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.