To me, it’s amazing just how hard writing can be. It looks so simple. When written well, a good movie flows so effortlessly. It looks so simple that most people, who have never written a script, think that it can’t be that hard… ‘why all the madness, complaining, ranting, late nights, early mornings, compulsive behaviour, mental absence at the dinner table…’
It’s a madness.
For me at least, writing is rewriting. The first draft is quite easy. It’s the drafts that follow that are tough. And that’s the terrifying journey I am on right now – with ‘Rocketboy’. I thought I would share, by means of ‘writing avoidance’ of course ;-), a few rewriting tips that I use…
Can it be shorter? And the answer is always yes. Can you make eight words six? Can you remove dialogue? Can you clip the head and tails off scenes (get in as late as you can, get out as soon as the scene is done). Screenwriting should read like an elegant instruction manual, not wordy prose. Remove most of the ‘actor’ direction in dialogue like (smiling) (wryly) (angrily). It will reduce the page length AND improve the read, especially for actors.
Beware of ‘too much sizzle and not enough substance’. This is often present in the writing and can be spotted by pros immediately. Can ‘The night was inky black’ be re written as ‘night’…? Unless there is a compelling plot reason why the night is also ‘inky’, I would leave it out. Once you remove much of your sizzle, you will be left to work on the important stuff, the substance.
Act 1 should be shorter – deal with this now or pay for it ‘on set’ and ‘in post’. Move anything (and I mean ANYTHING) that CAN be moved until AFTER plot point one. Understand that until you hit that inciting incident and the race to plot point one in your story, the audience is wandering around in the dark trying to get a handle on where this is all going. Leave them wandering too long and you will loose them.
Rewrite ‘on the nose dialogue’ to be subtle and sub-textural. In other words, say it without ‘saying it’. Look at every line of dialogue. Can it be reduced? Can it contain more sub text? Can you improve the rhythm and flow? Whose voice is it (yours or your characters?)
Restructure to find the ‘rhythm of increasing tension’, by putting your protagonist in jeopardy, climaxing that conflict, deflating momentarily before increasing tensions once more and putting your protagonist in greater jeopardy… and so on. Often just juggling scenes around will help. During Rocketboy’s earlier drafts I wrote the sluglines and plot points for every scene out on colour coded ‘sticky notes’ and put it up on my wall. It was easy to see the story traffic jams then, and restructure.
Is there rhythm to the protagonists journey? It can’t be all fail, fail, fail… success! That’s just not engaging. Your protagonist should experience a success or breakthrough followed by an even greater block or breakdown. This rhythm should, like a beating drum, draw the reader inexorably to the climax. Again, this rhythm can be improved by simply looking at your story as a whole, using colour coded sticky notes.
OK that’s enough writing avoidance for me right now, it’s time to actually implement this and many more tricks I have learned over the years. I would love to hear your tips too, so drop me a line here and I will include in a blog update later.
Onwards and upwards!
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author
What always gets me is that after years of study: reading scripts, writing scripts, classes, etc. RE-WRITING…it sometimes comes down to your original concept – maybe it just isn’t good enough. Or great enough! So what do you do? Quit?
No, you just soldier on, trying to make it as good as it can be.
Writing a great script has to be one of the hardest things to do in the arts. Not only does it require the mastery of character, plot, etc. you must also include a certain, almost magical, X quotient that makes it stand out from the rest. Problem is creating this X quotient is probably something that can’t be taught.
I’m glad I read this, Chris. Your comments remind me that I sometimes overlook the basics as I forge ahead on my umpteenth re-writes.
Unlike you – for me first draft is hell. Pushing that story forward, is hard. Once it’s there, and with next and every other draft the characters are pushing with you.
Thanks again for waking me from my re-write haze.
A great article. Glad I came across it.
I keep finding myself re-writing my pilot episode of a series I’m working on. Constant too’ing and throwing. Think I’m getting to the point where I am happy now – famous last words!
Thought I would give you my thoughts on writing a screenplay from my experiences of Booked Out. I agree with your points on rewriting and think that is key but in someways screenwriting advice is always pretty theoretical and I think some practical tips are in order.
Write in different environments
If I sit in front of a computer or a desk all day then I don’t come up with my best ideas. I generally write in lots of different places and I have came up with the best parts of my screenplay when in those locations. I think the most interesting place I came up with a few really good ideas was in an acting class. I went along to the class to get a better idea on how to work with my actors during the shoot but instead I found myself being inspired to enhance the script and the characters within my film. Perhaps it had something to do with being in a creative environment even though I was sitting at the back with a notepad and pen scribbling notes.
Get the script reviewed by different age groups
I found this really interesting to find out the different comments from the different demographics. It probably comes back to your target audience and making sure they are defined but I think that having a wide variety of people reviewing your story can help you to understand more about your characters and structure.
Watch Films, Read Books, etc
One of the things I did for the first time in writing the Booked Out screenplay was to really think about what type of film I wanted to make. Then I thought of films, books and music in that area. I feel that immersing yourself into that world helps you to keep your story within those bounds. Analyse the core elements that make the best films in your genre work and then analyse your screenplay to see if it contains the same elements.
Chris, great blog post, but now commit to only +one+ per week while you write! Enough procrastination. Eddie