It's often said in the screenplay writing game that "writing is rewriting". You occasionally hear about a successful movie based on a screenplay that was written in just two weeks. A more typical case is the wonderful Tom Hanks movie Cast Away which took 5 years and 250 rewrites from the first draft until it was reshaped and polished into an award winning film.
Filmmakers need to accept that the more they rewrite a screenplay the better it gets -- if they do it right.
If you try to perfect your script as you first write it you'll never finish it. Once you've created your characters and outlined your plot then just write the darned thing. It should take two to four weeks. If you find you're struggling then you haven't outlined your plot well enough. Back up a step before proceeding.
I assume you now have a first draft of your screenplay in front of you. Congratulations filmmaker! Take a couple of weeks off.
Seriously! You need the time to clear your head and be able to look at your work with fresh eyes before you start the first screenplay rewrite.
Unless you have a writing buddy you really trust I strongly suggest you don't show this first draft to anyone else. There are too many typos and little problems that will turn people off who don't understand the creative process. You want to save their opinions for later when you've rewritten your script as well as you can on your own.
You shouldn't consider showing your work to the world until you've finished the steps below, and then only to people who understand it's a work in process. Then be sure to tell them it's just the first draft. That's what the pros do. They go through numerous rewrites before they declare they have arrived at the first draft.
Movie screenplay rewriting
Movie screenplay rewriting is almost an art of its own. Rewriting requires a special mind-set and set of skills every writer needs to develop. It is a very important part of the filmmaking process.
Most beginning writers assume screenplay rewriting consists of going through the script line by line and fixing any typos or grammatical errors. After a couple of such passes they're bored and the screenplay is still weak. Your screenplay rewrite will take time but there is a way to make it go as fast as possible and, more importantly, make significant improvements in your script in the process.
To be most efficient while making your script better requires being organized and starting with the big picture. Work on the elements that might require the most extensive restructuring first and gradually work down to the small stuff that only effects a few words at a time.
Take a break for a few days at any point if necessary to get fresh perspective. Then do your screenplay rewrite the way the pros do. Make a series of passes through your screenplay, each time concentrating on one or two elements. For each numbered item in the following list go through the entire screenplay. I suggest you only make notes until you get to step 7. You need time to think and consider your first changes.
- Is the hero really a hero and the villain really a villain? Is it clear which is which? Are they both really alive, clever and fascinating and a worthy opponent in their own way? In the end is it the hero's remarkable actions that save the day? Your audience isn't interested in bland and boring. Rewrite the hero and villain until they're great.
- Is there a powerful and credible conflict between the hero and villain? I'm talking life or death stuff, not just a little misunderstanding. They both want something, need something, but they can't both have it. Rewrite until the conflict grabs you emotionally.
- Are the characters great, real, alive, right and consistent? Final Draft lets you create a character report that lists only the dialog for one character at a time. Does each character's dialog sound true and consistent with who they are when you read it out loud all by itself? Does it sound different from all the other characters? Is it real enough that a reader could tell the sex, education level, social status, where they grew up and approximate age of the character just by reading the dialog without knowing who they are? Rewrite the dialog until each character sounds unique.
- Are the minor characters as true and unique in some ways as the hero and villain? Never write generic characters. No POLICEMAN #1 but rather SAM POTTS, 50 year-old, overweight policeman with two children to get through college and a secret, teenage mistress. None of this may ever come out in the story but having this much richness behind even the minor characters will make your script's dialog and actions true and the whole story richer.
- What is the best and most memorable scene in your script? Now what is the weakest scene? Cut it. If the scene is weak then fix it or kill it and move what you need to another scene. One weak scene slows down and weakens your entire script. Remove the weakest link from the chain and the chain gets stronger. When that scene is fixed, cut or rewrite the next weakest scene and repeat the process until your story is so tight you can't possibly remove anything else.
- What are the major motivations of the various lead characters? There should be at least three in total, probably more. Are they powerful, strong, life or death level issues? Are they believably introduced? Are they in complete conflict with each other?
- Now go through and make your first screenplay rewrite based on the notes and margin notations you've made up until now. Movie screenplays are blueprints for building a movie. Don't be afraid to substantially change your story at this stage of the rewriting process. Save your original version so you can go back if necessary.
- Is your story an emotional roller-coaster ride from start to finish? Just when it looks like things might calm down something else should happen to start up the tension again. Rewrite and move scenes so there are no long dead patches in the story.
- Are your sentences of different lengths and matching the pacing of the story? Sentences should be short and choppy during the fastest action, longer and more descriptive during the slow passages.
- Remove all adjectives, adverbs, sentences and paragraphs you don't absolutely need. Your audience won't be able to see the word pictures you are painting in your text so get your idea over as compactly as possible.
- Are the characters under stress and wanting something in every scene? Even if they only want a glass of water your actors need motivation in every scene so give them some action and something to be striving for. This jacks up the tension and keeps the audience involved. Keep rewriting.
- Read the first sentence on page one. Is it interesting enough to make you want to go on to the next sentence? Keep rewriting until it does. Read the first page. Is it interesting enough to make you want to turn to page two? Keep rewriting until it does. If you hadn't written this would you think it was really interesting? Compare your script to your favorite screenplays or novels. Do you really need this slow introduction or could you skip to the first big exciting scene and slip this introductory information in later? Did you start your story and every scene as late as you possibly can and still make sense? Does every scene end the moment it has served it's primary purpose?
- Try changing the order of words in your sentences to see if they sound better and more natural. Read them out loud. Final Draft has a function to read your script to you out loud. The voice is very flat and mechanical but that's what you want. A good speaker could make crap sound great. If your screenplay is exciting and the dialog sounds good when a computer reads it, just think how it will sound when great actors speak the lines!
- Kill your babies! Those favorite scenes or images that you love so much need to go. Often the first images that came to you as you were developing your idea have very little to do with what your story is about now. Parents always love and protect their children no matter how ugly and troublesome they are. Don't get into that trap. If the scene isn't absolutely necessary it has to go. All the pros know that the beloved babies have to be killed.
- Are there any places where nothing visual happens for two pages? Rewrite to make something happen. Movies are all about movement. Talking heads are boring after two minutes to your audience no matter how interesting the words are. Picture a 14 year-old boy with attention deficit disorder. If you can keep him interested while your characters prattle on then you're doing well. Put a ticking bomb under the table while your hero is having his "dinner with Andre" and your audience will be on the edge of their seats.
- If any single character's dialog is more than about three sentences long break it up. In real life no one lets us talk for that long without interrupting or doing something themselves. Rewrite to put in an interruption or action paragraph every few sentences.
- Is the beginning really the most exciting beginning to a movie ever? Does it pass the "popcorn" test by being so involving that your audience forgets they were going to run out and buy popcorn during the credits?
- Does the ending tie up the story. It doesn't have to be a happy ending but it should be clear and precise. Even if there isn't a winner, rewrite until there is no doubt where the characters stand and what actions and choices are left to them. How is the audience supposed to feel when the movie is over? You are the storyteller. You should be in control of your audience.
- Are you using the correct words, proper grammar, the right spelling? This stuff is much less important than having a strong story so I waited until late in the process to get to this one but now is time. If there are any weak phrases, imprecise words or awkward constructions, fix them now. Later you'll want your anal-retentive friend, who knows every grammar rule by heart, to double check you, of course!
- Make the changes for any additional notes you have, then put your screenplay aside for a couple of weeks. When it is out of your mind come back and read it again. Start at step 1 and go throgh all the questions and suggestions again. Rewrite to fix anything that breaks the audience's total immersion in the story.
Congratulations Filmmaker! You have completed your screenplay rewrite but you're not done. You now have a "first draft" ready to start showing to your most avid reader friends to give you feedback. Ask them one at a time so you can think them over, incorporate any good suggestions and reprint it before you give it to the next person.
Do not argue with any suggestions people give you. Saying: "You just didn't get it. What I was trying to show was..." serves no purpose at this point. If they didn't get it then the problem is a lack of clarity in what you wrote, not in the reader. Don't give excuses. Don't apologize. Just listen and take notes for the next screenplay rewrite.
If they really want you to explain something wait until you have all their feedback before you start talking. You don't want to do anything that might stop the flow of their suggestions or change their first reaction.
Be polite, write down what they say, encourage them to say more and be more honest with you, then go away and think about what they said after you've had time to absorb it and gotten over any feelings of personal failure because they didn't love every word of what you wrote.
Generally speaking it is a good sign if readers strongly love it or hate it at this point. If their reaction is bland then you haven't delivered emotion and that's the biggest failure. The basic rule of filmmaking is that your story must be exciting or no amount of screenplay rewriting is going to fix it. Find a better idea.
This film script is done
If you've followed all these steps, gotten feedback from all your friends, then your script is done. Seriously! It's done. Give it up.
If you're getting great reactions to the screenplay then move on to the next steps of trying to make it into a movie, or trying to sell it to someone else to make into a movie. If you're not getting great reactions then put it in a drawer and move on to the next story idea.
A lot of writers get bogged down thinking that a little more work on their marginal screenplay idea will somehow make it great. Don't get into that trap. Move on to a new project. You've got better ideas just waiting to be born. Give them a chance at life, too.
Practice Makes Perfect
Some scripts just never seem to work no matter how much effort you put into the screenplay rewrite.
Dove Simens loves to say that "Your first screenplay is crap! Everyone's first screenplay is crap!"
He's right. We all love our firstborn and have no ability to be objective. Get over it. When you finish your first screenplay do what Dove suggests and burn it. Eventually you'll realize how bad it was when you've written a few more screenplays and have some experience under your belt. Being a good filmmaker requires being objective about yourself.
Writers don't begin to develop a voice of their own until at least the 5th or 6th screenplay. Rewriting makes a script better, but only original writing makes you a better writer. If the script you've just finished isn't acclaimed as great by everyone who reads it then let it go.
If you don't believe me, send your precious script to a professional reader in Hollywood for evaluation. You can find them listed in the screenplay magazines. It'll cost you a few hundred dollars but you will get objective feedback from someone who has read thousands of screenplays and knows "great" when s/he sees it.
Beware you don't send it to someone who tries to sign you on for a long and expensive consultation program. He'll tell you your script is wonderful except for a few minor problems only s/he can help you fix.
Years, dozens of minor screenplay revisions and thousands of dollars later you will still be trying to fix the last little problem. You will have spent years in denial instead of doing the only thing that will genuinely improve your writing. Doing more writing.
Practice makes perfect. Most screenplay writers don't begin to hit their stride and develop a "voice" of their own until they have written six to eight feature length screenplays, or the equivalent amount of novel or short story writing.
If you still don't believe me then just send me a couple of thousand dollars and I will tell you your screenplay is wonderful right now ... except for a couple of minor problems only I can help you fix.