Rewriting - holding writers back

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  • Rewriting - holding writers back

    I believe the major issue hampering good writers (even with good ideas) is rewriting. Say the solid notes call for more fleshed-out characters or more subplots or whatever, we routinely see writers hardly alter their scripts save for a couple of token gestures and don't move forward.To a degree, I understand how this can be difficult as the writer is invested in the script that's taken up a large chunk of their life and feel it's complete so to squeeze elements in can result in perpetual moving around pieces of a jigsaw and getting nowhere fast as the writer insists that existing scenes can't be ousted and that augmenting most of the dialogue to enhance themes and subplots would undo the point of the current dialogue. So I see how some would find it easier to start afresh with a blank sheet than try to work with 100 pre-filled pages.

    So how do you rewrite - working around, with, and at the expense of current content?
    Last edited by SundownInRetreat; 04-27-2021, 02:22 PM.

  • #2
    It's a good question since the adage, Writing is Rewriting, is true. Developing the ability to objectively slash, burn and rewrite is hard if you're too attached to what you've written. When you're too attached to your "darlings" to kill them.

    How do I do it? For me, nothing I've written is sacred. And that includes the outline. In my view, there's always a different and possibly better version of a scene or dialog, or even a character. My process is doing the slash and burn as I progress through the first draft.

    There was a thread related to this in terms of "what's your writing process" and I'm definitely in the "rewrite as you go" camp. I know other writers do a "vomit draft" then go back and rewrite. It just doesn't work for me. I go back to page 1 every time I work on a script and I don't go forward until the previous pages are as good as can be. The result is a really tight first draft.

    I may totally toss a Fade In scene and write one or two completely different openings. When I write dialogue that I feel can be improved -- but can't think of anything in that moment -- I highlight the lines and give myself a day or two. I usually come up with better dialogue. Ditto on supporting characters who may have seemed like a good idea at the outline stage but then prove to be the wrong choice to serve the story.

    I've often seen beginner specs where there are either too many supporting characters or the writer has fallen so in love with a supporting character they give them far too much screen time at the expense of the lead characters and main plot.

    The first script I wrote was the result of a dare. A writer friend who was exploring screenwriting and wanted me to try it, dared me to adapt my unfinished novel. That was an excellent lesson on how to slash and burn. I had to kill off supporting characters, create totally different ones to better support the throughline. Transform narration into action and dialogue and create entirely different scenes to crystallize the theme for a 110 page script. That exercise taught me a lot about rewriting out of the gate.
    Last edited by sc111; 04-27-2021, 02:19 PM.
    Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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    • #3
      I never markedly improved old material via rewriting. I *mostly* think this was due to the lack of professional (ie: non-paid readers) input, but also a combo of my lack of experience and picking less than great ideas. All those things conspire against you. People who are like "I'm on my fifteenth revision of my SciFi feature which is the first in a trilogy..." UGH. Anxiety inducing. You can definitely get better as a writer on your own, but if it's not working - generating reads, winning contests, etc...IMO it's not going to go anywhere.

      Even rewriting with my manager we definitely get it to a point where we've maxed out how good the two of us can make it and there are diminishing returns. Maybe we've done ten passes or more. (a note: the majority of our heavy lifting is done in the outline stage, so my "drafts" are always low. Four or five with a bunch of small passes after) We get it to where we can share it with the market and then get fresh eyes on it and it's clear that we have work to do on it. This work does not preclude getting it set up but even insanely experienced reps (my manager read some ridiculous thousand number of scripts at a big two agency story department) won't have all the answers. So getting that feedback from others who work in the industry is crucial to improving it.

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      • #4
        But how do you approach rewriting when you already have a completed script? Don't think too much of the other thread and people with lame ideas. You've got a solid concept that gets read requests but no offers, okay scores on the Black List but it's just 'not there yet' - and you've even got solid notes to help - how do you go about it? With a blank page in front of you,it's probably easy to tick off the feedback but with a completed script maybe you can't see the wood for the trees, can't see how you can squeeze the changes in - not without causing a ripple effect - and can't see how you can connect the before and after with what you need to insert midway.

        Eg: your protag isn't sympathetic enough - what do you do when you're acutely aware of the need to be efficient and you've already got 115 pages? Or maybe he's too reactive but when you look to see where you can make him more active you can't bring yourself to lose existing real estate because each existing scene is essential (otherwise they wouldn't already be in your script). Or maybe you accept that a secondary character isn't working but taking them out leaves holes in your script? I'm sure you can think of many more examples - how do you go about rewriting and avoiding the issue that we commonly see on here, scripts that are barely tweaked let alone radically different drafts?

        Personally, I find it easiest to rewrite dialogue and scenes that don't fundamentally change (ie: rewrite an argument, fight or catching a cheating lover in the act).

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        • #5
          Sundown, in the paragraph before your closing statement you kind of said that the problem is that amateurs don't change their story really during a rewrite, i.e. issues do not get addressed, and then in your closing statement you say you like to start with scenes that do not change all that much. Seems contradictory.

          I know that I always get ideas while drafting. At times the idea makes me stop and start over cause I have to in order to incorporate the idea. In the current script I'm working on Ive started over five times cause I had better angles for plot lines or the way I was going about the story didn't feel right. We're not geniuses. Even though you have an idea for a plot or a character in a script that doesn't mean it works. I tried a few different ideas for my B story line.

          Cliche notes like "make your character more sympathetic" do not help the amateur writer at all. They will probably address that note by like having the hero fall down a flight of stairs or something. I personally never got that note from someone, but if I did I would take it to mean one of two things: either my character is the one mistreating people. He/She is the one being nasty to others, or the plot is not treating my hero harshly enough. The reader has no reason to feel sympathy because nothing is really happening.

          When an amateur types fade out the last thing they want to do is open the structure back up and say "Ok, every single scene is on the table."

          I know for me the idea enhances with each draft. Pieces of the idea come together. Pieces I did not have when I started or in the outline phase for that matter. I used to ignore the ideas because I was already 50 - 60 pages in and who the hell wants to start over, but now I go with my gut. If the idea feels right I go for it, even if it means starting over and sometimes I find out it didn't work and need to try something else.

          The rewriting for me is where the script comes alive. I'm not that writer that has it all figured out when they type fade in, there is definitely a discovery process while writing for me. There's iterations of your script, most amateurs get to iteration 1 and stop.

          I like to divide my story into four quadrants and each quadrant has a tentpole event that propels the character into the next quadrant and it also changes the nature of the conflict. Scripts have so many little working parts. For instance, I can't tell you the last amateur script i read that had the "obligatory scene" in Act 1. It's called the First Act promise too. A scene that sets-up the battle between hero/villain.

          That's why it really shouldn't be that hard to make the QF rounds of contests. Most of the material you are up against is bad scripts that have had some patch work done. If you can do better than that, which anybody with a bit of talent and passion should, then your script should make for a more compelling read than the one the judges just read. I don't care about the genre.

          You gotta just be willing to get your hands dirty.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by SundownInRetreat View Post
            But how do you approach rewriting when you already have a completed script? Don't think too much of the other thread and people with lame ideas. You've got a solid concept that gets read requests but no offers, okay scores on the Black List but it's just 'not there yet' - and you've even got solid notes to help - how do you go about it? With a blank page in front of you,it's probably easy to tick off the feedback but with a completed script maybe you can't see the wood for the trees, can't see how you can squeeze the changes in - not without causing a ripple effect - and can't see how you can connect the before and after with what you need to insert midway.

            Eg: your protag isn't sympathetic enough - what do you do when you're acutely aware of the need to be efficient and you've already got 115 pages? Or maybe he's too reactive but when you look to see where you can make him more active you can't bring yourself to lose existing real estate because each existing scene is essential (otherwise they wouldn't already be in your script). Or maybe you accept that a secondary character isn't working but taking them out leaves holes in your script? I'm sure you can think of many more examples - how do you go about rewriting and avoiding the issue that we commonly see on here, scripts that are barely tweaked let alone radically different drafts?

            Personally, I find it easiest to rewrite dialogue and scenes that don't fundamentally change (ie: rewrite an argument, fight or catching a cheating lover in the act).
            I don't know if you're addressing this to me but I'll share my opinion.

            With my rewrite-as-I go process a lot of the issues you describe are dealt with -- again -- as I go. Issues like unsympathetic/reactive/passive protags should be quite obvious -- in the outline stage. If I continued to be unaware of these protag problems once I started the script, the issue would definitely rear it's head in Act 1 and I'd address it.

            I don't agree that every scene in a first draft is essential. If a writer believes that, they're too close or too attached and need to develop some objectivity.
            Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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            • #7
              I think she was throwing it out there for discussion purposes. As someone who has worked closely with peers in the development of their script ideas, it is nearly impossible to get an amateur to move that far away from what they have. It just doesn't feel comfortable for them to do so. And for the ones that were willing to throw caution to the wind and say ok you want me to start over? I'll start over. Then they sit with writers block not knowing where or how to start.

              I think amateurs start with character first, I know I have plenty of times. So what results is a grounded character study that have the shakespearean soliloquies with no real structure points that keep the ball rolling down the hill and gain momentum. I don't know if I ever read a script that wasn't a grounded character study from an amateur. I'm trying to think of a script I read where a unique high concept was the engine for the idea and that high concept is set-up then teased at the inciting incident and then at the ACT 1 climax whatever event propels the story into the magical world of story where the unique high concept angle plays out,. In a move where two characters switch bodies, this is that moment. Then in act two you have a plot, using this high concept angle, that plays out and culminates in both an emotional journey for the hero and an external journey for them as well. I have never, ever even read an amateur script that tries to even pull that off. I'd be interested in doing so if anyone has one.

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              • #8
                To me rewriting is the what real writers do. Pros and soon to be pros. I get pre planning. I get rewriting as you go. But I will never get people (even successful) who can write a first draft that is also a last draft. To me it's always a work in progress.

                If I knew I had to make it perfect before I wrote anything that's not going to lead to good writing. See, I do agree on that point even though some thought I didn't.

                So if you are a writer who thinks they are rewriting or thinks their first draft is really their 10th draft because I kept going back and editing it -- that's the same type of issues I'm talking about in my other threads. The lack of some writers being able to realize their work isn't up to par. That it needs more feedback. That they are rewriting, but based on their own notes in their heads. At some point you need the outside notes, then the rewrite. Then more notes, and then another rewrite. Sometimes it takes a while. With a rep can it can take many many many many drafts...

                And rewriting is hard. It's hard to know what to improve. What is not working. But that's the job. It's the reason some movies have 20 writers because even pros can't figure out how to fix it.

                So it's not easy. But as the OP said -- if you are not even willing to try -- you are not going to make it.

                When I rewrite my specs it's sometimes can be 50% new stuff. Or more. Sometimes less. But I'm willing to go all the way to 99%. Whatever it takes. Page one rewrite, okay.

                But some writers on here for sure give 1% on the rewrite but in their eyes them changing one sentence was this major change and it's all better now. They overvalue how much they are changing...

                Also just changing things like words on the page isn't rewriting. Changing a characters dialogue from "hey, dude" to "Hey, there dude." isn't going to get it done. Rewriting is saying, do I need this scene? Can I combine these 3 scenes into one? Do I need 4 best friends in this script or will 2 do? Can I lose the last 15 pages and just end the movie earlier as the feedback said that they lost interest after page 95 when the lead accomplished their goal?

                Rewriting is like a math problem. Surgery. It's fun when you are into it. And daunting. But it's necessary in my eyes. And it's the hardest part to learn when you are first starting out. But the good news is it never gets easier even for pros! It's always hard and painful! Yeah!!!!!

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                • #9

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                  • #10
                    Changed, but not changed at it's heart. That is key to rewriting a good spec to make it even better!

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                    • #11
                      Rewriting doesn't mean you change the story. You tell the story in a stronger way. Let's say you may have two scenes with each accomplishing x and y plotwise.

                      You could write one new scene that accomplishes x and y in a more compelling way to replace both scenes. I've done this on a couple of occasions.

                      Sometimes certain scenes seem fine in the outline stage. But when you start writing better solutions come to you.

                      A lesson I learned from a graphic designer who learned it from her mentor has served me in rewrites:

                      Our initial idea is usually the most obvious. If we set it aside and challenge ourselves to replace it with a better idea, we usually can.

                      What I see in some spec scripts is the writer clinging to their first idea for a scene and refusing to consider an alternate scene may better serve the story.
                      Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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                      • #12

                        Our initial idea is usually the most obvious. If we set it aside and challenge ourselves to replace it with a better idea, we usually can.


                        Assuming the first thing you wrote is bad is also a bad way to go. Sure most of the time it's bad and you need to rewrite it. But my last spec that went out before current one, they made us (reps) change the opening scene. And the first one we wrote -- a job interview scene -- was the best choice for the spec. We ended up with some lesser scene that I think was the wrong advice to take. It was still funny, but story wise, I think the first scene I wrote was the best.

                        Also this seems to run against the other advice you love to give is "just write and find yourself in the writing..." Now you are saying, overthink what you wrote and change it because the first thing must be obvious and thus bad. So in my thread, find the best idea -- now you seem to know what I'm talking about in this thread because I didn't start it. Got it.





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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Bono View Post
                          Our initial idea is usually the most obvious. If we set it aside and challenge ourselves to replace it with a better idea, we usually can.


                          Assuming the first thing you wrote is bad is also a bad way to go. Sure most of the time it's bad and you need to rewrite it. But my last spec that went out before current one, they made us (reps) change the opening scene. And the first one we wrote -- a job interview scene -- was the best choice for the spec. We ended up with some lesser scene that I think was the wrong advice to take. It was still funny, but story wise, I think the first scene I wrote was the best.

                          Also this seems to run against the other advice you love to give is "just write and find yourself in the writing..." Now you are saying, overthink what you wrote and change it because the first thing must be obvious and thus bad. So in my thread, find the best idea -- now you seem to know what I'm talking about in this thread because I didn't start it. Got it.

                          I never said "just write and find yourself" when writing a screenplay. I said write different things, other than a screenplay, to develop your skills and find your voice, your POV.

                          It's not enough to think, "I like movies. Ergo I can write one." Then jump in.

                          Frankly, if I was told to switch out an opening interview scene I thought was the best choice, I'd first look at why I was told it was lacking. Writers often have blind spots with their scripts. Even fans or reps of writers have blind spots.

                          Look, my method dates back to an intro to creative writing class when I got an A on a short story then the prof required me to "rewrite it to make it better."

                          I argued with him. "Why did you give me an A if you think it needs a rewrite?" And he responds with: writing is rewriting. You can make it better.

                          I had a week to turn in the rewrite. First couple of days I'm stalled. Can't see what I can rewrite to make it better. Then some mental door swings open and I see a number of opportunities to do just that: make it better. My grade was raised to an A+ but what I learned was far more important: a piece of writing can always be made better.

                          Years later, the designer mentions what her mentor said. And it gave me a method to use: set your first idea aside.

                          Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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                          • #14
                            I agree with what you are saying. We agree a lot more than it seems we do. That is why I don't get how you can believe what you said above and also think I'm wrong in suggesting writers search for their best idea and don't just write the first idea that pops into their head, assuming it must be good because they had the idea.

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Bono View Post
                              I agree with what you are saying. We agree a lot more than it seems we do. That is why I don't get how you can believe what you said above and also think I'm wrong in suggesting writers search for their best idea and don't just write the first idea that pops into their head, assuming it must be good because they had the idea.
                              Sigh. You told people not to write one word until they have the right idea. Was the first script you ever wrote the "right" idea? I believe you shared about your first script and conceded it wasn't the "right" idea. Do you believe you would have been better off never writing that first script and waiting until the "right" idea hit?

                              Yeah. Yeah. You later clarified that you meant that advice for writers with 5 or more years writing specs. Let's not deny the fact that many writers don't improve. Many writers plateau. Many writers continue making the same mistakes in every script they write over the first five years -- "right" idea or "wrong" idea.

                              My advice is to stretch yourself and write all sorts of things to build your skills. If you're incapable of improving, then maybe its time to give up the ghost.

                              Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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