WARNING, HORRENDOUSLY LONG POST
As a rule I try not to give advice; partly because there are so many people giving advice on their blogs, a couple of whom actually know what they’re talking about, and partly because I think you’d have to be batshit crazy to believe anything I have to say.
However, on this occasion I’ve had a specific request; namely: how do I approach rewrites, in particular the back to basics complete and total overhaul type?
Well, for me, this is quite rare. Most of the film projects I’ve been involved in have been producer (or director) initiated where I’ve been hired to create a story around their vague ramblings. In those circumstances this kind of total revamp doesn’t really happen because the genre, story, structure, characters and tone are all discussed at every stage from concept through synopsis, treatment and first draft. Generally speaking, the first draft is close enough to what was asked for to make any further rewrites just minor tweaks. If I delivered a draft which was so unsuitable it needed stripping back to basics and re-working then I’d more than likely be replaced.
So I’ve only done this process three times, twice when I’ve replaced another writer (or writers) and once which is ongoing – a spec script which needs revamping at the behest of the new director. There are two slightly different processes here because of my familiarity with my own story versus coming cold to someone else’s idea; but I’ll try to amalgamate them into some kind of coherent method which can be replicated.
First thing to ask yourself is why are you rewriting this script? To make it better is not an answer, because what does ‘better’ mean? Does it need to be funnier, shorter, more violent … what needs changing? Look at this way, if you decided to improve your home, would you pick up a sledge hammer and randomly demolish walls until you’d made the house ‘better’? Or would you set out with the intention to knock the living room and dining room into one, or create an extra bedroom in the loft? Hopefully, the latter – you’d decide what your goal is and then work out what needs to be done to achieve it.
It’s the same with rewriting – you need to know what the end goal is.
One of the scripts I rewrote, the director described it as if someone had seen an action film once, worked out what parts were needed and then flung them all in any old how – a bit like someone buying enough parts to build a car then just drawing a car shape on the floor and laying the parts out roughly where they might go: it may look vaguely like a car, but it isn’t. This was an extreme case where virtually everything needed to be slung out and redone. The first step was to find out from the director what he wanted, what was the film supposed to be about?
And this is a good point if you’re rewriting a spec script, pre-sale: scripts aren’t written in a vacuum. You may have this image in your head of the writer alone in his attic, typing away at the keyboard, whittling a script out of the depths of his imagination … doesn’t really happen.
Well, sometimes it does. Although I try not to write in the attic because it’s dark, cold and the water tank keeps going spuloing! every few minutes.
Generally scripts are written in concert with the director and producer and sometimes even the star – people chip in ideas and yay or nay everything every step of the way – at least in my experience. If professional scripts are written utilising a lot of guidance and feedback, why should your spec script be any different? Get some advice, whether it’s from a reader or TriggerStreet.com or the power of three … doesn’t matter, just get opinions. Blake Snyder advocates pitching your movie idea to people in Starbucks … that would get you glassed round my way (or at least latté-ed – which is similar but with more froth), but the principle’s sound. Get someone to tell you what they think the weak areas are and make notes – you don’t have to slavishly follow them, but they’ll help guide you.
Next thing do to is to read the script, just once and then put it to one side. Make a list of all the things you think ought to stay – what sequences work? Which scenes fulfill the promise of the premise? What images burn themselves onto your brain and insist at gun point you remember them? Put these down on index cards and put them to one side. On my own spec script rewrite, I went through it scene by scene and wrote down on index cards exactly what happened in each scene and why it was important to the film – not a blow by blow description, but an overview of what the scene is about. Bank job, sex scene, final showdown … that sort of thing. Anything I couldn’t identify in these terms became ‘pointless talking’ or ‘pointless action’ and discarded. I cut out 60 pages of script by doing this and now can’t remember what was in those scenes.
From there I’d move onto structure, story and theme – the three to me are kind of dependant on each other. I think about what the story is and how it has to unfold. For each genre there will be a vague structure which you can overlay as a template. This shouldn’t be a straight-jacket to creativity, this should be a framework for you to be creative around. Thinking about the story should give you a vague structure, just the turning points of the acts, the mid-point and, hopefully, the ending. Go through your pile of index cards and see if any of the scenes you love correspond to those points – if so, put them up on your board.
By the way, if you’re not using a board – try it, it’s fun. If you really don’t want to, then just do it mentally, or use a piece of paper, or assign scenes to different stuffed animals and arrange them around the room – whatever works for you.
Looking at the structure and the story, think about the theme – what is this film really about? What’s the underlying message which will help you choose the characters best suited to tell the story? Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes it doesn’t become clear until a later draft. If you can get it now, you’ll save yourself another rewrite further down the line.
Now’s the time to look at the characters – who do you need to tell this story in the most efficient manner? The main character should be obvious: it’s the story of a guy (or gal) who … what? The principal character should be inherent in the synopsis for the story. The other characters can be a little trickier, but there’s bound to be a vague template for what you need. For example, if it’s a rom-com you need: two lovers, one or two confidants and an antagonist. Usually you can combine at least two of those roles to make four or even three main characters.
Try and define your characters against the background of your story and theme – who do they need to be? What’s the best way to bring about the most conflict or illustrate the theme? In essence, what makes them different and the same? They might be different because one believes in monogamy and the other polygamy; but they’re the same because their defining characteristic is about their attitude to sex.
I like to create two goals for each character an internal and external goal: what do they want and what do they need? He wants to win the race, but needs to win the girl. Generally a character should achieve their internal goal with the external goal being optional – but not always. If the external goal is save the world from a bomb then … you know what? There are no rules here – tell the story you want to tell, but give the characters goals within it. Give them jobs, personalities, friends, backgrounds … the level of detail is up to you; but decide who they are, whilst leaving yourself a bit of room to discover things about them as you write.
If any of the pre-existing characters suit what you need, keep them – if they can be tweaked, do it and if they’re superfluous, junk them. Don’t get attached to any of them, if they don’t fit this story – there’s always the next script, just put them on the bench for now.
Now you know who the characters are, check the act turning points and mid-point – do they serve the characters and would the characters behave like that in those situations? If the answer’s no, then you need to rethink the story or the characters – be brutally honest with yourself, don’t think you can fudge it. Those little nagging doubts you have are really important and are generally right. Never, ever think no one will notice … they will.
You should have all the elements needed to start plotting the story properly now, so go back through that pile of cards and see if you can find out where the cool scenes belong on the board. If you can fit them into the structure, great. If not, bin them. Again, there will be other scripts and other chances to use your favourite scenes – don’t force them where they don’t belong.
From there, go into the script and delete everything which isn’t on the board – hack it all away until you’re left with the bits you know work. Then move the scenes around so they correspond with the ones on your board. This serves two functions:
- You feel like you’re actually doing something useful after all that planning.
- You can see how much space you’ve got to play with.
Index cards generally correspond to 1-3 pages of script. Obviously some will be longer and some shorter. A card saying ‘car chase’ will probably be a longer scene than ‘he finds the first clue’ – but it’s a good rule of thumb. By looking at the board and checking it against the page count you can work out roughly how many pages in each act you’ve got to fill and how many sequences/scenes you can add.
You can now start adding the rest of the meat, fill in those gaps with scenes which reveal character, move the story along and illustrate the theme. If you can, try to make every scene do all three. I try to imagine the story as a wave – each scene should follow on logically from the previous in terms of story and tone. Any sudden leaps in story or tone stand out a mile and need smoothing off – make the characters go through the whole journey, don’t just skip bits.
Finally, you can go to the script and start writing. By now you should know what the story is, whose story it is and why it’s their story and not someone else’s. I like to write everything in script order, I never skip over difficult scenes because I find it destroys my sense of story flow and makes it easier to forget bits of plot – I’m not saying I don’t write bits of placeholder dialogue now and then, or stuff I know I’m going to come back and improve, but I like to work from beginning to end; however, each to their own and this isn’t good for everyone. Hopefully this time around you’ll be able to actually tell the story you intended without needing to go through this process again.
To be honest, it’s a hell of a lot easier just to get it right the first time, but that takes experience which only comes from practise. Personally I think the best skill you can learn is how to plan things in advance, whether that’s in your head or on paper – the longer you spend thinking about what you’re going to write, the less time it takes to write and the closer it’ll be to your vision.
So … yeah, that’s how I would approach a total strip down and rebuild rewrite.
Hope that helps.