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WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The stuff that dreams are made of

NEVER ASK A STORY-QUESTION WITH THE WORD, "HOW ?"

 by Billy Marshall Stoneking

Any time you hear a screenwriter or script editor 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.

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  WHY A SCENE SUCKS  -  15 MISTAKES TO AVOID

 by Timothy Cooper

I wrote this opening scene specifically for this article, but there isn’t a single error in it that I haven’t read in actual screenplays hundreds of times. I’m serious.

Can you spot all 15 (at least) errors?

Scene for script Magazine Article - CROPPED

Script readers are the gatekeepers who read the thousands of scripts that land on the desks of producers, directors, actors, production companies, studios, agents, and managers. Their job is to evaluate new screenplays all day, every day. Don’t make their job hard; make it fun. Make them sit up and take notice.

Do you think you spotted all of the errors in my opening scene? The 15 reader pet peeves I illustrated above are shockingly easy to fix, and will bring your script that much closer to making every reader recommend your script to their boss. Let’s review:

1. Characters are described in excruciating detail. Physical descriptions, including race, height, clothing, etc., matter far less than most writers think. Leave the costuming up to the costume designer. And don’t restrict the casting unless it’s VITALLY important that your character has blue eyes, or is of Korean descent. What DOES matter is the SOUL of the character. What are they LIKE? Are there a few words that get to the heart of this character’s flaws, desires, or persona?

2. Characters have androgynous names. A girl named Sam or Kyle or Devin. A guy named Stacy or Robin or Sydney. Anyone named Taylor, Casey, or Jamie. Sure, they’re perfectly lovely names. But they don’t work in scripts. Remember that the reader won’t be paying as much attention to your characters as you did, and if they’re reading multiple scripts a day (which they are), they could and will miss the character’s gender in your initial character description. You can still come up with unique, memorable names without confusing the reader.

3. Character names begin with the same letter, and/or look similar on the page. Sam, Sarah, Shari, Shannon: Sure, these might be completely different characters in your mind, but they’re really difficult to grasp for someone who might have to pick up and put down your script multiple times, and isn’t as invested in the characters as you are. Also, whether you’re using Final Draft or any other screenwriting program, you’re giving yourself an extra step every time the autofill feature tries to complete that character’s name! This tiny fix will make a big difference in the reader’s experience.

4. The scene begins at the very beginning of the exchange, rather than the middle. Yes, many conversations begin like this in real life. But on the page, it’s crushingly dull. Instead, enter the scene mid-conflict by jumping in as late as possible (without being confusing). Then, make sure to exit the scene before it’s all wrapped up neatly. This leaves some tension to push the reader into your next scene.

5. Typo. If you have the most amazing story in the world, of course a few typos won’t make a difference. But when we see typos right on the first page, it doesn’t give us a lot of confidence that we’re in good hands, or that you’re submitting your best work. If you’re not adept at, say, recognizing the difference between “your” and “you’re,” consider using a script proofreading service (or an eagle-eyed friend).

6. People say exactly what they mean. Sadly, there’s no subtext here. In this line, Sam is laying out backstory; she’s explaining the past in an obvious way. This saps the tension and takes us out of the scene. Work in the backstory in a different way; if at all possible, mask it. Remember, most people (except for kids) rarely, if ever, say precisely what they mean.

7. The actual action of the scene is unclear. Choreography is important. The reader wants to get a sense of what the film is going to look like, at least for the key beats. So make sure the action is described AS IT HAPPENS, not after the fact. In this case, describe Sam washing her hands right when she does so.

Part of the reason the action is unclear is that we have no sense of the physical space we’re in. What does this kitchen look like? We don’t need a blueprint, but a one-sentence description would help the reader understand and visualize the scene. In this case, the window, sink, and layout of the room should have been mentioned earlier in the scene, so that they didn’t just materialize out of the blue when they were needed for the action.

8. We’re introduced to too many characters on the first page. Introduce us to just a few characters at a time. It’s like going to a party: If the host tells you everyone’s name at once, you won’t remember a single name. But if you start by talking with just two or three people, then move on to the next small group, you’re way more likely to get to know and care about each individual.

9. Formatting issues. Entire actions should not be placed in parentheticals; parentheticals should only be used for occasional emotional clues, brief directions, or pauses. It’s always smart to have at least two friends who understand screenplay formatting read your script’s final draft. They’ll spot errors you might have missed because you’ve been reading the same script over and over for months.

10. Much of the information is impossible to actually show on the screen. It’s okay to include a little bit of background in the character descriptions, but include too much and it looks like you don’t understand film. It’s a VISUAL medium. A lot of your backstory—perhaps all of it—can be filled in by the director and actors. Don’t put nonvisual information in the action descriptions; instead, save that space for actual actions.

11. Long chunks of text. Substantial paragraphs of action or dialogue aren’t completely forbidden. But the reader’s eye naturally skips over huge chunks. These big blocks of text indicate you’re probably describing the action in way too much detail. Remember, we only want the major beats!

12. An unimportant character is given too much weight. If someone only has a few lines, they probably don’t need a full-sentence description, or even a name. Readers just don’t have the brain space to waste on characters who aren’t going to return in a big way.

13. No major conflict. A shortage of serious, life-altering conflicts is the enemy of every screenplay, both at the scene and the story level. This weak attempt at adding a hint of mystery via this subsidiary character doesn’t cut it; there’s still no strong reason for this scene to exist. Now, this doesn’t mean characters need to be fighting all the time; far from it. But underneath EVERY SINGLE EXCHANGE, there needs to be some source of tension that is being created, heightened, or temporarily resolving (to lead to the next conflict).

14. Unnecessary parentheticals. Don’t give actors line readings, or tell the director what to do, UNLESS it’s absolutely vital to understand the meaning of a line. In this case, there’s no particular reason this line needs to be read “mysteriously”; in fact, that interpretation just adds more confusion. Remember: No one likes being told how to do their job!

15. Clichéd dialogue. The worst thing you can do as a writer is give us exactly what we expect. Yes, we’ve all seen movies with clichéd, outdated, predictable, laughable, or boring characters and dialogue. That doesn’t mean we’re interested in seeing that again. We want to be taken by surprise at each story turn, at each line of dialogue. So if it’s a line we’ve seen a million times before, change it up and give us something we didn’t quite expect…or even the exact opposite of what we expect.

                THE AMATEUR'S MOST COMMON MISSTEPS

Courtesy of Danny Manus

There are probably hundreds of signs that the writer of a script is an amateur. But the ones listed below seem to turn up on a fairly regular basis. Most of the solutions to these problems may seem like common sense, yet you’d be amazed at the sheer number of projects plagued with these issues that are not addressed in the re-writing phase.

Remembering that all rules are made to be broken (by those with enough talent to get away with it) and that CHARACTER trumps every plot-driven decision, the following 'signs' provide a handy guide to some of the missteps and minor crimes committed in the name of writing a screenplay. They are in NO particular order of importance, but then they don't need to be.  The presence of any one of these may be sufficient to cause a reader to hurl your script across the room.



1. Writing CUT TOs, FADE TOs, FADE OUTs, or any other transition between every scene.

2. Telling us instead of Showing us.

3. Description is in past tense instead of present tense and does not use the active form of the verb. E.G.: John drives – not John is driving. Danny stands – not is standing. No -ING verbs.

4. Having wordy description paragraphs longer than 4 lines on a page without a line break.

5. Not CAPITALIZING your characters names the first time we meet them in your description. Or capitalizing characters names every time they’re seen or mentioned.

6. Capitalizing every noun and/or verb in your description.

7. Not having a new scene heading for every new location or writing things in your scene heading other than the location, time of day and relation to the previous scene.

8. Your description tells us exactly what your characters are thinking or are about to discuss in dialogue, or tells us backstory the audience cannot see.

9. Having Camera Direction in your description (“we see”, “shot of”, “camera pans” etc)

10. Writing parentheses before dialogue on every page explaining the emotion or how the line should be said.

11. You are not using “Inter-cut With” when going back and forth between two scenes instead of restating the scene heading each time.

12. Lengthy location descriptions or too much production design – we don’t care what color the couch is.

13. Using Voice Over to express and tell things you could express though action and dialogue.

14. All conversations start with “hello” or “how are you” and scenes end with “goodbye, goodnight or talk to you later.” Or if dialogue is full of conversational niceties – thank you, please, your welcome, etc.

15. The scenes lack dynamics – no conflict or tension.

16. Story is missing the meat – has planning and  reflection scenes instead of execution scenes.

17. Subplots are not tracked or seen for more than 15 pages.

18. A kitchen sink script where everything is thrown in to make it seem more commercial and original.

19. Scenes have no emotional goal.

20. There is a lack of emotional/reflective reactions and moments for characters.

21. Introducing more than 3 characters in 1 paragraph – each should preferably have their own paragraph.

22. Using incorrect margins on the page – having too much or too little white space around the edges. Also, incorrect font, spacing, or type set.

23. You use dreams and flashbacks interchangeably. A flashback actually happened, a dream is a subconscious thought had while sleeping.

24. Not giving us your main character’s last names and ages when introducing them.

25. Using music – specific songs and artists – in your scenes or writing a scene to a specific song. What do Beatles, Bowie, Beach Boys, Bon Jovi and Bon Iver all have in common? Their songs will add MILLIONS to your budget.

26. Your main character feels like they were born on page 1.

27. There’s nothing on the line – no STAKES – in the first scene.

28. It isn’t clear where and when your story takes place.

29. Your only antagonist is an emotion or a personal demon.

30. The most commercial moments are not exploited and the dialogue, SFX and VFX don’t POP on the page.

31. There is no time clock of any kind in your story.

32. Your subplots and B stories are not resolved or connect to your main storyline.

33. You are lacking in Set Up, Execution, or Payoff.

34. Your scenes do not evoke any emotion from the reader.

35. You don’t know how to use dialogue, actions, settings or set ups to create smooth transitions between scenes.

36. Your scene goes on 1-2 lines too long and doesn’t end on the most powerful or interesting moment or dialogue.

37. You don’t know the difference between VO, OS, and OC or when to use each one.

38. The dialogue is slight, Q&A, isn’t genuine to the characters or lacks subtext and is all very on the nose.

39. You think a theme and a message is the same thing.

40. Your first scene and first 10 pages don’t grab me.

41. Your protagonist is passive and/or isn’t present in your climax.

42. You write a comedic scene just to hit one joke or one visual gag.

43. You think when you finish your 3rd draft, you’re done and it’s ready to be submitted to agents, producers, actors or contests. It’s not.

44. Your story is not driven by conflict and doesn’t contain an internal, external, mental, physical and emotional conflict.

45. You think the only difference between you and an A-list screenwriter is an agent.

46. The first words out of your mouth when you meet someone is “I’ve written this script…”

47. You think you can break all of these aforementioned rules and mistakes and people will still want to read your script and you’ll still be able to break in because Tarantino did it.

   WHAT TO DO WHEN THE ONLY THING TO DO IS RE-WRITE

Okay, so you've finally completed your first draft, or perhaps you only completed a first draft of Act 1. And you can't shake this disturbing feeling that something about the plot or a character isn't working the way you intended, and it gives rise to all sorts of questions and doubts not to mention a disturbing feeling that maybe you're not up to the job.

What do you do?

It's a question that troubles many writers, and often stops them from doing anything at all, which of course is the worst alternative. Don't let the imagined horrors of the re-write interfere with your ability to tell a good story. You have nothing to fear apart from the dread that you, yourself, have manufactured, and that - fortunately - you can get rid of. Yes, there is a proven method for expunging the anxiety of the re-write, and the hardest part of implementing it is simply making yourself sit down at the computer.

 

Here's what you do (and do it at the start of every writing session):

   1.  Start reading from page.

   2.  When the story stops being compelling, stop reading.

   3.  When you stop reading, draw a line on the page and write “This is where I stopped reading”.

 

What, specifically, made you grind to a halt?  Every script will provide a different answer to this question, of course, but there are some fundamental “don’t”s that if you ignore them are guaranteed to make most readers (and writers) drop out of the story. 

 

Flat-out, naked, untempered exposition

Openings are tricky because you think there is so much you need to explain about your characters, setting, stakes, etc., and it's difficult imagining an elegant way to do it. But, as a reader, it’s even harder. Choking down a straight-up list of facts is boring.

Try mashing the bitter pill of info-dumping into some juicy actions and/or images that show a character’s temperament. Have the other characters praise (or trash) her. Establish given circumstances as much as possible with physical objects, props, setting, etc. Show the horrors, the wealth, the threats, etc whose reality is grounded in the past 

 

Enough description to fill a travel guidebook

Sort of a corollary to the first: waxing poetic about the loveliness of your verdant meadows or the sweatiness of your jungle prison for sentence after sentence will lose my attention fast. Description has the onus of not being dialogue, which is snappy and fast-moving, and not being action, which is bone-crushingly urgent.Think of the BIG PRINT - always - as a SHOWING, not a describing, and keep  it vivid and punchy.


Too many above-the-shoulders observation phrases

Here’s what I mean: if we’re in a character’s POV, you can almost always cut verbs that occur above the shoulders: see, think, feel, smell, notice, and so on.

“The streets stink of rotten fish” is much stronger writing than “Will breathes in the rank air of the marketplace and puts his hand to his nose. 

 

Be cagey

This is the prizewinning, never-fail, guaranteed way to make me stop reading. Concealing details from the reader just for the sake of manufacturing narrative tension does not work. If your character knows a piece of information, then let us know through action or dialogue - make it concrete.


Wild inconsistencies

Screenplays are very long, logically sound lies. That is to say, you’ve got to get your story straight! If a character goes from being Sarah to Sasha, or suddenly grows six inches, or changes hair color without going near a bottle of dye, I’m going to get fed up and quit. Your reader trusts you to know and show what’s going on, and even the smallest mistake will betray that trust.

 

This list is far from exhaustive, but it will get longer as you draw more and more lines under the passages in your script where the energy stops building. 

 

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      25 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT RE-WRITING

 Courtesy of Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds

 

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.


2. Sometimes, To Fix Something, You Have To Break It More

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.

3. It’s Cruel To Be Kind

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.

4. The Aspiration Of Reinvention

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*

5. Palate Cleanser

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.”

 

 

6. The Bugfuck Contingency

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.

 

7. The Proper Mindset

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.

 

8. Go In With A Plan Or Drown In Darkness

You write your first draft however you want. Outline, no outline, finger-painted on the back of a Waffle House placemat in your own faeces, 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.

9. Don’t Rewrite In A Vacuum

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.

 

10. Embrace The Intervention Of Notes

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 favour, so do not waste them.

 

11. But Also, Check Your Gut

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.

 

12. When In Doubt, Hire An Editor

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.

 

 

13. Multitasking Is For Assholes

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.

 

14. Not Always About What’s On The Page

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.

 

15. Content, Context, Then Copy

Behind, then, the layer cake of editing. Start with content: character, plot, description, dialogue. Move to context: those vapours 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.

 

16. Evolution Begins As Devolution

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.

 

17. Two Words: Track Revisions

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.

 

18. Fuck Yeah, Spreadsheets

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.”

 

19. A Reiteration Of Opinion Regarding “Creativity”

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.

20. Put The Fun In Fundamentals

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?

 

 

21. A Trail Of Dead Darlings

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.

22. Look For These Things And Beat Them To Death, Then Replace

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.

 

23. Clarity Above Cleverness, Or, “How Poetry Lives In Simplicity”

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.”

24. Don’t Make Me Say It Again: Read. Your Shit. Aloud.

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.

25. Loose Butthole

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.

 

   THE 100 CORE QUESTIONS EVERY STORY MUST ANSWER

 

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

 THE FIRST RE-WRITE IS CUT CUT CUT

 
You've all heard the famous expression that "Writing is rewriting", but before you can effectively re-write anything, you will need clear out everything that is not necessary for showing the story. That is why I tell all my writing students that the first thing to do after they're written their first draft is to get a pen or a pencil, read through a "hard-copy" of the screenplay, and cross out every word, sentence, or paragraph, in both the dialogue and the "the big print" that isn't absolutely essential for communicating the meaning and spirit of the dramatic action.  Before writing can become re-writing, the smart writer will take a razor to the text an excise all the dross. A good screenplay - like jazz - depends on what you leave out. Writing is cutting, deleting, and chopping out all the bullshit, which are usually thinly disguised artifacts of the writer's fears and insecurities.
 
As writers, it's painful to kill your best-loved lines, but the reason we usually love them is because we find them personally reassuring or reinforcing of our own identity as writers, rather than meaningfully contributing to the emotional life of what is going on inside the emotional lives of the dramatis personae. Wake up! Whenever you begin to feel utterly protective of what you have conceived to be your natural genius, and find that you are watching your self like some bad soap from the corner of an obsessive work room,  blithely pounding out each well-turned phrase as you savour the picture of yourself - the writer - with the metaphorical palate of some 3rd-rate wine taster, you know you've gone too far.
 
It's difficult admitting that our own ideas might be bogging us down, but we must if we ever want to crawl out from the baggage and the brick wall that our assumptions, expectations and anxieties are leading to, we have to develop an appreciation and mastery of the Dionysian aspect of creation, namely that "Writing is mercilessly destroying dozens of carefully composed thoughts". So embrace your cleaver and learn to love the massacre. Your writing will be better for it. 

And if you're wondering just where and how to start, why not begin my combing through your dialogue, scene by scene. Remember, you need to get your reader/audience into each scene as late as possible and out as early as possible. 

If you scan for the following bits of dialogue, and you'll end up with a shorter, tighter script:
  • Salutations – The vast majority of the time, we don't need to see characters greeting each other the way we humans greet each other in the real world. "Hi, John. How are you?" is dull and boring and completely unnecessary. Instead, jump right into the meat or conflict of your scene. Clearly, there are exceptions here. Salutations can sometimes be used to reveal character relationships or tendencies, or as a comedic device. But be honest with yourself, and if they have no purpose, push the pleasantries aside.
  • Opening with a question. Scan your work for scenes that open with a question, and see if you can achieve the same effect by opening with a response. Or even the response to that response. But be careful not to rephrase the question in the response, because that comes off as sloppy. "What do you mean rephrasing the question in the response comes off as sloppy, John!?" See? Open with the demand for a divorce and work backwards, and I'm hooked.
  • Any 'aside'.. At all. Especially to end a scene. Especially if the scene ends on a joke. Don't deflate your punch by having one character comment on it before you cut away. No matter how clever that comment is, you want to get out of every scene as quickly as possible, and end on a high note.

After you've done all this, re-read your script with an objective eye. Often times, you'll find huge chunks of screenplay that can be deleted or re-arranged. Does every scene move your story forward? If not, cut it. Is every joke as funny as it was in the first draft? Probably not. As screenplays morph from one draft to the next, jokes can lose comedic resonance. Jokes that are hysterical in the first draft might not make sense in the final draft. As a writer, we remember how funny it was in the first place, and struggle to cut it. The same logic applies to dramatic situations. If a new draft lost a small dramatic subplot, make sure all evidence of that subplot disappears. Misplaced remnants of old drafts in new drafts are confusing and easy to spot. 

If you've done all that and your script is still a few pages too long, don't give up hope. Although there are plenty of well documented 'cheats' out there, there are a few legitimate avenues to pursue that don't compromise the format or integrity of your screenplay.
 
  • Look for blocks of action tacked onto the end of your scenes. Often, this is just filler that slips through the cracks. If the action at the end of your scenes doesn't move the story forward or reveal something new, you can cut it.
  • Look for lone lines of action between dialogue. Can these lines be tacked onto earlier action paragraphs or deleted all together? Each lone action line takes three lines of your screenplay, and it's probably not worth it.
  • Inspect all your parentheticals. Delete all of them and then read through your screenplay again. You won't notice their absence most of the time, and if you do, you can always write them back in.
  • Scan for ellipses in your dialogue. Is this the character hesitating, or you hesitating as you wrote? Trust the actors to insert trepidation, and save lots of space in the process.
  • Cut overly long action. "JOHN GETS UP, CROSSES TO THE DOOR AND OPENS IT," can usually be replaced by "JOHN OPENS THE DOOR."
  • Check to see if characters are referred to by name too often. This isn't how we talk in real life, but character names are often over-used in screenplays, and they take up lots of space!
 
Feeling lighter?
 
It's surprisingly rewarding to discard unnecessary bits of writing. Even if it's like pulling teeth to admit they're unnecessary. Your script will always benefit from deletion, and at the end of the process you might even find you have room to squeeze in something new and improved. So put your pointer on that delete key, and CUT CUT CUT!
 
3 Rules of Work
 
out of clutter find simplicity,
from discord find harmony,
in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

    - Albert Einstein
 

       RE-WRITING THE SCREENPLAY

 

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:  

 

  1. Take a break between your last draft and your next one. Walk away from the computer. Clear your thoughts. Take a drive, or a short holiday – break the routine with which you’ve become accustomed. Stay away from the script for at least a couple of days. Or even a week. When you come back to what you are writing, come back fresh, as a virtual stranger.
  2. Print the script out on paper.
  3. Take the printed copy and find a comfortable place – preferably NOT where you usually write. The more remote the better (a public bus, for example) or a table at the back of an uncrowded café)
  4. Read the whole script through, crossing out everything that is not absolutely relevant or emotionally meaningful to the building and releasing of energy. This includes dialogue and BIG PRINT. Get rid of as many “ands” and “buts” as possible. Avoid passive voice and prosaic description. Make it live. Make it lean. Excise everything that is not absolutely essential to the spirit of the characters and their story.
  5. Inscribe ALL changes onto the computer, print out new draft. Go for a walk. Leave it for a day.
  6. Print out new draft, read through the entire draft, noting all the things you like. Use “ticks” or even take the pages you like and set them in a separate pile. Do the same for those sections or pages that are just ok (use a “+”), and for the pages you hate (use an “X”).
  7. Take the first fifteen pages. Check the rhythm and flow of the visual action, shot by shot, scene by scene. Identify the objectives of each character in each scene. Make sure that each one is “fighting” or struggling for something.
  8. Using a pen, writing on the script, “blow up” or expand upon those scenes that lack drama ad/or clarity. Delete any scenes that do not instance change in the fortunes of the characters. Make sure that your main characters are active and that their actions are clearly motivated.
  9. Identify the “dramatic problem” (disturbance or catalyst) that compels the main character/s to act. What is driving the central character/s and what dramatic question does the existence of this problem prompt one’s audience to ask?
  10. Keep working on the first ten to fifteen pages until they work for you - the writer – as well as for your (imagined) audience.  (See AUDIENCE)
  11. When you are satisfied that you cannot do anything more to improve the opening fifteen pages, go on to the next fifteen pages and repeat the process.
  12. Continue to work on the script, fifteen pages at a time until you have reached the end. Under no circumstances must you go on to the next fifteen pages until you are satisfied with the fifteen pages that you are currently working on.
  13. When you have reached the end, go for a walk. Take a few days off. Come back to the script fresh and enter ALL the changes you have made to the script into the computer. Relax. Take a few days off.
  14. Come back to the computer fresh. Read through the script from the perspective of your audience. Use ticks to check off what you like, pluses to indicate what is ok and X’s to signify what still needs work. An astute audience will be cognizant of many issues simultaneously, e.g.: is the story emotionally logical. Are the actions of the characters clearly motivated? Is the action and dialogue concise? Does it convey the emotional energy that is germane to the characters’ predicament? Does it conduct the audience into a relationship with the characters? What is confusing? Are there unneeded repetitions?
  15. For dialogue, read it out loud in the patches where it feels rough. Read it to a stranger. On a bus or a train. You will hear what it is that you don’t need or what sounds inauthentic. Cross out everything that isn’t coming from the character that is actually speaking it. (NOTE: A lot of dialogue that is written performs as internal notes to the writer that the writer has written to him/herself. Beware those “writer-talking-to-himself lines”.
  16. After polishing the draft, have some actor friends do a read of the script; pick someone good to do the narration.
  17. Fill out a Drama Report. Have everyone who attended the reading fill out a Drama Report (See DRAMA REPORT) – take a few days off.
  18. Re-read script. Read reports. Repeat entire process as required.