Fear Not, The Big Rewrite

Fear Not The Big Rewrite

By Luke Warrington        

So, you’ve just finished the first draft of your latest—or first—screenplay. Mazel tov! You’ve done it. Time to slap on a cover page, connect it with some brass fasteners, and send it out to anyone you may know with some semblance of Hollywood connections, right? Eh, maybe we should pump the brakes a bit.

While typing “Fade Out” on a first draft is an exciting time (seriously, be proud of yourself), the work isn’t quite finished yet. Usually (read: always), the first draft of a screenplay is just that: the first draft. After all, writing is rewriting, as the adage goes. But how do you know which areas of the script need to be rewritten? And just how much rewriting needs to happen? Both fair questions, to be sure, and certainly questions you’ll be more comfortable answering, the more you write. In my experience, there are two people you should listen to when it comes to making decisions on rewrites: yourself and others. I know, not super insightful, but humor me for a minute.

First and foremost, as a writer, you are in complete control of your story (at least at this point in the screenwriting process). You get to decide anything and everything that happens within the pages of your script. That means, no matter what direction you receive from others, you have the final say on what shape the piece will ultimately take. With that said, having spent so much time with the story, typing away day after day, it can be hard to be objective about it yourself. Which is where the second person—errr, people—you should listen to comes in.

Given how hard it is to be objective about your own work, having others critique it is invaluable in the rewriting process. Give it to a friend, a colleague, or anyone else whom you trust to read it and give considerate, insightful feedback. You can even give it to your mom if you’d like, but I must warn you, moms are often less objective than we are (although, it can make for a great self-esteem boost). There are also plenty of companies that will provide you with professional-level notes or coverage for a price. All that matters is that you trust the person from whom you are receiving these notes.

So, let’s say you’ve done that. You send the script out to one or several trusted associates and wait anxiously for a couple of weeks, wondering when it’s appropriate to reach out and ask if they’ve had a chance to read it yet. Then, after days of wondering if they hated it so much that they didn’t even feel inclined to respond, the day comes when you get the script back. Full of nervous excitement, you pop the file open, eager to see what someone else thinks of your work. Obviously, the ultimate hope is that they come back with something along the lines of, “Perhaps the cantina scene runs a bit long, but other than that, it’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, this isn’t typically the case. Usually, there are more notes that will require reworking scenes, punching up dialogue, and maybe even cutting a thing or two. All fixable with a little more work. Such is the life the writer.

But what about when you receive that dreaded note. The one that pokes at the very foundation of your screenplay. The pulled thread that unhems the entire sweater altogether. I’m talking about the note that forces you to rethink your story, possibly your whole structural approach; the single note that calls for the dreaded page-one rewrite.

At first glance, you might brush it off. After all, what do they know? They’ve only read the script one time; you spent weeks, months, breaking the story, developing characters, and considering the best way to tell the story. No one knows the script better than you do, right? So, what do you do? Maybe you make all the other, smaller, changes. You punch up the dialogue. You trim the fat on the cantina scene. If the screenplay were a house, you’d be adding a fresh coat of paint right about now, making sure the shutters and gutters aren’t askew.

It’s only then, when you stand back and look at your sparkly new house, that you realize it. The foundation is still cracked. It’s not a good feeling. I’ve been through it. Every writer in Hollywood has been through it. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the day you’re reading this blog, a producer somewhere on Beverly Dr. is telling a writer that an entire act in their script must be changed. Trust me, it comes with the territory.

Does that help the initial sting? Of course not. The same way that saying there are starving children in other parts of the world doesn’t make you any less hungry. After all, you’ve spent months building something out of nothing, and now you must “kill your darlings.” To be frank, it sucks. But it must be done (or not—again, it’s your screenplay).

Here’s the good news. Actually, before I get to that, I want to insert another cliché: we often learn more from our failures than our successes. Wait. Actually, that was the good news.

Here’s the thing: screenwriting is a craft. It is not easy. Like anything else, it takes hard work and determination to become good at it. Part of that is sticking with it even when the task at hand seems daunting. It may not always be fun. It might be downright hard. But that’s how you learn. That’s how you know to avoid similar pitfalls in the future. That’s how you grow as a writer. If this is something that you want to do, it’s worth putting the work in for.

So, don’t think of the big rewrite in terms of how much work it will take. Don’t think of it as tearing down or even having to dump what you’ve slaved over for the past 6 months. Think of it as giving yourself a chance to continue learning, to continue to grow, and to continue building. Think of it as rebuilding something even stronger. Just think about how vastly improved the script, and you as a writer, will be once it is complete. It’s a mindset, but one that professional writers now how to use to their advantage.  Good luck!

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