The Brutal Rewrite Process

Pencil erasing a mistake

We could have just as easily called this article, “Don’t Get Too Attached to Your Script.” After getting the first draft down on paper, the hardest part of screenwriting is having the guts and emotional strength to make huge cuts and rewrites in your script. Whether you know there are problems or you think the script is on the right track, getting feedback and making big changes in your screenplay can be a gutwrenching experience. But if you want to be a pro in this business, it’s an experience that you better get used to.

Jill Remensnyder has written a great article on the rewrite process for Zacuto.com. She insists:

You’ll probably fall into one of two categories:

The writer blinded by their own genius only to be surrounded by those who “don’t get” their craft.

The writer who wants to throw up after reading their first draft, with thoughts such as “what was I thinking?” and “this doesn’t make any sense” on a constant loop in their head.

Don’t be too quick to get a big head and don’t feel so self-conscious you’re searching for a burn barrel to destroy your script. There’s always room for improvement-it’s part of the process. To my knowledge, one of the only screenplays to ever shoot from the first draft was Chinatown and you’re not Robert Towne. The biggest problem I see new writers face is that they fall in love with every word they write. When you become emotionally involved with scenes that don’t move the story forward, or you develop unhealthy relationships with characters your audience can’t connect with, it’s going to be a rough break up with much heartache.

One of the most important lessons I learned in college was in one of my directing classes. It had nothing to do with character objectives, stage movement, or blocking actors. The lesson was on giving feedback and how to take it.

The approach my professor took was that your personal opinions and taste were irrelevant. The focus of feedback wasn’t to tell the director you liked or disliked their work, but an opportunity to ask questions to better understand the choices the director made. What I took away from this class is that it’s critical to ask questions and even more critical to have a good answer.

Remensnyder also discusses how to turn vague feedback into something helpful:

The best way to handle blunt feedback is to keep asking questions. Dig to get more information. If someone doesn’t like your main character, find our why. Was there a specific moment that didn’t feel right? Does the character remind them of someone they can’t stand? Maybe they take issue with the antagonist or another supporting character. Does the character in question, either by their actions or their flaws, strike a little close to home? Try to get specifics. Find out what worked in your story and what didn’t from their vantage point.

Consider giving your readers a list of questions to zero in on what works and what doesn’t in your script. The following list contains some of the questions I ask when seeking feedback:

  • Was the story clear? Can you summarize it in two to three sentences?
  • If not, what wasn’t clear?
  • Was the premise believable? If not, what stuck out?
  • Did the characters have clear, concise goals? Were the goals worthy of the story?
  • What did you like the most?
  • What did you dislike?
  • Any specific scenes not make sense?
  • Was dialogue excessive? Did it slow down any scenes?
  • Was the ending predictable?

These should start a good conversation regarding feedback. Ideally, this will open the door to other areas of your story that might need attention. This is a good way of troubleshooting generic responses that don’t help.

Read the rest of the article at Zacuto.

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