by Fiona Wheeler
Simply changing a scene or two won’t make your screenplay be all it can be. It’s time to take an ax to your darlings.
Many screenwriters think of their screenplay as their child: if you’re not gentle as you lovingly smooth its hair, it’ll wake screaming and there will be no placating it. Nonsense. Screenplays, plays, and novels are much more robust than that. Rewriting helps clarify your story.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow; the realization that you’ve only completed the first round and there are several more to go. For many writers, the idea of sending the screenplay off so it can be someone else’s problem is what motivated them to finally finish that first draft.
Tempting as it is to tell yourself it’s done and finished, don’t. It’s disrespectful to pitch or submit a screenplay you haven’t rewritten. If you can’t get past the first two pages of your script, how do you expect a reader to?
(If you’ve already made the mistake of submitting too early, don’t obsess over it. That company might not accept anything from you again but there are others out there. Focus on creating a script that will make a good first impression with them.)
As writers, it’s our job to believe in our story when no one else does, but we also need to be self-aware enough to see when we aren’t quite there yet. The great script consultant, Stephen Cleary, gives many lectures on the subject and always begins by pointing out that a screenwriter needs to do two things. They need to have a good story to tell, and they need to be able to tell it in the best possible way.
Until you’re open to the idea of rewriting, there’s a limit to what you’ll ever be able to achieve as a writer. Whether you want to work as a staff writer or in film, rewrites are essential to this craft, and a fundamental of every paid job you’ll ever get.
Clear the Field
When gardeners first take up the hobby, they’re not too sure which is a weed and which plant will be productive, so they keep everything, and as a result nothing has a chance to thrive. Writing is the same: unless you clear away the glut, there’ll be no room for those great new ideas to grow.
As Paul Attansio, writer of Donnie Brasco (1997) says, “It’s a job of small victories. The day where you throw out everything you’ve written but learned something about your story would have to be considered a good day… To my mind these writers who believe their first draft is ready to shoot ought to be dragged out behind the guild building and horsewhipped. Rewriting is everything.”
So why bother writing that first draft at all then, if you know even before you sit down, that the whole thing is going to suck? I don’t think about that. I press the ‘mute’ button on those cynical thoughts, I write and re-write my outline, and when I’m happy with it I just sit down and write that first draft like it’s the only draft I’m ever going to write.
That first draft is the foundation on which every other draft will be built. You’re never gonna get to the penthouse, unless you first pour the foundation. But don’t just take it from me. Here’s what Tom Schulman had to say about his first draft and rewrites for the Dead Poets Society screenplay:
I started thinking about Dead Poets Society around 1981 and wrote a draft in 1985 that centered on the school. When I read it, I gagged and threw it out. The teacher was alright, but the students just didn’t work at all. I spent a year thinking that I’d never write the thing, then all of a sudden it hit me what had been wrong and what the setting needed to be, and I sat down and started over.
I had a similar light-bulb moment. I grew up reading classic and modern classic literature and all the great plays. I also read about the lives of authors and playwrights. There wasn’t ever much mention of rewriting in what I read, so when it came time to start writing myself, it simply didn’t occur to me.
My first few full-length plays (before I moved into screenwriting) felt like an amazing accomplishment, but soon they weren’t enough. I’d go back and re-read each one after that first flush of pride abated. I realized by darlings were far from perfect.
Like all new writers, I was reluctant to chuck the whole thing and start over. Instead, I’d chip away at this scene and that. It helped a little, but I think deep down I was always a little disappointed that the finished script didn’t show the story’s true potential.
Taking an Ax to Your Work
Then one day I wrote a play I really cared about. Parents without Children, as the title suggests, is a dark comedy about a support group for parents who have each lost their only child. In the first draft, give or take a few flashbacks, the whole play takes place at one meeting.
The draft had its moments, and some of the characters were fabulous, but those printed pages disappointed and frustrated me more than anything ever had. I went through the usual checklist of things you go through as an emerging writer. Stuff happened, tick. The characters were well developed, tick. The underlying message was clear, it was raw and unsentimental without being callus, and the dialogue was clever. All ticks.
Usually that was enough to silence the critic within, but not this time. So I did something I’d never done before, I pushed up my sleeves and started all over again. I decided to keep the premise and some of the characters, but there would be no meeting. We’d see each of the characters in their daily struggles, and have the occasional glimpse of their cheerful masks.
I developed a comic plot (two characters get caught digging up a grave because a dad wants to bury his daughter’s toy down near her), but apart from that it’s just a collection of scenes set over a year. Gradually we realize which characters will be able to get on with their lives, and who will be stuck forever.
Since then I’ve been a zealous fan of the radical rewrite. Sometimes I do ‘over-weed,’ but it always makes room for something interesting. Besides, if it really is essential, you can put it back in the next draft.
In hindsight, I think the secret to rewriting is to truly care about the story. If you genuinely believe that your unique life experiences and your personality mean that you’re the only person who can do this tale justice, then write and rewrite. Don’t give up until it’s done.
Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.