The Rewriting Phase Tips

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Solidify Your Characters

Are you having trouble making your hero likable? You probably need to work on his setup. Re-examine his character. If his character traits are no longer the best ones, brainstorm new ones. Display your character's traits through action and dialogue instead of describing them. Remember the golden rule: Show, don't tell.

Then do the same thing for your antagonist, and repeat for every major character.

Here are some more points to keep in mind during the rewrite:

• Do your characters have clear agendas and goals? Is their primary conflict external?
• Does every character in the script have a story purpose? Are they the best characters for this story?
• Do you have two characters that are too similar? If so, can you eliminate one or combine them into a single character?
• Have you given your characters an inner conflict and a character flaw?
• Are your characters drawn into relationship through rapport and conflict?
• Do all major characters have a character arc?
• Are your hero and antagonist introduced in a compelling and dramatically exciting way?

There's no story without conflict, and at this point in your rewrite, you might want to try the following exercise. Create a mind map of conflict. Write down the name of your hero, his antagonist(s), and every substantial secondary character. Then draw arrows indicating who is in conflict with whom, and over what. If any one character is left without an arrow pointing directly or indirectly to your hero, he or she is a hindrance to your script. Even your hero's best friend ought to disagree with him at some point.


Fix The Story Problems

Too many writers seem to believe rewriting means tinkering with the small stuff—lines of dialogue, finding the perfect adjective, fiddling with spelling and grammar. While that is definitely a part of rewriting, it's not the place to start.

Concentrate on the big picture. Make sure your story works. You might have to cut or add scenes or characters, rewrite your entire opening or ending, or even rethink your entire concept. So why spend time perfecting something you might end up throwing out?

Write a one-page synopsis of your story. Use one paragraph for each act. Is the synopsis exciting? Does the story hold together? If not, perfect the synopsis and use it as a guide for your rewrite.

Here are some points to keep in mind when analyzing your story for weaknesses:

• Reexamine your central conflict. Is it as powerful as it can be?
• What is the ultimate story question? Has it been answered?
• What is the story's theme? Can you articulate it?
• Does your story stay on track, or does it meander?
• Does your story have organic turning points (inciting incident, act climaxes)?
• Does your hero face ever more difficult obstacles? Does the plot build momentum?
• Is your hero the best hero for this story? Is his goal clear, does he drive the story, and does he have a character arc?
• What about the antagonist? Is he the best antagonist for this story?
• Are there any plot holes?
• Are the subplots working? Do they contribute to the story by supporting or contrasting the main theme?
• Does the story have an ebb and flow of tension that keeps the audience permanently interested?


Getting Dirty

Think of your first draft as a lump of clay: malleable, flexible raw material. To mold it into a solid screenplay, you need to feel totally free to add, subtract, rearrange, destroy, and reshape material. Jump in, get dirty up to the elbows, allow yourself to feel the grit under your fingernails. Rewriting isn't a job for sissies.

The biggest mistake you could make in the rewriting phase is to get too precious with your first draft. Don't be afraid of losing material you like. If it doesn't fit the story, be disciplined enough to throw it out. This is known as "killing your darlings," and it's an essential skill to develop. As screenwriter Andrew Bennett put it, "Great writers aren't great first-drafters. They're great rewriters."

You may be head over heels in love with your first draft, and maybe it even deserves all that affection. But once you have rewritten a script several times, take your final draft and compare it with the first one. Most writers will admit that their brilliant first draft now appears terribly flawed and downright unlovable.

So save a copy of your current draft in a read-only file if it makes you feel better. Then roll up your sleeves and let the mudslinging begin.


The Final Edit

Congratulations! You started with the big picture. You worked your way through story and character problems, you elevated your dialogue, and you got rid of clichés. Now, finally, is the moment you've been waiting for: agonizing over every single word. A few tricks of the trade:

Choose the most descriptive verb. John sees his girlfriend flirting with another man at the bar. Does he simply walk over? Or does he march, sidle, or sneak up?

Eliminate adverbs. Adverbs modify a verb and they usually end in "ly." Some examples are "answers quietly," "sits heavily," and "runs quickly." Adverbs tell how someone did something. If your scene is well written, if you've shown rather than told, adverbs become superfluous. Show us "sitting heavily" with a more descriptive verb—plop, collapse. Ditto for "answers quietly" (whispers) and "runs quickly" (races).

Use specific nouns. Replace say-nothing, generic nouns with more descriptive ones. Is it a house? Or is it a mansion, a hut, or a dump? Does your hero drive a car? Or does he drive a station wagon, a pick-up, or a convertible? Descriptive nouns imply different things. A character who lives in a house and drives a car tells us nothing, but put him in a mansion and give him a pick-up truck, and you paint a specific picture.

Cut down on adjectives. Adjectives describe nouns: a big man, a comfortable chair. Like adverbs, most adjectives are superfluous and can be eliminated. For example, an expensive Rolex is redundant, since all Rolexes are expensive. Sometimes you can bypass an adjective by choosing a more descriptive noun. Thus a big man becomes a colossus, and a comfortable chair becomes a recliner. There are times, however, to use adjectives, and that's when they add something new or unexpected. If you write about a melancholy bride, for example, we perk up. Why? Brides are supposed to be happy, so we wonder why this one is not. Choose your adjectives carefully. Only use them if they're necessary and add something to your script.

End with a punch. Create forward momentum by leaving the punch line for the end. Suppose your teenaged hero says: "I'm going to save my Mom. Because I'll have to live with it forever if I don't." Now flip it: "I'm going to save my Mom. Because if I don't, I'll have to live with it forever." Saving the most important word (forever) for last stops you from giving the joke away too soon and keeps the reader involved until the end.

Check spelling, grammar, and formatting when everything else is done. Run a spellchecker, but don't rely on it. It won't catch commonly confused words, like its and it's, to and too, and their and they're. If you've written trial but meant trail, the spellchecker won't save you. Have someone else proofread your script. Their eyes will be fresher than yours.


Punch Up The Dialogue

Now that you've worked through your story problems and have solidified your characters, you can turn your attention to dialogue. It's normal to have a lot of on-the-nose dialogue in a first draft. But now it's time to punch it up.

Does your dialogue:

• propel the action forward by anticipating the future through predictions, warnings, or implication?
• deliver emotion (funny, threatening, evasive)?
• come from your character's core traits?
• have subtext?
• allow for moments of wordless communication, such as silence itself or action in place of words?
• use metaphor, irony, and sarcasm?
• generate unexpected responses?
• go to the extreme?
• contain jargon?

Remember, good dialogue is a match of wills. Depending on your story and characters, the tussle of words can be fun and playful. To give you an example, I recently called my cousin to wish him a Merry Christmas. "Who are you? Put Alexis on the phone," he responded. That was his way of ribbing me for what he perceives (correctly, I might add) to be my lack of Christmas spirit. I cracked up. What a great response to a banal statement like "Merry Christmas." It revealed character, it spoke volumes about our relationship, it was funny, and it was steeped with subtext. Put your characters in situations of constantly negotiating their status, and your dialogue will come to life.


Smooth Out Your Scenes

Does every scene in your script have a purpose? Does the scene move the story forward? Or is a scene there simply to entertain or to shade the character a little? Unneeded scenes waste precious time. The writer misses a golden opportunity to solidify the story, resulting in plot holes and characters who aren't as well-rounded as they could be. Go through your script and look for flabby or redundant scenes and either rewrite or cut them.

Once you've decided a scene is necessary, make it the best it can be. Here are some questions to guide you:

• Is there a dramatically compelling conflict and goal in this scene?
• Do you have the right characters for this scene?
• Do we know who drives the scene?
• Does the character succeed or fail in achieving his goal?
• Does the scene start and end at the right places?
• Is the setting the best possible setting?
• Are the actions visually compelling and in character?
• Does the scene have a beginning, middle, and end?

Do the same for your scene sequences:

• Do the complications get progressively harder?
• Do they build to a turning point?
• Do the scenes flow naturally and logically?
• Are the scenes in the right order?
• Is the main conflict sustained throughout?


Is It Done, Yet?

In some ways, a script is never done. If you pick up a script today that you thought you finished a year ago, I bet you'll find things to change. But at some point you have to decide it's time to send it out.

Ask yourself, "Can it be better?" If you can honestly answer, "Not to the best of my knowledge," then submit it somewhere. If you have turned yourself inside out, fixed every problem you saw, put the script aside, looked at it again and again, and satisfied yourself that you've done your best, kiss your script goodbye and send it to fend for itself in the wilds of Hollywood. Most likely it'll come home with its tail between its legs, begging you for another rewrite, but don't despair. Take your lumps with pride and pat yourself on the shoulder for having made the next step. Your choices are either to rewrite it yet again or to start a new screenplay.

Unfortunately, most screenwriters send their script out when their answer to "Can it be better?" is, "No. It's perfect! Except for that little problem in the second act. And I still haven't resolved the love story. But otherwise it's ready." Don't make this mistake. "Take the time to perfect your script," says producer Maggie Soboil. "Present the finest work you can. You should be proud to attach your name to the script you're sending out."

Be honest with yourself when evaluating your work. If you see a problem, others will, too. No matter how sick you are of working on the damned thing or how eager for market feedback, never, ever market a script you know is flawed. Nobody wants to waste their time on work you know is substandard, so show your readers some respect. Find the discipline to finish the job.


Eliminate Clichés

Clichés are ideas, thoughts, phrases, and metaphors that were once original and insightful but have now lost both insight and originality and have become empty and formulaic. Earlier I mentioned an example of a once-original twist that is now a plot cliché: the corrupt cop as criminal. But clichés can appear just about anywhere—in your concept, your plot, your characters, your dialogue, even in the screenwriting devices you use. Examples of clichés in everyday speech are phrases such as, "at the end of the day," "I gave him the best years of my life," and even "all's well that ends well," which wasn't a cliché when Shakespeare penned it.

Go through your script one more time and sniff out clichés, formulas, gimmicks, and anything that is overused and misused. For example, if you want to show the passage of time, think of a more interesting way than cutting to a clock. Examine your scene transitions, your character responses, and the devices you use to create anticipation. Make sure they're varied and fresh. "Devices should help you create unpredictable characters and situations," says screenwriter/editor Jackie Pike. "But used too frequently, they turn into clichés. Amateurs use one device four hundred times. Great writers use four hundred different devices."

Eliminating clichés means never being satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind. No matter how much work it takes, if you become relentless in stamping out clichés, your script will improve dramatically.

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