Ahhh, the rewrite. More like Arrrrrgggghhhh, the rewrite!
Tackling the rewrite can be difficult for many reasons, the least of which is the simple act of getting started. Coming off the high of finishing a rough draft (or any draft for that matter), the last thing I want to do is throw away all that hard work and sense of accomplishment by ripping into the rewrite – no matter how necessary the rewrite is. It’s a downer to step back into the pool of writing compared to the elation of strutting around bravado-chested, “Yeah, I finished my screenplay!” But as Soul II Soul sang…
Back to life, back to reality! Here are a few of my tips and tricks to get off my ass and dive into that pending rewrite.
1. COVER TO COVER READ
Sit down and do a cover to cover read of your draft. I prefer to do this from a .pdf file or a hardcopy. Block off a two hour window of time, find a quite place and read your screenplay. DO NOT MAKE ANY CORRECTIONS. Do not read from the Final Draft document while sitting at your desk. Do not have a pen in hand or take any notes. Simply read. Read your screenplay in one sitting an experience it.
There will be things you like about it. There will be things you don’t like, hate or find confusing. It’s alright. Try to take some pride in the things that are working and go easy on yourself for what isn’t. Remember writing is a process. The purpose of this reading is to reacquaint yourself with the material again after a break. We are building momentum to get this thing done.
2. READ A SCREENWRITING BOOK
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve all read a thousand screenwriting books. “I know all that stuff already,” is something I say to myself all the time. But the reality is, I’ve created a screenwriting book library on one of my bookshelves by my desk for a reason (whether I knew it at the time or not).
Flipping through your favorite screenwriting book with your last draft vaguely in the back of your mind, you might be surprised by some of the ideas, inspirations and ah-ha! moments that pop up while reading a book you’ve been over a dozen times and earmarked to death. Or Sometimes you might want to buy a new screenwriting book and start fresh.
We hear what we want to hear and learn what we are ready to learn at any given time. Reading a screenwriting book in the middle of a specific project provides answers and insights into that specific project. Again, our goal here is to build momentum for the rewrite, so any little activity you can do that gets those creative juices flowing is beneficial.
3. WATCH MOVIES – RESEARCH
Sometimes the best way to psych yourself up for writing a great script is by seeing a great movie (or reading a great screenplay). Free you creativity up by getting away from the desk. Go see a movie. Do some research into your project’s genre. See what others have done in your genre so you can grasp the fundamentals of how the genre works and/or push your screenplay away from cliches and choices that are too simple. Whether you’re doing a “Body Switch” comedy or a “Gangster Caper” watch and analyze what makes these films tick.
4. HAVE COFFEE WITH SOMEONE
Again, sometimes the best way to get the creativity going and get geared up for a rewrite is to do something totally different from writing. I like to meet people for coffee. This can be a screenwriter or filmmaker friend where we can talk about the projects we are working on. It’s a great way to get a little wind in your sail by the way of encouragement.
Having coffee with someone can also be research as well. If you’re writing a story about an fire fighter perhaps you have a friend or a friend of a friend who is a fireman. That’s a great reason to get together for a coffee (or a beer) and chat. Learn the lingo, ask questions, run ideas by your resource to see if your character and their actions are ringing true.
In the past, I’ve have had coffee with other screenwriters, filmmakers, film festival directors, and actors. Sometimes conversation was specific to my project, other times it was more general career strategy over getting noticed or getting an agent. The point being each one of those coffee breaks made me feel like I was doing this thing. Talking about specific scripts or about where I am in my process on a script, helped me feel validated and jazzed me up to keep pushing forward. This is exactly the type of energy boost I find helpful before taking the plunge into a big rewrite.
5. MAKE A PLAYLIST
I always hear the advice not to write specific songs into a spec script because it freaks producers out. They see the $$ it’ll take to have that song and they scream, “PASS!” tossing your script into the trash. That advice may or may not be beneficial. I still write in descriptions of song types like “an upbeat pop tune” or “a brooding emo song.” Sometime I’ll even do an easier fix such as “a pop song plays in the vein of Hall & Oates Maneater.” But I digress…
Create a playlist of music for your screenplay. What kind of music plays in certain scenes? Do you have bar or party scenes? What’s playing in the background? Find music that reveals your characters inner feeling for you big emotional scenes. Drop all this music into a playlist you can listen to an get inspired by. Sometimes I do this while writing a first draft and I continually add to the playlist throughout the writing process. When writing I’ll listen to it. When I hear certain songs, I’ll latch onto the vibe or attitude and imagine scenes with my characters set to the music. Music can be a great way to free up creativity by tapping into it from another angle.
6. WORK BACKWARDS - SCENE BREAKDOWN
Break down your screenplay, scene by scene. Recreate an outline of your screenplay to be able to see your scenes and their purpose clearly. When writing we make a scene for a reason, sometimes they are placeholders we are unsure about or sometimes a set up for something later to come. But once the draft is finished, did those scenes really serve their purpose?
I never go back to my old notes or outlines. The idea here is to see what is actually on the pages you have already written, not to hold on to white-knuckled what you intended to write. I like to give my scenes names and then write a brief description of what is happening. I also make notes on any important information like Set Ups, Pay Offs, Character introductions. Sometimes I even jot down things I’d like to fix or ask myself questions in these scene break downs.
What I like about this exercise is that it kind of seems like busy work. It’s very easy to work in small chucks, pick it up and put it down. It takes the daunting task of rewriting the whole screenplay and breaks it into very small, easily accomplishable tasks. Breaking down any given scene can open up a bunch of new ideas which again builds momentum. Or when scenes are working, it can give you a bit of pride and belief in yourself that helps encourage you to continue forward.
By the time you’ve finished breaking down your screenplay scene by scene you will have a greater understanding of how your story is set up and works, who the characters are, and what needs fixing. This exercise allows you to whittle down the ginormous task of rewriting into a series of areas that need fixing, giving you a road map to follow to implement those changes.
Get out of the house, buy some notecards and work with the scene breakdown you made above. More busy work? Sure, why not. The point here is that you are writing (or rewriting) what you’ve learned above allowing it to really seep in, mulling it over. I find when I transcribe information from one format to another like creating notecards from an outline or an outline from notecards my ideas (and the words I use to describe them) become clearer. I hone in more specifically on what I am trying to say and I allow for the creative subconsciousness to bubble up and get on the page.
Another benefit of the notecard process it that it allows you to easily rearrange your scene order, try out new things without ripping your screenplay to shreds. I find more often than not, I have a lot of the right scenes; they are just in the wrong order. In the writing process, my great idea of the Big Bang screenplay opening is actually more of a Break Into Act II moment. Or my Midpoint is actually my End of Act II. Playing around with notecards scattered on my desk, I can see, touch, my story and scenes. I can write new cards for new ideas and see if they fit in. Those new cards become my guide for what needs to be written. I can also divvy the cards up and work on smaller parts of the script such as only the 10-15 cards dealing with the first half of ActII. I can color code cards to track individual characters story arcs. There are so many ways to use the notecards, I find that it helps me get more into my script.
Sometimes I like to tackle a character or theme on the blank page. I’ll open up a Word .doc, type a question at the top of the page and simply let my mind go to town. I’ll ask myself, “What is this screenplay really about?” or “How do I want the audience to feel at the end when they walk out of the theater?” or “Who is my Main Character and why does the love interest fall for him/her?” This is a great way of getting the juices flowing. It allows for a little bit of fantasy about how you want your finished movie to turn out and be received which I always find not only as a great motivator, but also a great way to access ideas that have been floating around under the surface that haven’t been clearly articulated yet. Sometimes I get great new insights into my characters or new background story details.
Freewriting can be a great tool because you can freewrite about anything. It allows you to do some sort of work on the screenplay without necessarily working on the screenplay directly. Again, sometimes a change of format can help jostle free those ideas that have remained stuck in the dark.
9. CHARACTER PLAYS
Sometimes when writing my first draft, I write each act in its own file. It slices up the overwhelming task of the whole screenplay into a more manageable chunk of simply Act I, 1st half Act II, 2nd half Act II & Act III. In the rewriting stage, I find it helpful sometimes to chop up my screenplay into Character Plays. I take all the scenes a particular character is in and copy & paste them into a new document. Then I can read just their story line and see if it works, flows and makes sense. I can discover what is missing and find new scenes that need to be added or find ways to add what’s missing into scenes that already exist in already written scenes. Sometimes I do this with all the “love” scenes, to see if the relationship on current pages makes sense or holds up. If it doesn’t back to the drawing board or I try bumping up the scenes that exist by changing the location or the situation.
The best part of this exercise is that you can do it over and over again. You can do a different Character Play a day if you want. Or you do this exercise based on themes or actions like Fight Scenes and Love Scenes.
10. TABLE READINGS
I find a table reading is a great way to get a lot of great feedback on a script quickly. In fact, think table reads are so great I’ve already done a blog post about them here. Of course, you need to have a draft that you feel confident sharing with people to be able to use this tool. My first (rough) drafts I never feel comfortable showing to people, so I’m usually left to my own devices when starting the second or third drafts. But if you feel like you’ve taken a screenplay as far was you can on your own, putting together a table read is a great way to get a lot of information quickly. By hearing your script out loud, you’ll know what’s working and what isn’t. You’ll also get feedback from all your actors and you can you them as a resource to ask them questions too.
So that’s it. 10 Tips to get off your butt and get started on that rewrite. Remember, rewriting is such a complex process without a “right” or “wrong” way to work. The only “wrong” way to do it is to NOT DO ANYTHING at all. Every level of screenwriting overlaps each other in the rewrite: Story, Structure, Dialog, Character, etc. You never know where or when that great idea will rear its head, so by following the 10 suggestions above I find I get the most out of my writing. I hope it helps.
And remember, if you have a tool or technique you use in your rewriting process that’s not mentioned and it works for you, do it! And drop a line about it in the comments section below.