So you’ve done something that most “writers” never actually do: you’ve written a first draft of your screenplay. Congratulations. But don’t get it twisted, you’ve only completed the easy part.
Every now and then I’ll talk to someone that says, “Oh yeah, I’ve been writing for a couple years. I have ten screenplays done.” And all I can think is, “You did ten screenplays in two years? There is a 0% chance that any of them are good.”
There are probably a few writers who can knock out a first draft that is almost exactly like the finished product. If that’s you, feel free to stop reading and go cash that $5 million dollar check you got for your last movie.
For the rest of us, the rewriting is what turns an okay script into a solid one. How do you do it?
1. Put The Damn Thing Down.
Now that you’ve written the last scene, you have one final job. Print the script and quickly put it away. Don’t read it, don’t make notes, don’t do anything. Just let the script sit in a drawer for AT LEAST A WEEK.
Let your mind settle. If you want to keep writing, work on something else. Write a short story or a limerick or ANYTHING BUT THAT GODDAMN SCREENPLAY.
2. Read It With Fresh Eyes
Now that the story is not so fresh in your mind, pick up the script and give it a read. Don’t start marking it up quite yet. Just read through it as if someone handed it to you for the first time. Do you notice anything? Any patterns? Does the story flow along?
3. Bust Out The Red Pen
It doesn’t have to actually be red, but now comes the editing. For your second read-through, go line-by-line and start digging into everything. How do your action lines read? Could they be clearer? Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound off?
Make notes in the margins, write on index cards, do whatever you have to do keep track of the issues you have with the script.
AND NEVER, EVER show your first draft to anyone.
4. Start The Rewrite
We all have this fantasy that a rewrite is just a tiny tweak—a line here or there. But, at least for me, it can be quite a slog. It depends on the Things you have to address. (Scripts are a combination of Big Things and Little Things.)
Big Things are plot and characters. If your story sucks, then changing one scene won’t do anything. If your characters behave unrealistically, then a lot of changes are in order.
Little Things are lines of dialogue, minor plot holes, and scene length. These are MUCH easier to fix.
5. Get Feedback
Now it’s time to hear from the unwashed masses. Or really, people whose opinions you trust. I have a very simple rule when asking people for notes on a script.
– Do they know anything about screenwriting?
– Do I like their work?
Now, the answers to these questions aren’t as obvious as you think. There are plenty of non-writers whose opinion I seek out. Someone who has good taste in movies, someone who is funny, someone who is an avid reader.
Why? Because they will know when something is “off”. Even if they can’t quite explain why, if a number of people keep commenting on the same scene or moment, then you should do some backtracking.
For the writers, however, the criteria is more stringent. There is nothing worse than a frustrated, shitty writer giving you notes. If you know somebody whose work is pure dogshit, why on earth would you want their feedback? The only notes you will get are cliches that have nothing to do with the story you are telling.
You have to respect their work.
Sidenote: A lot of people pay for script reading services. I don’t see the point in it. 99% of those paid readers are failed writers charging EXORBITANT rates for their time.
6. Start Again
Now that you’ve got some good ideas of what to fix, you go back to step 2.
When do you know you’re finished? Well, you’re never REALLY finished. But when your changes are making the story worse, not better—then it’s time to let it go. Maybe it’s not The Godfather. Maybe it’s not even Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. But it’s done.
And the next one will be better.