REWRITE = FOCUS

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….

SHOULD TYPOS COUNT?

Is it fair that typos count against you? Is it a good thing that ideas are placed second to punctuation, grammar and spelling?

I don’t know and I don’t care. Neither should you. If you have typos in your scripts (or your letters, emails and notes to industry contacts)…you are damaging your career. Typos are that important.

Why?

Because you are a writer and, like it or not, you are held to a higher standard. Every reader, agent, and development exec in town knows he or she is safe to pass on a script that includes typos, bad spelling and usage errors. “Poorly written, derivative work riddled with typos.” That could be the coverage analysis of your script.

So, then, why in the hell are there so many typos in your work? Most of the emails I receive have glaring errors. Today, I got one mistaking “right” for “write”. You’re a writer; you should know the difference. And the problem is getting worse, with emails and text messaging seducing us into relaxing proper spelling and grammar. Just remember, your screenplay is not a casual communication. One script sale can launch your career and permanently change your financial status. In addition, you are asking a studio to invest $50 million or more into producing your writing. That’s not play money to a studio any more than it is play money to you. The jobs and careers of the people making these decisions are on the line. Do you think it’s easier for them to say “yes” to a script with spelling errors and typos or one without?

It is very hard to rid your work of typos, spelling errors, improper usage, and grammar problems. I am not impervious to these errors; no one is. But you must set a zero tolerance standard. If you can’t do it by yourself, enroll the help of a well-read friend. Just get it done.

Enough. Go write.

NOTE: I am not suggesting all sentences in a script be grammatically correct. Screenwriters are notorious for the liberties we take. I am suggesting, however, that while a liberty you decide to take for dramatic effect is acceptable, a sloppy grammatical mistake is not.

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….

WHEN YOU NEED A RIGHTS RELEASE

When interviewing a subject for a screenplay do you need to take any legal precautions like having the subject sign a waiver before you start that process to protect yourself from any future litigation?

William
NYC

Generally, if you are telling the life story of the person you are interviewing (or his/her story is part of the story you are telling), you need to obtain a release for material he or she shares with you. This is true even if you plan to use only a few of the person’s experiences. Rights to someone’s life story and experiences can be protected by a number of legal principles including right to privacy and right to publicity. These protections are made stronger by the fact that you are actually interviewing the subject.

On the other hand, if you are interviewing the subject about public facts that are not personal, you usually do not need a release. For example, if you interview a physics professor about general time theory to do a story on time travel, you normally do not need a release. However, even in this case, you need to be careful. If the physics professor has some reasonable expectation that she will be compensated for her contribution to your story, she may have some legal rights even if the information itself is public and not legally protected.

To protect yourself when you plan to interview someone for background information, let him or her know you are a screenwriter and looking for general background information. If you do not expect to pay someone for providing information to you, always be clear about that before you get the information. Most people are happy to share information of this nature for free. If you wish for more personal information or experiences or if you plan to use the person as a character in your story, always get a release.

COMPETING WITH JUNK

In commenting on another post, Mark (last name unknown) shared with us that he is eight years out of a UCLA MFA in screenwriting, has a large body of scripts and has four of them currently in the market. He expressed his frustration at being a starving artist, but says:

“I wrote because I’m a writer, and to get good at it…you gotta write.

I wish more so called writers realized this, but they don’t.
Sad thing…some of those that don’t are selling scripts and writing in Hollywood now, and are part of the reason there’s so much junk being made.”

First, hats off for hanging in, Mark. A lot of aspiring writers are envious of your degree and your ability to focus on your writing. Good luck with the scripts currently out in the market. I picked out your comment because it fits in exactly with the post I’ve been working on and helped me a great deal to focus it.

As a pre-amble, I want to say for serious writers who have been at it awhile and are looking for a break, the answer is frequently to bring the writing up a notch. Keep in mind, I’m not saying Mark needs to do this. I haven’t read his writing. Hopefully, we’ll read about him in the trades next week with three out of the four scripts having been picked up in huge sales. What I am saying is that, if you work hard at your writing, you circulate it regularly in the mainstream Hollywood community, and still it’s not somehow getting real attention (e.g. sales, options, significant mainstream attachments of producers or other real objective elements that establish some degree of acceptance – and don’t fool yourself, you know the difference between real attachments and fluff), then you should consider what you need to do to the writing to get to the next level in your career.

No surprise, I have a suggestion on where you might turn for an answer. Read (or reread, as the case may be) Terry Rossio’s brilliant columns at Wordplayer. Not just a few of them, but all of them. Terry Rossio and his partner Ted Elliott are two prolific screenwriters at the top of their game. They’ve done it all and love to share, in eloquent and extremely helpful terms, the secrets to their success. To me, these columns are particularly useful to writers who’ve already been at it a while, writers who have a solid appreciation for the challenges of writing and a burning desire to get better. Consider the columns an advanced course for turning good writers into great writers.

But enough kissing up to Terry. That’s not really the purpose of this post. Rather, the purpose is to talk about junk screenplays. Mark expressed a frustration that is common, and understandable, among writers at Mark’s level. Namely, that crappy writers seem to get breaks when serious writers work for years without them. There is no question that every producer in town is inundated with total garbage scripts. They clog the system and make it hard to get any script even looked at.

But that’s the business –

and that’s not who we’re competing with. Continue reading “COMPETING WITH JUNK”

5 THINGS I HATE ABOUT EVERYONE

TURKEY GIFSome time ago, MaryAn (from place unknown) suggested I provide “An Idiot’s Guide Of What Not To Do” when writing a screenplay. Here, in no particular order, is my list of some of the most common mistakes.

1. DO NOT USE VISUAL TRICKS TO REPLACE STORYTELLING. Because we hear over and over again that film is visual medium, many emerging writers believe that writing visual tricks will sell a story. It won’t. That’s what the director is for. Your script should focus on storytelling. That is what will either sell it or sink it. That does not mean the moments that actually advance the story should not be visual; they should. However, too many emerging writers overuse shot descriptions and descriptions of visual tricks in place of storytelling. For an example of how to do it right, see the script for The Matrix (not sure if this is the production draft or an earlier one).

2. DO NOT ALLOW PERSONAL EXPERIENCES TO CLOUD THE FACT THAT THERE IS NO EMOTION ON THE PAGE. Emerging writers often feel a great deal of emotion in their scripts while no else does. This happens because the writer is reflecting on a personal experience that is not shared by most readers. Instead of relying upon your own feelings, use the tools of drama, i.e. proper conflict building, theme building, character building, and structure. That does not mean you should ignore your feelings, just that you cannot use your feelings to substitute for proper dramatic writing.

3. NO MELODRAMA. Melodrama is the using of stock events to evoke emotion. The difference between melodrama and drama is that the emotion in drama grows out of central conflicts and themes developed throughout the piece, whereas in melodrama, the emotion arises out of a sudden event that is not developed out of the story. The death of a loved one is the type of stock event that can easily be misused. If it arises not out of the theme and central conflicts, it is likely melodrama. Today’s audiences are ordinarily too sophisticated for melodrama. Studio executives are, too.

4. NO MATH. Do not make the audience/reader perform complex story calculus to keep up with you. They will not do it. Everything you want the audience to understand must be clear and direct. That does not mean you cannot have subtext. In fact, you must have subtext. However, your subtext must also be clear. Learning how to remove the story calculus takes experience. Just remember, if readers get confused about or totally miss story points you thought you made clear, the fault lies in ourselves, dear Brutus, and not in our readers….

5. DO NOT SUBMIT MATERIAL UNTIL IT IS READY. The fact that you have rewritten your script ten times does not mean it is ready. A script is ready when it is clear, focused, and well-structured, when the dialogue is sharp, when you have driven all the extraneous material out of the story, when the theme is clearly and fully played out by the story, when the story feels like it must have been simple to write – a clear beginning, middle and end (although you know it was anything but simple). Only when all of this is accomplished should you submit your story. That does not mean you should not get qualified reads along the way. On the contrary, you must get qualified reads. However, those qualified reads should not be from the producers you hope will buy it. They should be from your carefully cultivating reading circle.

I hope this helps. Now go write….