Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Step 6, by Christopher Riley

“There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”                                                                                   –Louis D. Brandeis

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

Step 6: Rewrite

by Christopher Riley, Author of The Hollywood Standard

The only note you really want to hear from your readers is one that prominently features the word “brilliant.” (Shakespeare in Love, Universal, 1998)

Having finished your first draft, you now possess a tangible expression of your movie, something you can throw down in front of a film-loving friend or a fellow screenwriter whose wisdom and taste you trust.

Step 6a: Getting notes.

If you’re as insecure as I am, the only note you want to hear from your readers is one that prominently features the words “brilliant” and “don’t change a word.” Nonetheless, you now ask your trusted pals to read your script and give you something you must learn to draw out of them and treasure: a frank and accurate description of what your movie looks and feels like to them. You’ve designed your story to surprise your audience, or to throw suspicion on a red herring and divert it away from the true culprit, or you’ve crafted a joke or action sequence or dramatic confrontation to evoke laughter or adrenaline or tears.

You only know if you’ve succeeded when actual readers become your first audience and tell you what they experience when they take in your movie page by page. Find out where they’re confused. Make them tell you where they’re bored. Do they root for your hero, willing to trade their lives for his, or do they hope he sinks in a tar pit? Where did they laugh? Did you, um, want them to laugh at that point?

Gather notes from as many trusted readers as you can recruit. The number should be no smaller than three. Four or five wouldn’t be too many. (An important caveat:  If you know Scorsese or the Coen boys, don’t bring them into the mix yet. Save your industry connections for later in the process, after your baby learns to walk. You only get one shot with the pros so you want to make it your best.) Either get your readers to put their notes in writing or you put their notes in writing for them, the good and the bad, what works and what doesn’t.  Make a neat stack.

Step 6b: Digest and evaluate the notes.

Hollywood screenwriter, Gil (Owen Wilson) refuses to take notes on his novel until fate provides him with the best beta-readers in history. (Midnight in Paris, Sony Pictures, 2011)

Read through the notes thoughtfully, remembering that your worth doesn’t derive from what you write and what others think about what you’ve written. If you’re going to be a screenwriter, you’d best solve that riddle now. Understand that you possess worth because you’re a human being, loved and loving despite your many imperfections. Cling to that as you read these notes. Where do you find consensus? Writers often say if one person gives a note, they can ignore it. If two people give the same note, they have to think about it. And if three people give the same note, they have to make the fix.

An important caution when dealing with notes: listen not so much for solutions as for the problem the suggestion is intended to remedy. You’re the writer so you will often know a better solution that is truer to your characters than will your readers. But notes come from somewhere and as farfetched as some notes will sound, they usually point to a problem in the script. That’s because readers who are breathlessly turning pages to find out what happens next to a character about whom they’re desperately worried forget they’re reading a script. They think they’re watching a great movie. And people watching a great movie don’t stop to write notes. (Note to self: Stop hating people who give me notes.)

Step 6c: Read your own script.

If you’ve had the luxury of letting some time pass since you finished the draft, you’ll see with fresh eyes things about your script that will surprise you. You’ll groan at bits that don’t work at all. And you may well experience the wonderful surprise of reading something that works so well you can’t quite believe you wrote it. Write down your reactions to the script, including the stuff that works really well. As important as knowing what to jettison is knowing what to hold onto. Decide, based on your own reading of your script, your opinion of each of the notes you’ve received. Where do the real problems lie? What makes this script work? What needs to change? Where can you make it better?

Step 6d: Make a rewrite plan.

Once you’ve identified the problems you’re going to fix and the weaknesses you’re going to strengthen, list them in some orderly manner. Go back to your prep documents: beat sheet, treatment, Eight Essential Story Points, character work. Brainstorm solutions to each problem and add those to your list of problems to be fixed.

Step 6e: Execute your plan.

His friends may be psychopaths, but their notes help Marty the screenwriter (Colin Farrell) finish his script. (7 Psychopaths, BFI, 2012)

Sometimes you’ll implement all your notes in a single, global pass through the script. If the work is extensive, this amounts to what is commonly called a page one rewrite. Other times, you’ll make several separate passes through the script, with a different focus for each. I recently completed a theme pass on a film I’m writing, giving my complete attention to understanding and clarifying what the story is about, what it means both to my characters and to me. You might do the same for page count. Or for budget. Or for a character’s arc, charting the moments where she grows and changes throughout the script. You could do a dialogue polish or a comedy punch-up. Or you might give your attention to subplots, maybe the romance that’s threaded through the action.

I make a habit of going through my scripts last of all to remove needless words, hoping to please Mssrs. Strunk and White and improve the force and clarity of my writing in the bargain. Remember to proofread your script for format, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typos.

Rewrite and Rewrite Again

When you’ve done all you know to do, it’s time to return to step 6a, looping through this stage, rewriting, polishing and wordsmithing until your readers sit up all night because they can’t put your script down and when the sun comes up they begin cold-calling agents and producers on your behalf, begging them to read you because your story and storytelling are simply that good. It can happen. But only to those who stick with the meal bite by bite until they’ve eaten the whole shoe.

Read all of Christopher Riley’s Series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

See Also: My Writing Rules: How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life, by Genevieve Parker Hill

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