DRAFT GIFIf you cannot rewrite, you are not a writer. The first draft of your script is virtually a practice run. No matter how excited you are to have written 120 pages of something, 120 pages of something is not a script. Your rewrite will always take a tremendous amount of frustrating work and the rewritten script will always be exponentially better than the first draft. If this is not the case – you did not do your job.

At the risk of being branded a “mentor”, I will tell you how to rewrite.

The purpose of a rewrite is to clarify and intensify every aspect of your story. In a professionally written commercial screenplay, each scene advances theme, character and plot. It does not merely advance them; it substantially advances them. Because a screenplay is short, each moment must carry a huge amount of weight – it must be filled with highly concentrated theme, character and plot. With the happening of each scene, the relationships between characters must deepen, the conflicts between them must intensify, and the protagonist’s commitment to his or her goal must become more obsessive. With each moment, the theme must be more severely tested; ignoring it must have greater and greater consequence.

The first draft of your script will not do that. It will sing-song, it will contain scenes that are really cool but unrelated to the theme, the story’s resolution may not even grow out of the theme at all, but just out of the plot. The relationship between the characters will be static or uneven or melodramatic (i.e. rely on stock emotions). In short, it will stink.

This does not mean you are a bad writer – it means you have written a first draft.

Before writing the next draft, you must thoroughly analyze your first draft and identify these weaknesses. How does each scene substantially advance theme, character and plot? What is the theme? (It usually changes from your first ideas about the story.) For each scene, how is the relationship between characters deepened even as the conflict between them is intensified?

You must invest the tremendous work it takes to answer these questions for each and every scene. If you cannot answer them, your story will be hopelessly muddled. It will not have an impact on your audience.

During this analysis you will identify strong scenes and weak scenes; you will learn what your story is really about. You will learn that much of the material has no place in your story – even scenes you thought were your best.

Now, you will create new material to fill in the many gaps, repair the weaknesses. Each bit of new material must adhere to this high standard you have set for yourself – it must fulfill the purposes of substantially advancing the theme, the characters and the plot. Only by fulfilling these purposes in every moment will your story be compelling, driven and satisfying to your audience. A story is tightly wound around a central unified core (theme) and this is the process of winding it.

Now, you will see your story begin to have true movement, not just movement of plot, but real story movement. The rewrite is hard – often harder than the first draft – but it is much more exciting. A properly performed rewrite brings the story to life. When you are done, you will see an exponential improvement in the quality of the story – that is the mark of a real rewrite (as opposed to mere tinkering).

Then, of course, you must clear your head, accept that this draft is not yet nearly at the level required to meet your competition, namely the best writers in the industry, and you must rewrite it yet again. You start by analyzing each and every scene….

9 thoughts on “REWRITE = FOCUS”

  1. A great post. It’s always a temptation to want to write things perfect first time around, but it really doesn’t work that way. As Hemingway said: “All first drafts are shit.”

  2. One benefit of embracing this idea over the years is that my first drafts tend to show up in a more “developable” state… Primed, in a way, for the process, since I am no longer trying to get it perfect on first pass but simply “get it down” and let the ideas have as much free reign as possible. The fact that a lot (most?) of it doesn’t really work doesn’t slow me down or bother me as much. All writing is rewriting, indeed! Thanks for the site.

  3. A very helpful post. I am just now learning to let go of my best scenes in order to make the overall story better. Re-writing is always the hardest part for me. I wish other blogs devoted more posts to it. Thanks.

  4. Great post. I recognize all the same problems in my own work that you have illustrated here. It does take great concentration to give it all nuance and presence. more so than the first draft or the vomit draft.

    Something I’ve come away with from the rewriting process is it’s not a marathon. The three or five pages a day rule is bullshit. Some scenes require more intense concentration then others to get them in the place they need to be. You may not crack that nut the first time around. Some days you might write one page, some days ten. I think writers sets themselves up for failure when they commit to a daily page count.

    I’m in the middle of a rewrite now and one thing I’m finding satisfying is the feeling that I, the writer, am being pulled by the story I am writing. I get anxious but it a good way. Almost like the story is taking hold and starting to live on it’s own. That is a sign, to me, that maybe I’m on to something.

  5. yes, absolutely. writing is rewriting, rewriting is rereading. even if you don’t devote any energy to structural stuff (character development, theme, etc) a rewrite can improve the draft on the sentence level. i often find clunky word choice, bland description, horribly stupid typos (to/too, your/you’re, etc). also find that two sentences can be combined into one, more powerful, sentence. also find (many many) lines that can be cut altogether.

    if you’re afraid to tackle a structural rewrite, try a simple narrative rewrite. forget dialogue, theme, plot – just work on the descriptions, line by line.

  6. Yeah, we can ALL do some sort of rewrite. Even if it is just shortening up some sentences, combining three plot elements into one major one, adding in a bit of research about something you discovered after the fact. Personally the rewrites are where I have the most fun and satisfaction. Making corrections, adding and subtracting give me goosebumps..or is that the peppermint schnapps?

  7. I’m a screenwriter who is currently working on a play. My mentor read the first draft this week and I just met with him this afternoon. Well, he took Ockham’s razor to it. In fact, he scratched out so much material, Ockham’s axe wouldn’t even do the job. Try Ockham’s barrel of fire.

    But this is a part of the rewriting phase… I still have many drafts in me before the script will be…. explosive and delicious.

  8. Each scene advances theme, character, plot. I don’t disagree, but it’s difficult to see how this applies in lots of comedies. I could list examples for your proposition, I could list examples contrary. But I want to know your thoughts. Can you expand on the thesis of your article about rewriting as respects comedy?

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