Writing is one thing. That splurge of energy and ideas and creativity. Re-writing is another. Taking what you have and revisiting it, honing it, being prepared to turn it inside out, knowing what needs work and what can be left well alone.
There are no rules about this – other than the fact that no brilliant script falls fully formed out of a writer’s head. Whether the writing and rewriting happens before the text is finally committed to paper – or whether a script is written and then rewritten and redrafted thereafter – either way, getting drama and comedy scripts and stories right is very very hard and doesn’t just happen.
Finishing a first full draft is one thing; finishing the script is another. So we’ve come up with some pointers towards thing you can try to do to manage that process:
- Give yourself time. Once you finished what you feel is a complete first draft, put it away in a drawer for at least 2 weeks – but ideally a couple of months (or even 6 if you feel especially brave) – and do not look at it again until you have a designated day/time when you know you can focus on it without being disturbed
- When that day comes, make sure you can’t be disturbed (and don’t need to do the hoovering or check facebook or have some lunch), sit down with a tea/coffee (whatever your poison – but definitely NOT alcohol) and read it straight through without stopping to take any notes or make any tweaks. Read it like a reader somewhere else might read it.
- Put it away again in the drawer and leave it be for another day (at least). Once your brain has had some time (and hopefully a sleep), sit down and make notes from memory about the things that stood out as needing attention. Be honest. But don’t try to remember everything, just the big things.
- Now you’re ready to sit down with a red pen (red is good - you are in editing mode) and a pad, and work your way through it making whatever notes you need to make as you read.
- When you have notes, go back through and re-order/cohere them into sections/collections of related notes – so not just a rewriting stream of consciousness, but an organised, achievable plan. And try to tackle each section one at a time, so you are not just rewriting from beginning to end, but going back through repeatedly and tackling each set of a problems one at a time.
- Is there anyone you can trust to give you honest, intelligent, unbiased feedback? If there is, find 2 or 3 of them if you can and ask them for their response. It helps if you give them time to read and digest and think before saying anything. It also helps if they write down bullet-point notes for you because rambling conversations can become a mire of confusing, miscommunicated, misunderstood thoughts that blur into one mass of anxiety. Then compare their different responses and don’t be at all surprised if they tell you very different things about your script. Look for where they agree – and where they disagree. And step back to see what it tells you about your work.
- Are there people you can trust to help read/perform all or part of the script in particular so you can hear the voices of the characters out loud? If so, get in some drink/snacks to keep them fuelled (and as a distraction at awkward moments) and give it a go. But BEWARE – drunken/spirited read-throughs with friends can be deceptive and make your script sound much better/funnier than it really is. Don’t get wasted. And don’t play the lead yourself (we can’t all be Vincent Gallo). Sit back, listen and stay relatively sober.
- Can you step back and boil your script/idea down into a very simple pitch or logline, identifying its genre(s), potential audience, tone, originality/usp, universality? If not, why not?
- Can you write a one-page outline that does justice to the story, idea, energy of the script? If not, why not? (not all writers are good at outlines – it’s not about how good it is as a ‘pitch’ document – rather, how well does it represent what you think you have written? Don’t be despondent if it doesn’t read like amazing marketing copy … )
- Is your script anything like any other things you’ve already seen/heard? If so, what’s different about your version of an archetype? Is it really different? Honestly? If not, what needs to change to make it feel more you than something else by somebody else?
- There can often be a disparity between what you think you are saying and what the script actually says. Is the script saying and doing what you want it to?
- Can you discard all the things you know about the work that have grown through the whole process of conceiving, developing and writing it, and just see what is in the script itself? Do you have everything you need to say what you want to say? Are you over-stating things and could you shave it and hone it down to a leaner frame?
- What effect do you want to have on the audience? What emotion and reaction do you want them to feel and have? Do you think your script achieves that?
- Openings can make or break a script. Have you started the story straight away, page one, line one? Are you showing the characters in action? Are you spending time prefacing and setting up and introducing the characters/world before the story actually starts? Are you explaining backstory before the story starts?
- Once a script is written and dialogue is voicing characters you love in scenes you enjoy, it starts to become very very hard to step back from these beguiling distractions – but you need to work out if the story and the structure that frames it actually works.
- Go through your script and without reading the detail of the dialogue/scene, get a feel for how the story is moving forward in the scenes/sequences by looking at what happens, what precedes/follows it in the script, what the motivating and consequent scenes are, and decide whether the order you have is actually working.
- Do you spend too long in a linear way on any one strand/sequence? Do you cut away and around too much in an attempt to multi-strand various stories/plots? What are the key moments in the over-arching structure of the story? Are you working up to and down from them? Do they come too soon or too late (or not at all)? Are they having enough impact in the structure?
In the moment:
- Spend time with what you think are key, pivotal scenes. Lock yourself in them for a day and don’t get distracted with what’s going on around them. What’s the scene about? What’s happening in it? What’s the subtext to it? What is done or not done, achieved or not achieved in it? What changes as a consequence of it? Are the choices you have made the first-thought, route-one, obvious choices? Are there other things you can do? Are there surprises or extra beats you are missing? Is there another level to which you can take a scene/dramatic moment?
- Rewriting is pointless if you’re not honest with yourself about how good the work is. From experience, the better writers tend to presume that what they have written is quite possibly terrible until they can convince themselves otherwise. But don’t work yourself into a deep pit about the work. You wouldn’t have written it if you didn’t think it was worth writing somewhere, deep down …
- Sometimes drafts just don’t work and you have to more or less start again from scratch. Don’t be afraid of saying a draft is a wild or disposable draft. Don’t be afraid of tearing it up and going back to the drawing board. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Keep the best things for the next draft.