‘Tis I, one of the rare breed Peoplewholook Forwardtorewritingicus (that’s not, I don’t, I just– no). The thing about writing, the reason why most of the time it makes me want to shave my own skin off– and I don’t shave– is because when you’re getting the words on paper for the first time, they never turn out the way you wanted them to. The great thing about rewrites is that you can turn that lump of cliches, terrible characters and on-the-nose dialogue into something good, and maybe even what yu wanted the script to turn out like.
So I have laid out some steps on how to rewrite a script. Because I can.
1. Cut — I used to hate this step, hate this tip, hate anyone who gave this advice. Because my first few scripts ended up much shorter than intended. Much shorter (a fantasy script of mine was supposed to be 90 pages and ended up being less than 30). But if you used an outline, or maybe are just so incompetent that you ended up with 30 pages of plot and 60 pages of nothing, you’ll have things to cut. Cut anything that is not needed or redundant. If you realize that you actually did need it, you can add it back in later.
2. Concept and plot — Does it shine through in every scene? Do you abandon it on page 12? Can you write a good logline? Obviously you can’t change the concept without having to create a whole new script (although some people think you should start the script from beginning each draft anyways, but I digress) but you can make sure it’s interesting and that it has stakes. Fucking stakes. I’ve got an idea for a movie rattling around in my head, and I have for 3 years now. I started writing the script recently, and I realized it has no stakes. So I made a change that gave it loads of stakes, but that completely changed everything, including the most basic premise (a movie about Canada). This story has absolutely nothing to do with anything, it just bugs me.
3. Characters — Repeat after me: YOUR PROTAGONIST MUST CHANGE AND BE INTERESTING. They don’t have to be likable, or cool, or hot or anything (although if you’re writing them as a nice person, and they become an asshole, you may want to fix that). But they must change and be interesting. This goes for your secondary characters too. Okay, not all of the secondary characters need to change from asshole to nice, or bigot to nice, or a person that hates cats to nice, but they have to be more than props. And they have to have logical reasons for the things they do.
4. Conflict – Is the conflict good? Is it actually there? That’s where those fucking stakes come in again. Fucking fuckers. And the conflict must bleed through in each scene, like the plot, and it has to have logic. I like what Nostalgia Chick said in her review of Wild Wild West regarding the conflict between Will Smith’s and Kevin Kline’s characters, and how it isn’t set up at all: “One’s a (mumble) and the other’s a (mumble).” Don’t mumble the conflict (that could have been clever if I gave it a few minutes).
5. Emotions – I used to hate this one too, but what should the audience feel when they are finished reading the script/watching the movie. What should they feel at the end of each scene? Actually I still kind of hate this one. But it does seem necessary. You gotta get them to feel some strong emotions in order to be invested. Or something.
6. Logic – Something that helps immensely is to ask “why?” to every plot point, character flaw and virtue, and choice. “Why is the protagonist going to kill his brother?” Because his brother is a terrorist that has already killed hundreds. “Why does this woman have such a huge ego?” Because she used to have immense self-esteem issues and a therapist taught her to just act like she’s awesome. Etc.
7. Structure – Okay I’m not going to tell you to line your beats up exactly with a Save the Cat beat sheet, because it takes a lot of time and ends up leaving some scripts slightly off. But there are certain things that a script needs: inciting incident, mid-point, dark point, climax, resolution, and they do have to happen around the right time. Unless you’re not doing a traditional three-act movie, which is cool. But follow Xander Bennett’s advice and break tradition in a spectacular way, so people don’t think you’re an idiot that can’t write. And make sure the script flows.
8. Do you need this? – Does this need to be there? Does it move the plot forward? Could the movie be the same without it? Shit needs to have dual purposes. Developing character, plot, genre, etc.
9. Dialogue – It should develop character and move the plot forward but not just be a bunch of mindless exposition. And every character needs to have a unique voice. Dialogue also has subtext, something which I usually forget. Does your protagonist talk to his friends and mom and boss all the same way? You (and I) might want to change that. Unless they speak down to everyone because they’re assholes. That’s cool then.
10. Action – “Show, don’t tell. But don’t have too much action and description.” Quoth Arthur from Arthur (the children’s animated show, not the movie): “Aaaaaaaargh!” These bits of advice show up all the fucking time. They seem to contradict each other, but they don’t. Well, they sort of do. Basically, don’t write too much action down, but don’t fill the dialogue with exposition like it’s your stomach and the exposition is a buffet (yum). It has a lot to do with what the actors do. Action < Dialogue < Actors acting. Remember to keep it short. Don’t make character introductions all about appearances, especially clothes. Don’t put action in the parentheticals.
11. Cliches – This one should be obvious. Go through and look for cliches. Plots, subplots, characters, jokes, deaths, dialogue, set pieces, plot points can all be made more original. So do it.
12. Theme – It must be evident without being obvious. And if you must make it obvious, do it at the beginning. “Why don’t you just be yourself– you’ll be happier that way” is a little painful three pages in, but to state the theme at the end is not only painful but insulting to the audience.
13. Genre – The genre should be evident from page 1. It’s a genre bender? Okay, fine, I heard those don’t sell well but what the hell do I know. They should still know what genres you’re bending. Shaun of the Dead didn’t take 40 pages/minutes for the first zombie, or the first joke, to show up. Add more genre, just not at the extent of plot and character. Don’t have your quiet, shy nerd character suddenly shout out a raunchy sex joke. Although sometimes out-of-character moments are the funniest (bending expectations, yada yada).
14. Can this be better? – Also an obvious one (fun drinking game: take a shot every time the word “obvious” comes up in this article). Read the script. Read it on a computer, print it out and read it, read different parts at different times, read it backwards, take a break and read it again. Then go fix whatever’s broke. And whatever isn’t broke, but is outdated or ugly. Anything that could be better needs to be fixed. And almost everything can be better.
15. Troubleshooting – This is for things that are still bugging you, and other people. What a perfect time to get notes from a professional script reader. Or your mom. Or both. Get a lot of notes. You don’t have to force everyone you know to read your script, but ask a few trusted people (including the aforementioned professionals) for some ideas on how to improve it. But remember that you don’t have to listen to them. Ever.
So there you go. You don’t have to complete all of these steps, obviously. Maybe you’ve sort of combined steps, maybe you’re already so good at some of these things you don’t have to fix them in rewrites, maybe you have your own steps. Let me know what you think in the comments below!