If you’re not spending the majority of your time rewriting your screenplay, you’re making a huge mistake.
Back when Chelsea and I first started screenwriting, rewrites were quick and easy.
We thought to ourselves “Our concept is good,” (it wasn’t) “Our characters are great,” (they weren’t) and “Our story works” (it didn’t).
To put this in perspective, before Chelsea and I really learned to rewrite, our scripts didn’t get any attention.
Now that we've changed our rewriting process, we’ve been hired to write two feature films. One of them is just a few weeks away from filming.
The ball would have been rolling a lot sooner if we had focused more of our time and energy on the rewrite process.
Pretty stupid, right?
Fast forward to today. I see people making the same mistakes we made. They’re embarking on ineffective rewrites, not making any real progress on their scripts.
In this article I’ll share the three essential components to every rewrite, along with one big rewriting tip that could change the way you write forever...
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I know because Chelsea and I worked like this for a considerable amount of time. We’d finish a draft, put it down for a week, and then jump right back in.
Today, we can't believe that this was our process. But plenty of screenwriters work like this, and few of them write successful scripts.
Learn from our mistakes. You need to get a second, third and fourth opinion before you take a new pass at your script.
Only then can you begin an effective rewrite. But not before you...
Separate the Good From the Bad
When you’re just starting out, it can be hard to tell the good from the bad. But that doesn’t mean you should use every note you get.
When in doubt, trust yourself.
Your readers are not in your head. They are bringing their own taste and opinions and perspective to your work. It is a very real possibility that they are simply not seeing the same movie you are.
For example: If you see a moment as quietly funny and they see it as big and broad, they're watching a movie that's entirely different than the one you wrote.
To a certain extent you can use your writing to control what movie your readers see in their minds.
But if your script is being read by people with bad (or even different) taste, their notes will be less constructive than they first appear.
Disclaimer: If you're just starting out as a screenwriter, you're not going to be able to tell the good notes from the bad quite yet. You're still refining your taste, so you'll incorporate bad notes more often than you'd like. That's okay.
Screenwriting is about experimenting. But always remember to trust yourself first. When we were just starting out, Chelsea and I embarked on huge rewrites based on notes that didn't really resonate with us. Our drafts got worse and worse until we found the confidence to reject ideas that didn't work for us.
The more you write, the more confident you become with your voice, the better you'll become at rejecting bad notes and taking good ones.
Ultimately, you should feel comfortable rejecting 90% of the notes you get. And a watered down vision will ruin your script.
Seriously Consider Starting Again
Now you need to respect those notes. Really dive deep into them. If you’re honest with yourself, you will often find that these few notes are symptoms of large, ubiquitous problems.
It’s hard to hear, but more often than not, you’d be better off just starting again.
This isn’t a widely held opinion, and it certainly isn’t universally applicable, but it’s something Chelsea and I apply to our own writing with almost every script we write.
Look at it this way...
Rewriting the traditional way, without starting from page one, is like taking a road trip from NY to Hollywood with terrible directions.
You may end up at your destination, but you'll waste a lot of gas on pointless detours along the way.
When you’re driving back to the East Coast, would you stick with the directions you followed the first time, making sporadic changes one at a time? Not if you could take a direct route, you wouldn’t.
And that’s why we go back to page one.
Second drafts often call for big revisions. When you try to weave these changes into a pre-existing draft, you’re creating a patch work that readers will be able to spot a mile away.
But when you start from scratch, you can draw a whole new outline. You can correct the big problems from your previous draft before you even start to write.
Here are the three big reasons this approach works so well for us:
- It's Faster: The second draft goes much faster than the first one. You've already had a practice run, after all.
- It's More Organized: Keeping track of all the small details in a rewrite gives me a headache.
- It's More Creative: There's nothing as liberating as re-thinking every single aspect of your script. Going back to square one will enable you to see more clearly, and it will give you new, better ideas for your next draft.
But you’ll never know if you don’t consider the page one rewrite. Often a ‘worst case scenario’ for writers, it’s actually the secret little pill that could save your ailing script.
Is this technique a crazy waste of time?
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