Here is a very abbreviated version of a question by Rick from Scottsdale:

When you (or anyone) are hired to rewrite a script, is it industry practice to mimic the voice of the previous writer(s)?

In his full question, Rick explains that he was hired by a writer/producer to rewrite two of her scripts. Despite explaining to her what he would be doing to the scripts, at the end of the process, she was incredibly unhappy that he changed her tone and feel. (His full original question is set out below.)

Well, Rick, you got screwed. You had the worst of all possible worlds, being hired to rewrite the work of your employer. How could you possibly have passed that test? All writers know, we hate being rewritten.

To answer your question, there is no standard. In studio circles, writers are ordinarily hired to rewrite based upon their existing work, so the employer knows somewhat what kind of voice they can expect on the rewrite. However, that in no way guarantees the employer will be happy. Development executives really don’t know what they want until they see it. They give notes, but their notes are just a guess about what will work. As every writer also knows, outlines are just outlines and notes are just notes. Something happens in the process of execution that is different from notes and outlines. If you slavishly follow the executives’ notes, you are no more likely to satisfy them than if you simply nod nicely while they give you the notes, then write whatever you think will work.

At the end of the day, you listen diligently, work hard to understand the executive’s point of view, consider the rewrite work you intend to do carefully in light of the employer’s goals for the piece, then execute in whatever manner you think will turn out the best story for the intended audience. Your own ultimate judgment is your best guide.

By the way, congratulations on being hired for rewrite work. That is the meat and potatoes of the motion picture screenplay industry.

For more on rewriting, you may want to check out the Artful Writer.

Enough. Now go rewrite….
Continue reading “REWRITERS IN HELL”

KURT VONNEGUT (1922-2007)

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Kurt Vonnegut offered the following advice on writing:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Goodbye, Mr. Vonnegut….


After a lengthy holiday break, the Thinking Writer is back. I’ll start with something light.

Aiken from Canada writes:

A silly little question but how would you write out in words a year like “1905”. It’s the “0” of course that’s bugging me.

I would not write it out in words. The number is more concise and clearer to the reader. However, if you have to write it out for some reason, I would spell “0” as “O”.


I ran into a writer acquaintance today. We are not exactly friends, but we share mutual friends and run into each other every six months or so. He has written a number of successful movies for A-list stars and has assignments for the next several years already booked, so I always listen when he talks. This time, I ran into he, his wife and their little boy at a coffee shop in a part of town I do not usually frequent. He asked why I was there and, more importantly, where I usually have coffee. I told him about a little coffee shop by the beach. He asked more about it. “Does it have outside tables?” “What is the crowd like?” “Does it get the beach breeze?” I finally asked why he wanted to know. He said, “I’m always looking for a better place to write.”

I abandoned coffee shops several years ago, believing myself to be too professional. But this conversation served as a reality check. I used to get an incredible amount of highly focused work done in the coffee shops. In fact, thinking back, I believe it was easier to focus in those days than it is today in my current office, with the phone, the fax, the kid and all the other distractions of life all around. There’s something about the din of conversation that acts as a buffer between writing and the world. There’s also something about being alone in a crowd. And, there’s definitely something about having good coffee, bagels, muffins and, eventually, lunch, all handy just for the asking.

Maybe I’m not too good for the coffee shops. Maybe its time to wake up and smell the coffee.


---Sleeper---Nick from PA asks:

I’ve just finished rewriting (mostly compressing) my script. It was 135 pages long, now it’s 112.
The acts break down like this:
Act 1 – 32 pages
Act 2 – 62 pages
Act 3 – 18 pages;
Now, obviously, the exposition seems to be too long. Is this slow start a problem?
I tried to shorten it, but just couldn’t. I still need every scene in it. Should I nevertheless cut it down, or I could use such detailed setup and ‘get away’ with it?

Analyzing a story in terms of pure structural paradigms is dangerous business. It’s not that structure is unimportant. On the contrary, structure is critical. The problem is, solid structure arises from many other aspects of the writing. Simply looking at act breaks provides no insight into whether a story works nor does it assist the writer much in improving the story unless other central issues are well understood.

Structure is dictated by the needs of the story. For example, in “The Sixth Sense”, the inciting incident is simply announced; Malcolm tells Cole he is there to help him. Somewhere between Malcolm being shot and Malcolm meeting Cole, something happened to incite him, but we never know what it is. And there is no first act break to speak of, either. Yet, because the story is very focused around its central theme and maintains escalating tensions and stakes, it is structurally sound.

Similarly, in “Casablanca”, we do not even meet Rick until well into the first act. We do not meet or know anything about Ilsa until the second act. We do not know of the connection between Ilsa and Rick until after that. Yet, the story is very structurally sound.

In your story, you need to examine more than just act breaks. What happens in the first 32 pages? What keeps the audience engaged? When do you create a “contract” with the audience, to use Alex Epstein’s terminology? All of these issues and more play into whether a story works. The fact that the first act break is on page 32 means nothing in the abstract.

One clue to whether your story works is in the wording of your question. It suggests you already believe it does not work. You mention a “slow start” and “getting away with it.” I have found two things to be true. First, I will always doubt my work. And, second, most of my doubts are well-founded. The trick is to push the story as far as you can, which is always much further than you think you can (and many more drafts), and then live with its imperfections. Based upon your question, my guess is that you are not there yet.


There is a guy you know who knows a guy. You called him and he agreed to give you some feedback on your script. You worked for a year on this script; you know it’s a killer story. And you know it’s ready. So you sent it to him for feedback.

Unfortunately, the dumb S.O.B. isn’t giving you feedback. You’ve been waiting for nine days. Doesn’t he know you are on a schedule? Doesn’t he know you’re going to make whatever few changes are needed and have it ready right away to submit to that other guy you heard might be looking for something just like it? Doesn’t this guy care at all? I mean, he’s had it for nine days!!!! Christ, how long does it take to read a script? He’s screwing up your big opportunity. Right?!?


Try a reality check. First, reading somebody’s screenplay and giving notes as a favor is not on the top of anyone’s list. If it took you a year to write, why should someone feel compelled to give you notes in a few days? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the script stinks and the reader has to figure out how to say something constructive when, if it were a professional read, he or she would just say, “Pass.”

Second, you don’t really need it immediately, anyway. You are going to get notes – you always get them. And the notes will send you into another month or six of revisions.

Third, the guy who is looking for something just like it isn’t really looking for anything like it, nor does he really have the ability to move on anything anyway. If he did, he’d have a thousand things just like it already. (Don’t write to the market. You will always be behind it.)

Fourth, this reader’s opinion is just one opinion. If you rewrite to satisfy the comments for each casual read someone gives your material, your story will be turned to mush quickly.

Here’s a better approach.

(i) Treat each draft as if it were the final draft. Submitting it for notes should be a significant event for which you have put in a fair amount of work to line up your readers.

(ii) Do not rewrite based on one set of notes that were given to you as a favor. Look at the body of notes and make decisions yourself. You will see a pattern to all of them that will reveal a great deal to you. (Of course, the advice is different if you are working on developing the script with a producer. His or her notes count, all by themselves. Even so, don’t be a robot. It’s your script.)

(iii) Take time between each reading draft. Count on your note-givers to take time to get you their comments. Work on another story while you’re waiting for all of the comments to come in. Count on taking time to think about all of these comments before you make changes.

(iv) Accept the fact that some people who promised to read your script will never get around to it. It’s okay. Do not be a jerk about it.

(v) Do not be anxious and make nonsensical changes every time someone gives you comments. Changes should be thoughtful and make a real advancement in the quality of the story. The difference between a serious first draft and a serious second draft should be substantial and dramatic.

Okay. Relax. It’s a process.

Enough. Now go write.