of: the raw, visceral, original, and compelling ideas that can shake a producer by their designer lapels and demand that they pay attention!
Think about how disappointing it would be to listen to a concert at Carnegie Hall with a performer whose main goal was to just finish the concerto! Imagine how hollow each moment would sound, how rushed each note, how deeply that careful observation at each moment would be missed. And how empty the concert would ultimately leave you feeling.
As writers, every single time we sit down with our characters is like a performance at Carnegie Hall. And if we’re going to give a performance worthy of the tickets, we’ve got to find a way to stay present in the moment no matter how much anxiety we feel.
That means we have to find a way to stay present at each moment of the rewrite, exploring the opportunities, rather than racing to the solutions, getting the most out of each moment on the page rather than racing to get off of it!
John Cleese refers to this process as allowing yourself to sit in the discomfort of not knowing, noting that the writers who succeed are often not the ones for whom writing comes most easily, but rather the ones who are willing to sit in this discomfort longer, in order to find the solutions and the opportunities that no one else could have imagined.
But to write in this way, you have to let go of your need to fix your script and embrace the idea that the very problems you fear may present the greatest opportunities.
It’s not the smooth, normal, perfectly formed elements that make a story so compelling. It’s the rough edges that catch us off guard, and take our breath away. In fact, it’s often the elements that the common wisdom tells us to fix that actually become the most compelling aspects of our stories.
Think about the movies and TV shows that inspire the most passion in their audiences and you’ll notice how much they fly in the face of convention. The writer of Guardians of the Galaxy begins a comedic action movie with a heart wrenching scene about the loss of a little boy’s mother. Breaking Bad forces us to fall in love with what should be one of the most despicable main characters ever written, surprising us at every turn with the depths of his depravity. Transparent follows the coming out story of an aging trans-gendered man without following any of the expected complications about his children’s intolerance.
Why do these films and TV shows get away with breaking the rules in this way? Because rather than asking “how do I fix it?” the writers asked themselves “how do I make it work?” and allowed themselves to get creative about challenging the status quo, and getting the story they really wanted to tell onto the page.
Doing this means setting aside your own anxieties and much of the common wisdom of screenwriting and taking a leap of faith in the power of your authentic creative voice.
If you need help with this, you may want to take one of our Meditative Writing classes, or some other class that helps you get in touch with those creative instincts.
Screenplay Revision Tip #5 – Beware Written Notes
To paraphrase the great novelist Neil Gaiman: When someone tells you exactly what’s wrong with your writing and exactly how to fix it, they are almost always wrong (even when they’re right).
But when someone shares their genuine experience of your writing, they are almost always right, (even when they’re wrong).
The biggest problem with written notes is not just that they tend to ignore the first four tenets of rewriting (focusing on the details rather than the goals, the overwhelming checklist rather than the simple north star, what’s wrong rather than what’s right, and the quick fixes rather than the creative opportunities. They ignore the very nature of revision, which is an ever changing and fluid process, rather than a fixed sequence of events.
As anyone who’s ever re-written a screenplay knows, screenplays are such intricately woven tapestries; even the tiniest change in one aspect of the story can have vast consequences for every other element of the script. You pull one thread and the whole tapestry unravels. Pull another and an element you never even imagined was related suddenly shifts and changes and pulls into focus.
A real development process should be an evolving conversation, between the people working on the script, the writer, the producer, and each draft of the script itself.
Screenplay Development Is A Complex Process
Sometimes the real problems in our scenes don’t exist in the scenes themselves, but in the scenes around them. And other times a scene that works brilliantly in an early draft ends up distracting from the heart of the story as the overall structure around it changes and evolves.
That’s why the best notes don’t exist in a vacuum or written in stone by some underpaid coverage reader or overworked development executive, who has barely had time to fully read your script, much less think deeply about the full implications of their suggestions.
The best notes exist as part of an evolving context: a continuing conversation between writer and producer, writer and director, or writer and mentor, that considers not only the shifting state of the script at each phase of the revision, but also the writer’s overall goals for the project.
In order to know your notes are going to actually be helpful, you’ve got to know that you and the person giving you the notes are working toward the same goals, holding the same priorities from both a commercial and artistic perspective and building the same script!
This isn’t usually a problem when screenplays are working perfectly. In those cases, the writer’s intentions are usually coming across quite clearly. But in early drafts where things still aren’t working (the drafts you actually need help with!), those intentions are often hard to fully understand because they’re obscured by challenges in the writer’s art and craft. Which means, at best, the notes are guessing at the writer’s intention and might be completely invalidated or redirected if only the person giving the notes truly understood what the writer was building.
Think about how long it would take you to write the perfect written notes for a writer. How many times would you have to read their script to figure out every nuance of what they’re building? How many times would you have to rewrite your notes to make sure you anticipate every kind of response or concern the writer might have and to anticipate how those notes might need to change as the rewrite evolved.
Then think about how much time the average producer, coverage reader, agent, or manager actually has to write those notes.
Written Notes Can Lead To Development Hell
The failures of the development process are so well known in Hollywood that there’s even a name for it: Development Hell. That curious process by which a team of highly paid executives try so hard to “perfect” a good script with their well-intentioned suggestions that they end up with a lump of formulaic mush that absolutely no one wants to make.
Yet often there is such a strong desire simply to have someone tell us what to do that we accept any notes we receive as if they were gospel, building checklists for ourselves of all the changes we need to make, without any context for what those suggestions are actually meant to achieve or how they serve the overall goals of the script.
That’s Not To Say That Notes Can’t Be Helpful.
Speak to any writer, and they are likely to wax poetic about the mentors who allowed them to succeed in this industry and upon whom they depended, and still depend, for feedback about their screenplays.
For me personally, I owe my career to a man named Peter Parnell, who showed me what it really was to be a writer and how to find my voice.
And, for writers who don’t already have this kind of mentorship, there are options like our ProTrack program that can pair you with professional writers who can mentor you on a weekly or bi-weekly basis through each step of writing and revising your script.
But, no matter who you’re receiving notes from, it’s vital to know that all feedback is not created equal, and no matter who those notes are coming from, the only notes that really matter are the ones that come from you. The notes that open up a door for you, that open up the heavens of your creativity, that inspire you and push you beyond the limits of who you knew you could be as a writer.
The notes that bounce up against that initial intention you set, that north star by which you’re navigating, the things that are beautiful in your script, and the journey of sitting in the discomfort of not knowing… and help you reach that point where you know. Not because someone told you, but because you saw it, heard it, felt it, knew it in your soul.
Happy writing & happy rewriting!
– Check out Part 2 of this Top 10 Revision Tips podcast series!
What a great way to start the new year. Such wisdom is invaluable, like a gem, it continues to shine.