1. Forging The Sword
The first draft is basically just you flailing around and throwing up. All subsequent drafts are you taking that throw-up and molding it into shape. Except, ew, that’s gross. Hm. Okay. Let’s pretend you’re the Greek God Hephaestus, then. You throw up a lump of hot iron, and that’s your first draft. The rewrites are when you forge that regurgitated iron into a sword that will slay your enemies. Did Hephaestus puke up metal? He probably did. Greek myths are weird.
Pipe breaks. Water damage. Carpet, pad, floor, ceiling on the other side, furniture. You can’t fix that with duct tape and good wishes. Can’t just repair the pipe. You have to get in there. Tear shit out. Demolish. Obliterate. Replace. Your story is like that. Sometimes you find something that’s broken through and through: a cancer. And a cancer needs to be cut out. New flesh grown over excised tissue.
You will do more damage to your work by being merciful. Go in cold. Emotionless. Scissors in one hand, silenced pistol in the other. The manuscript is not human. You are free to torture it wantonly until it yields what you require. You’d be amazed at how satisfying it is when you break a manuscript and force it to kneel.
I’m not saying this needs to be the case, and it sounds horrible now, but just wait: if your final draft looks nothing like your first draft, for some bizarre-o fucking reason you feel really accomplished. It’s the same way I look at myself now and I’m all like, “Hey, awesome, I’m not a baby anymore.” I mean, except for the diaper. What? It’s convenient. Don’t judge me, Internet. Even though that’s all you know. *sob*
Take time away from the manuscript before you go at it all tooth-and-claw. You need time. You need to wash that man right out of your hair. Right now, you either love it too much or hate its every fiber. You’re viewing it as the writer. You need to view it as a reader, as a distant third-party editor flying in from out of town and who damn well don’t give a fuck. From subjective to objective. Take a month if you can afford it. Or write something else: even a short story will serve as a dollop of sorbet on your brain-tongue to cleanse the mind-palate. Anything to shift perspective from “writer” to “reader.”
You’ll know if it’s not time to edit. Here’s a sign: you go to tackle the edit and it feels like your head and heart are filled with bees. You don’t know where to start. You’re thinking of either just walking away forever or planting a narrative suitcase bomb in the middle of the story and blowing it all to H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks. That means you’re not ready. You’re too bugfuck to go forward. Ease off the throttle, hoss. Come back another time, another way. Cool down.
Editing, revising, rewriting requires a certain mindset. That mindset is, “I am excited to destroy the enemy that resists good fiction, I am ready to fix all the shit that I broke, I am eager to shave off barnacles and burn off fat and add layers of laser-proof steel and get this motherfucker in fit fighting shape so that no other story may stand before it.” You gotta be hungry to fuck up your own work in the name of good storytelling.
You write your first draft however you want. Outline, no outline, finger-painted on the back of a Waffle House placemat in your own feces, I don’t care. But you go to attack a rewrite without a plan in mind, you might as well be a chimpanzee humping a football helmet. How do you know what to fix if you haven’t identified what’s broken? This isn’t time for intuition. Have notes. Put a plan in place. Surgical strike.
You write the first draft in isolation. Just you, your keyboard, a story, some industrial lubricant and a handgun. All other drafts are part of a team initiative. SWAT, kicking in windows, identifying perps. Beta readers, editors, agents, wives, friends, itinerant strangers, hostages, whatever. Get someone to read your nonsense. Get notes. Attend to those notes. Third parties will see things you do not.
You get notes, it’s tough. It’s like coming home and being surrounded by friends and family, and they want you to sit down and listen as they talk about getting you unfettered from your addiction to obscure 80s hair-bands and foul Lithuanian pornography. But listen to those notes. They may be hard but they’re both instructive and constructive. They are a dear favor, so do not waste them.
When someone says “follow your gut,” it’s because your intestinal tract is home to an infinite multitude of hyper-intelligent bacterial flora. It knows what’s up if you can tune to its gurgling frequency. You get notes and they don’t feel exactly right, check the gut. Here’s the thing, though. Notes, even when you don’t agree, usually point out something about your manuscript. It may highlight a flaw or a gap. But it can also be instructive in the sense that, each note is a test, and if you come up more resolute about some part of your manuscript, that’s okay, too. Two opinions enter, one opinion leaves. Welcome to Chunderdome.
Editors do not exist to hurt you. They exist to hurt your manuscript. In the best way possible. They are the arbiters of the toughest, smartest love. A good editor shall set you — and the work — free.
It is the mark of the modern man if he can do multiple things at once. He can do a Powerpoint presentation and mix a martini and train a cat to quilt the Confederate Flag all at the same time. Your story will not benefit from this. Further, it’s not a “one shot and I’m done” approach. This isn’t the Death Star, and you’re not trying to penetrate an Imperial shaft with one blast from your Force-driven proton penis. You have to approach a rewrite in layers and passes. Fix one thing at a time. Make a dialogue pass. A description pass. A plot run. You don’t just fix it with one pull of the trigger, nor can you do ten things at once. Calm down. Here, eat these quaaludes. I’m just kidding, nobody has ‘ludes anymore.
Story lives beyond margins. It’s in context and theme and mood — incalculable and uncertain data. But these vapors, these ghosts, must line up with the rest, and the rest must line up with them.
Behind, then, the layer cake of editing. Start with content: character, plot, description, dialogue. Move to context: those vapors and ghosts I just told you about. Final nail in the revision coffin is copy: spelling, grammar, all those fiddly bits, the skin tags and hangnails and ingrown hairs. Do these last so you don’t have to keep sweeping up after yourself.
Two steps forward, one step backward where you fall down the steps and void your bowels in front of company. Here is a common, though not universal, issue: you write a draft, you identify changes, and you choose a direction to jump — and the next draft embodies that direction. And it’s the wrong direction. Second draft is worse than the first draft. That’s fine. It’s a good thing. Definition through negative space. Now you can understand your choices more clearly. Now you know what not to do and can defend that.
You know how when there’s a murder they need to recreate the timeline? 10:30AM, murderer stopped off for a pudding cup, 10:45AM, victim took a shit in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese, etc? Right. Track the timeline of your revisions. Keep a record of them all. First, if your Word processor allows you to track changes and revisions, do that. If your program doesn’t (Word and Final Draft both do), then get one that does. Second, any time you make a revision change, mark the revision, save a new file every time. I don’t care if you have 152 files by the end of it. You’ll be happy if you need to go back.
Spreadsheets seem anathema to writing, because writing is “creative.” Well, rewriting is clinical and strategic. A spreadsheet can help you track story beats, theme, mood, characters, plot points, quirks and foibles, conflicts, and so on. Any narrative component can be tracked by spreadsheet. Here’s one way: track narrative data per page or word count. “Oh, this character drops off the map for these 10 pages of my script.” “This plot needs a middle bit here around the 45,000 word mark.” “Not nearly enough laser guns and elf-porn at the turn of the third act.”
If you looked at that note about spreadsheets and thought something-something blah-blah-blah about how it will destroy your creativity and ruin the magic of the story, then form hand into fist and punch self in ear. If you need every day of writing to be a nougat-filled boat-ride through Pez-brick tunnels, you’re fucked. Rewriting is hard. Creative comes from “create,” and often, revision is about destruction. In other words: harden the fuck up, Strawberry Shortcake, ’cause the boat ride’s about to get bumpy.
You can’t revise if you don’t know how to write. Same if you don’t know the tenets of good story. How would you fix basic fucking problems if you can’t find them in the first place?
Don’t misread that old chestnut, “Kill your darlings.” Too many writers read this as, “Excise those parts of the work that I love.” That would be like, “Beat all the positive qualities of your child out of him with a wiffle ball bat.” You should leave in the parts you love… if they work. Killing your darlings is about that word: “darling.” Elements that are precious preening peacocks, that exist only to draw attention to themselves, those are the components that deserve an ice-axe to the back of the brain-stem.
In no particular order: Awkward and unclear language. Malapropisms. Punctuation abuse. A lack of variety in sentences. A lack of variety in the structure of the page. Plot holes. Inconsistency (John has a porkpie hat on page 70, but a ferret coiled around his head on page 75). Passive language. Wishy-washy writing. Purple prose. An excess of adverbs. Bad or broken formatting. Cliches. Wobbly tense and/or POV. Redundant language. Run-on sentences. Sentence fragments. Junk language. Cold sores. Mouse turds. Light switches that don’t turn anything on. Porno mustaches. Dancing elves. Or something. I need a nap.
Poetry gets a bad rap. Everyone always assumes it’s the source of purple, overwrought language, like it’s some kind of virus that infects good clean American language and turns it into something a poncey 11th grade poet might sing. Poetry lurks in simple language. Great story does, too. You don’t need big words or tangled phrasings or clever stunting to convey beautiful and profound ideas. In subsequent drafts, seek clarity. Be forthright in your language. Clarity and confidence are king in writing, and the revision process is when you highlight this. Write with strength. Write to be understood. That doesn’t mean “no metaphors.” It just means, “metaphors whose beauty exists in their simplicity.”
I don’t care if the dog is looking at you like you’re crazy. If you’re on the subway, hey, people think you’re a mental patient. Oh well. Seriously though, I hate to repeat myself but I am nothing if not a parrot squawking my own beliefs back at you again and again: Take your work — script, fiction, non-fiction, whatever — and read it aloud. Read it aloud. READ IT ALOUD. When you read your work aloud, you’ll be amazed at the things you catch, the things that sound off, that don’t make sense, that are awkward or wishy-washy or inconsistent. Read it aloud read it aloud read it aloud read that motherfucker aloud.
Ultimate lesson: clinging to a first draft and resisting revision is a symptom of addiction — you may be huffing the smell coming off your own stink. The only way you can get clean is when you want to get clean, and the same goes with revisions: you’re only going to manage strong and proper revisions when you’re eager and willing to do so. Relax your mind. Loosen your sphincter. And get ready for war. Because revising and rewriting is the purest, most fanfuckingtastic way of taking a mediocre manifestation of an otherwise good idea and making the execution match what exists inside your head. Your willingness to revise well and revise deep is the thing that will deliver your draft from the creamy loins of the singing story angels.
by Billy Marshall Stoneking
Any time you hear a screenwriter talking about HOW to write a scene, or HOW to construct a screenplay, or HOW to write effective dialogue, or HOW to develop dramatic characters, Beware! “HOW” is never the right word to start any question regarding drama, story, character or screenwriting, generally. The more useful questions, in terms of getting inside your characters, are WHAT and WHY, and some times WHO and WHERE and WHEN. “How” implies a recipe, a secret esoteric knowledge, as if there is some mystical alchemical process, the knowledge of which is only possessed by a priests class charged with guarding the formula, that sure-fire method for writing screen stories, for which the supplicants come begging. Formulas exist, to be sure, but HOW is no “open sesame” and can never address the more fundamental issues of surprise, freshness and originality - in other words, that rare quality we some times refer to as “the magic”. “How” is usura. When it is employed by the writer it already implies a repertoire of writer-centered choices.
One must FREE DRAMA from the chauvinism and tyranny of a writer-driven story. The writer is only one of the ‘characters’ necessary for finding the story. If the process is reduced to a puppet-puppeteer relationship it produces imbalances of power in the writer / character relationships - the usurpation of the potential potency of the contributions the other characters might make.
“HOW” is strategy. “WHAT”, “WHY”, “WHERE”, “WHO”, and “WHEN” are tactics. “HOW” involves goals and choices that in, film-making, are usually reserved for the director - when the writer involves him or herself in formulating a story’s goals, what needs to happen and what the happenings might possibly mean thematically, he/she is likely to ask “how” questions. But the meat and potatoes of any narrative strategy are the tactics, which are character-driven (writer, audience and tribe). Tactics refer specifically to action. Not how do they act? but why, for what purpose, and what is it that has triggered the action? Knowing how a character acts is not the same thing as understanding why they act.
For the writer that wants to work as a MEDIUM for character, it is not useful to ask of a character: “how did she make such a bad decision?” That is the sort of a question an observer might ask. Better to ask: “Why did she make this decision?” which is more like the question the character would ask of herself. To work as a medium for character, the writer must become more and more invisible. And while I could agree that the “HOW” question might get the writer THINKING - that is not usually an effective way of entering into intimate relationships with the characters. Quite simply, the the process demands that the writer disappears, as much as possible anyway, and that the characters in the story are allowed to say and do whatever they must in order to address the “WHAT” and “WHY” of what is happening to them and what they need to do in order to obtain their objective or reach their goal. “HOW?” is a spectator’s perspective.
For what it’s worth, I do an immense amount of work with writers (as a script editor) - and have done so for nearly 20 years - and I never ask the writers with whom I am working “HOW?” Not as a matter of form, but simply because it sidetracks the writer into a mind-set that separates writer from character. The writers I work with might from time to time ask me “How should I write this?” or similar, and I always respond: “‘How’ is the wrong question - what does the character want and why does the character want it and who or what is stopping the character from getting it, and why?” If you answer those questions, the “how” takes care of itself.
FOR MORE ABOUT READING AND ASSESSING YOUR SCREEN STORIES, GO TO WHERE’S THE DRAMA?
ALSO, USE THE DRAMA REPORTS TO DIAGNOSE SCRIPT AND STORY PROBLEMS.
Those that find the DRAMA REPORTS daunting, will find this list even more confronting and demanding, and yet these are the sorts of questions every serious, dramatic writer has to ask of his/her screenplay if the job of re-writing is to produce real results.
Re-writing a script involves altering the writer's perceptions about what is actually there and not there. Many writers cling to the belief that their story is communicating what they want it to communicate when in fact much of the necessary dramatic information remains locked up in the head of the writer, and not on the page at all.
Strange as it may seem, I have worked with countless writers that are not even able to answer the first of these questions, simply because the story that is being told remains unclear and confusing.
Any script editor that understands drama will naturally look for the ways in which a screenplay provides answers to these questions, and will call the writer's attention to those parts of the story that are not dramatising the action.
Have a look at the list below and see how well your own screenplay stacks up.
1. Who is your main character? Hero? Anti-hero?
2. Why should we be interested in them?
3. What attracts you to your protagonist? Do you like them? Loathe them?
4. Why do you need to write about them?
5. Why should we be excited about them?
6. Why do you believe we will find your hero sympathetic? Empathetic?
7. What makes us curious about them? What is their "mystery"? What is their "magic"? Charisma? How do you show it?
8. What does the audience find in the main character's story that is relevant to them? Why do you believe they will identify with them?
9. What is the cherished secret desire of your main character?
10. Do we laugh at your hero, feel amused by them, or do we admire them?
11. What do we hope for?
12. What are we afraid of?
13. What is the worst thing that could (and hopefully will) happen to your hero?
14. What is the most favorable, brightest moment that they will experience in the story?
15. What are they going to lose if they don't find a way to overcome the adversities?
16. Why can't your characters get what they crave?
17. What does the character do that makes the obstacles – inner or exterior – more insurmountable?
18. What do the characters do that make the threat, the danger, more excruciating, agonizing, humiliating? Who can do that? Why should they?
19. Why can't your characters live at peace with their conscience, respect themselves if they don't get what they so passionately want?
20. And: what is it that your characters want (consciously and tangibly)?
21. On the other hand: what do your characters need (on the emotional, subconscious level)?
22. What sorts of opportunities, problems or desires make the temptations more irresistible and the stakes higher?
23. What can you do to eliminate the audience's disbelief in the initial situation or collision (willing suspension of disbelief)?
24. Is there a deadline (time pressure) for the action to come to a resolution? Could there be? Who can create it?
25. When and how do your main characters realize that they are in trouble and that they must extricate themselves?
26. What are the alternatives you can imagine? How can the problem be solved?
27. But why is it impossible? Who or what makes the solution unattainable?
28. Can the predicament be evaded? What would happen if it were? Who makes the evasion impossible?
29. Can the complication be ridiculed, ignored, forgotten? Make sure that it cannot!
30. Can it be solved peacefully on friendly terms? Who will impair it?
31. Who are the supporting characters your main character can rely upon?
32. Who are the supporting characters your protagonist hopes to get on their side?
33. What doesn't your hero anticipate, know about?
34. What does your hero – falsely – expect that won't happen?
35. Who are the supporting characters who are a threat, who try to humiliate, stop, ridicule, or destroy your hero's plans? Do they know about the secret desires that your hero cherishes?
36. What are their plans? What tactics do they use? What mimicry, what subterfuge? How do they try to mislead, misdirect, confuse the main character?
37. What are their hopes, desires, dreams? What do they want and need?
38. In what ways do they rationalize their moves?
39. What fuels their stubbornness, hatred, rage, damaged self-esteem, ambition? What can help them to feel righteous in their actions?
40. Will the audience understand why your characters act as they do?
41. When does the audience get to know your characters' particular intentions, desires, hopes, and fears?
42. How can the next step that your protagonist makes lead to the unexpected result? What's the miscalculation?
43. What did the counter player do? In what way did the circumstances change?
44. What, if anything, happens to make the goal more desirable or necessary? Who or what does it?
45. What can create the hesitations, doubts, or scruples in the character's mind?
46. Try to imagine all the places, locations, sites that your character can enter in pursuit of their objective or evasion of the danger. Aren't there some more interesting situations there? More contradictory?
47. To what extent and in what way do the locales make the story and the specific scenes or sequences more dramatic, more complicated and difficult (therefore, more revealing) for the characters?
48. Make a list of possible events that can happen believably and plausibly in your chosen environment and a list of possible events that would be unusual, out of routine, and order. Do you see which ones will work best?
49. What are the emotions, conclusions, and decisions that result from the setback, failure, or complication?
50. What emotions does the insult, mistreat, injustice evolve? What danger, what abyss becomes visible for the viewer that the hero doesn't see?
51. What are our expectations now? What do we hope for? What do we wish the characters would do? Why can't they do it?
52. What doesn't the main character know? What is the error, intentional blunder?
53. Do the antagonists mobilize their forces? Do they set a trap? Do they try to confuse the main character?
54. What are the social reasons for their actions? Do they come with accusations? Direct lies? Do they outwit the main character? How?
55. Does the hero panic? Feel alarmed? Insecure? Horrified from the realization of what could happen?
56. And what happens that helps the protagonist? On the other hand, what can help the antagonist?
57. What characters can act as catalysts that can alter and increase the reactions of the antagonist or protagonist?
58. What character (or characters) can go through a similar plight and find a different solution – compromise, assimilation, rejection etc.?
59. What relationships become threatened, broken up, or suddenly transformed?
60. What consequences of the previous actions can aggravate the situation?
61. What are the places your characters don't want to go? Are afraid to go? How do you force them there?
62. What is the prevailing mood/tone of the whole story? Does the environment have a face, character, and temperament?
63. Does the time period reflect on the environment? How? What expresses it besides costumes, props, architecture and means of transportation and communication? How does it reflect our human attitudes, habits, customs, social events, rituals, and language?
64. Are the events sufficiently important and impressionable? Do they help to elucidate the life style, engagement, and involvement of your protagonist?
65. Does the main hero show naiveté, weakness? Disbelief? Re-evaluate everything?
66. Do your hero regret? Recriminate? Seek conciliation? Reject the original plans?
67. Did you exhaust all the possibilities of self-assurance, shrewdness, and foresightedness that your hero can possess?
68. Did you give your antagonists a chance to show their intelligence, vigilance, and alertness?
69. What precautions do your characters take? Do they look for advice? For help?
70. What new plans do they come up with? How do they acquire new courage? What or who can suggest a new stratagem for them?
71. What does the hero do in order to study or learn about the adversary? Does the protagonist discover the weakness of the antagonist? Or are they wrong in their assumption? What trap can both sides set?
72. When they attack each other, what do they do? What tactics does the hero employ to test the enemy?
73. In what noticeable ways does the inner turmoil grow in their minds? In what way, if any, does it embitter the antagonism?
74. What do you feel is the rhythm of the story? Does the tempo of the main action accelerate?
75. What can interrupt, temporarily stop, misdirect, or confuse the growing conflict?
76. Are the chances for the desired resolution and for the despised outcome equal?
77. What is the moment that the viewer becomes ultimately curious about?
78. What does the audience impatiently expect?
79. What doesn't the audience realize will happen when the moment comes?
80. Is the resolution becoming inevitable? What could reverse the course of the action? Did the hero try all the possible ways and means and find out what they inevitably lead to?
81. What hopes still remain for the main character?
82. What are the most feared confrontations that the protagonist tries – in vain, obviously – to avoid, postpone, deny?
83. What is the most humiliating, painful extremity your hero will experience?
84. What is the moment when your antagonist feels triumphant?
85. What happens to increase the adversary's determination not to give up, not to show any restrain, to fight to the bitter end?
86. Does bad – or good – timing work to heighten the stakes (too early, too late, speeding up the plans, etc...)?
87. When does the hero realize the inevitability of the outcome? Can an appeal be made to the antagonist's better nature?
88. Can the fear of shame or disgrace of losing one's face be used?
89. In what ways do the circumstances change to make the outcome more weighty, impressive, convincing?
90. What errors are committed? Does anybody admit the errors?
91. Does anybody plead, beg forgiveness, or confess?
92. Is anybody willing to give up?
93. Is anybody trying to escape?
94. Does anybody feel shame, disgrace, insecurity, betraying one's most cherished principles?
95. Does anybody feel terror stricken of being exposed?
96. Is there a rescue for any of the adversaries? Is this possible? For what price?
97. Is there a moment when a conscience stricken character realizes the consequences of their actions, sees themselves truly and rightly, and tries to stop the inevitable?
98. What is the last thing the main character finds out about?
99. What does "victory" mean after the whole story is over?
100. What is the anticipated emotional response of the viewer/audience when the story ends?
With permission of The ScriptLab
| ||- Albert Einstein|
William Goldman has been quoted as saying that a screenplay is not written, it’s re-written, and most of the screenwriters I know would readily agree with this. Nevertheless, it would seem that many of the writers I work with don’t always work in a way that indicates that they fully appreciate the fine art of re-writing, which is itself a thoroughly creative act or series of acts demanding as much if not more of the writer than the blank page. When considering the nature of the beast, one could do worse than to conceive of re-writing as a re-write of the writer, who – by the way – is also one of the characters whose actions are germane to the success or otherwise of the story-being-found. However, all of this is so much theory until one actually sits down and faces the problems that come with any constructive and useful re-writing of a screen drama. When facing the potential horrors of the next draft, one might do wll to consider the following: