We've all heard "all writing is rewriting" at some point in our lives, but what goes into rewriting your screenplay and how can you tackle it like a pro?
Congratulations. I hope you're reading this because you've finished your first draft. Or third. Or tenth. The point is, you're ready to open the document back up, dust off your screenwriting software, and get into rewriting. Or, maybe, your manager got you a rewrite gig, and you're not sure where to begin. Screenplay rewrites are hard!
Regardless, today we're going to go over the skills and steps you need to tackle your rewrite and get the most out of the draft.
So let's get started before I change my mind on the intro and go back to perfect it.
What's a rewrite?
In professional screenwriting terms, a rewrite is when you reopen a finished screenplay or pilot file and go back inside to alter or punch-up parts of the dialogue, scenes, or the entire thing.
What's a "page one" rewrite?
A page one rewrite is one that entails throwing out everything except the concept. It happens all the time. It's why people call it "development hell." But it can be a great, fresh way for a writer to sink their teeth into an idea without being beholden to the ideas and situations came before them.
Who's rewriting their scripts?
All good writers.
And movie producers. And studios. And directors. And even some actors have writers come in to do a polish or rewrite for their characters.
The business of screenwriting means you'll probably have a bigger and longer career rewriting screenplays than selling specs. And to make sure that career happens, you're going to need to master how to plan and rewrite screenplays. That's not too hard. It's just fixing what's broken inside them like a mechanic.
As John August put it in his blog, “Decide out what you want to accomplish, then figure out which scenes would need to change.” We'll go over that. But first, check out this link to ScriptNotes where John August and Craig Mazin talk about how to strategize the rewrite process.
August goes on to say:
The biggest problem with most rewrites is that you start at page one, which is already probably the best-written page in the script. You tweak as you go, page after page, moving commas and enjoying your cleverness — all the while forgetting why you’re rewriting the script. Instead, you need to stop thinking of words and page and focus on goals. Are you trying to increase the rivalry between Helen and Chip? Then look through the script — actually printed script, not the one on screen — and find the scenes with Helen and Chip. Figure out what could be changed in those scenes to meet your objectives. Then look for other scenes that help support the idea. Scribble on the paper. Scratch out lines. Write new ones.
And we'll get into the three steps of how you can rewrite your screenplay and attack your pages with emphasis and direction.
How to handle a rewrite
If you're attacking your rewrite, be prepared to rip it to shreds. But things are different if you're rewriting someone else. If you're rewriting your material, you don't have anyone to offend. But if you're hired on a rewrite, there's some protocol. Also, if someone is hired to rewrite you, don't be a dick and follow this protocol too. First thing, buy the person you're hired to rewrite some dinner. Get to know them, their work on the idea, if they're the first writer in, and what they tried with plot and character.
Then, when you're rewriting them, don't touch every word. Chances are you'll be hired to do a structural pass or dialogue or maybe to beef up the set pieces. You move and touch what's necessary, but don't over-change things to make it go your way.
If someone is rewriting you, hand over a copy of the screenplay file, write the ma note, and don't be afraid to talk about your experiences on the project. If they don't offer you dinner, that's annoying, but it's not personal. This is just business. And some people have fewer manners.
So, by rule, be polite, be specific, and don't change what you don't have to. The executives will tell you what to do. Listen, make your plan, and write forward.
Let's go over a few steps to make sure your rewrite comes across as a success.
The Three Steps of Rewriting Your Screenplay
Rewriting any story, movie or pilot, can be a daunting task. There's so much to do that you can get overwhelmed easily and not truly commit to making the changes. You could also be too confident, or too scared, and be afraid to make the major changes you needed. So instead you tweak some dialogue and call it a day.
I wrote this post to challenge you to get better not only as a writer but as a rewriter. So let's go over the three steps you should take to tackle this rewrite.
Script Rewrite Step One: Where do you want to end?
Start your rewrite from 10,000 feet. But backward. I like to make a list of goals of what I think the end of the rewrite should look like. What's my ideal finished product? What genre do I want it to fit inside? Budget range? Once I have the shell of what I think this story should be, then I make a list of what needs to happen inside for thee goals to be achieved.
Do I need to cut characters? Change locations?
This is where you need to be BRUTAL. Get a second opinion, don't pull punches, and always be honest with yourself and with the people who have hired you to work on the screenplay. If this thing needs a page one, understand what that takes. And be ready to explain why it needs that sort of work.
The list matters - you're working as your development executive here. So take your time and don't go nuts, even if the list winds up being long.
Once I have everything down in a list I move onto the next step.
Script Rewrite Step Two: Make another outline!
That's right, after all that work, I sit and I re-outline the movie. I need to look at the scenes in order. What needs to be added, taken away? Do I need to change the intention of any of these scenes? Once I have every scene outlined, I'll feel okay to start writing. Since I have the foundation of my goals in the first step, I always know what I'm writing toward.
Outlining is not easy - you can get lost and forget the structure. But I like to think about the conflict in every scene.
Give your characters obstacles and make sure they add up in the themes you're trying to explore.
Script Rewrite Step Three: Perform surgery.
Here's where you actually begin to type. Add a line here, take one away from there, bolster with scenes that help develop and arc characters. You need to write with intention. You can add voice to your original work and try to mimic the voice put forth by others. Remember, the rewrite is totally specific and important. As you add and subtract it can get messy, so make sure you're always pressing "save."
Script Rewrite Bonus Step: Rewrite again...then polish it.
Once you're done rewriting its time to...rewrite? Sure, you may have tackled it once and made it work, but it's time to tackle it again and again until you think it's ready for the world. Then you need to polish it. See, this is an ongoing process. You rewrite to give it to your manager. You rewrite based on their notes; then you rewrite again once you get a producer attached. Then they get a director attached, and you'll probably rewrite for them too. Hopefully, someone has purchased this screenplay, and all those rewrites are built into your contract and paid. But a lot of times they're not. So try to avoid free work if you can.
But don't avoid a rewrite, because a polished and tight screenplay is easier to sell than a mess.
What's next? Join our pilot writing seminar!
Want to learn how to write a TV pilot? You've come to the right place. Breaking into Hollywood with a writing career is one of the hardest things you can do. Fewer and fewer movies are being made every year, and now, many young writers are turning to television to find jobs. But to get a job in television, you need a sample. Samples are speculative pilot scripts that your agent or manager can hand to showrunners to prove your worth. Sure, there are lots of other factors behind getting staffed, but a great pilot increases your chances of getting in a room because...well...you can sell it. Hollywood is all about betting on yourself and creating your opportunities.
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This article is both a good description of the Hollywood writing process, and an object lesson in why Hollywood scripts are awful.
April 21, 2019 at 10:06PM
I'm glad you enjoyed it?
April 26, 2019 at 8:32AM
So many rules for screenwriting! And all the examples break at least some of the rules. So, pretty much you can do whatever you want.
February 17, 2020 at 12:11PM