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Rewrite Your Script: 3 Angles of Attack for Rewriting A Screenplay

By William M. Akers

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“The first draft of everything is shit.”
-Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway, charming as ever, was correct. Everybody’s first draft is shit. Even his. Yours too! You have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you nail it. Then you stop. The good news is, you can fix just about anything. It only takes elbow grease and time.

“I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.”
-James A. Michener

“Hear hear!”
-William M. Akers

After your idea, rewriting is the single most important thing. If you’ve got a good idea, no matter how lousy your first draft is, you can fix it. I’ve been there. And so has every other professional writer. Beginners, oddly, expect the first thing that spews from their printer will be gold. I choose the word “spews” carefully. “Spew” like “garbage” and “vomit.”

Perhaps the problem is laser printers. Insidious demons. If you wrote your first draft on yellow paper with a pencil, it’s guaranteed to look all smeared and awful, and you will have no problem thinking, “Gosh, this is horrible. Perhaps I should work on it a bit more.” But, if you print it on a nice laser printer, it will look shiny and clean -- and done. Trust me, it isn’t.

Writing is not an event, like Athena being born fully-formed from the head of Zeus. It’s a process, like sculpture. You start. You mess with it. You study it, you work on it, re-do it and put it away. Then you look at it again and work some more.

“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it.”
-Jasper Johns

When you roll up your sleeves to rewrite, consider (at least!) three things: Story. Dialogue. Scene Description.

Story

The hard one. The reeeeeally important one.

Pretend Judge Judy is looking at your draft, being an obnoxious critic. If you don't have a good answer for why something is there, she hammers you flat. You must turn into your own Judge Judy. This is not easy. If you love it when you write it and you love it when you read it, you're probably in trouble. Put it away for a while and ask tough questions when you drag it out for the rewrite.
  • Have you read it out loud? Repeatedly?
  • Does the story communicate what you wanted it to?
  • Do you start the story late enough?
  • Have you eliminated most, if not all, backstory from the first act?
  • Do you have the right main character?
  • Does the main character change? A lot.
  • Can characters can be cut or combined?
  • Is the hero in the crusher all the time?
  • Do we care about the character and her problem?
  • Is the bad guy the one who forces the hero to change?
  • Have you written wonderful minor characters? Like the roommate in NOTTING HILL?
  • Is “place” a character in your story?
  • Is your story about one simple idea, and does each scene further that ONE idea?
  • How many scenes can be combined?
  • How can you add more conflict in every scene?
  • Can you squeeze something more about the character from nearly every scene?
  • Have you made us feel what every character is feeling, in every scene?
  • What can you do to make each scene better, more memorable, more interesting?
  • Does the action build in intensity as we go along?
  • Does the ending have enough emotion and power?
  • Are the stakes high and do they go higher?
  • Will people who care about act breaks be able to find them?
  • Is the script really good or do you just hope it is?
  • Do other people read it and say, “Wow!”?
Even seemingly insignificant changes will have a long-term, cumulative effect. A change you make on page 48 will affect page 49 and 50 and 51 -- every single page, all the way to 110. Imagine your story like a river flowing by. Every scene is downstream from the one before. If you make a change on page 48, it’s as if you pour a bucket of blue dye into the river -- as your story continues to move, it will color everything downstream.

Story is what they pay you for. You can get fired, someone else can come in and rewrite all the dialogue, and you’ll still get sole writing credit. Story and the structure are the big deal.

But, hey, story’s not everything.

Dialogue

You've got to write great dialogue. Actors want to say cool stuff. You're writing this movie so actors will attach themselves to it. There's nothing more exciting than knowing somebody really talented loves your dialogue and wants to say it on the big screen. But that takes a lot of time, work, effort – blood, tears, and sweat.

If your dialogue isn’t great, don’t worry -- you can make it great!

First thing to do with dialogue is get rid of it. Ruthlessly. Take a Weed Eater to it. Read it out loud and cut ANY repetition.

                               DAVE

It’s a beautiful day to rob a bank. Yes,
sir, what gorgeous weather. Yep, I’d say
it’s bank robbing weather!


It’s amazing how often writers make their hard-working characters say the same thing again and again. It’s also amazing how often the good dialogue is already there, peeking out from under the crud. How about this --

                               DAVE

It’s bank robbing weather!


Watch movies on DVD and transcribe in script format what the characters say. It’s AMAAAAZING how little they say. The best actors want fewer lines.

Notice how characters in screenplays -- that get sold -- do not talk like each other. You have to separate the characters’ voices.

Character by character, check your dialogue to make sure --

1. All the way through, a character sounds the same

Is the voice consistent and in keeping with where the character is from and his morality and economic stratum and how he was raised, and everything else having to do with the character?

The speed at which he talks. The rhythm of his language. Choice of words. Does he use contractions a lot, seldom, never? Does he cuss a lot? Does he use big words, but doesn’t know what they mean? Is he from North Dakota and does it show in his dialogue? Was he in the military? Is he shy?

How much can you teach us about each person, just by their personal use of language?

2. His dialogue doesn't sound like any other character’s.

Do a dialogue pass for each character. Type Ctrl F or Apple F, for FIND, set it for “match case” and then, in uppercase letters, a CHARACTER’S NAME. Go through the script one character at a time checking only that character’s dialogue, making sure it always sounds like him and no one else. Even for Pizza Delivery Dude.

3. Make sure the characters don’t sound like you!

More nifty thoughts on dialogue

  • Write dialogue for someone you know so your character sounds like your friend.
  • Write for actors whose voices you know well, but might never end up in the movie, especially if they're dead. Write for Bogart and Bacall. Who’ll know?
  • Talk into a tape recorder until you get a solid handle on the character’s voice. Try not to let your spouse’s parents witness this.
  • Take acting classes.
  • Hide exposition like Jimmy Hoffa!
  • Make sure you’ve used correct format for parentheticals. When an agent flips through your script, bad format shouts “Amateur!"
  • Make up your own rules -- everyone in the lead character's family can speak with British syntax, even if they're all American.
  • Write superb dialogue for minor characters. You’re always writing actor bait. Naturally, you’re interested in getting Mr. Mega Star to attach to play the male lead, but you also have to cast Pizza Delivery Dude. It’s crucial that you write interesting, specific Pizza Delivery Dude dialogue if you want a gifted actor to play Pizza Delivery Dude. Especially if you’re asking him to do it for free!
  • Remember, people interrupt each other and don’t speak in complete sentences.
  • Know what language your character uses. If you're writing about Country music do you know what “girm” means? What about “blue steel” if your character is a prostitute? Do your dialogue homework.
Finally, do you keep a log of overheard dialogue? You should. All my students do. You train your ear to hear specific language, rhythm, plus, it’s fun to eavesdrop. One guy turned in this beaut --

A forty-something CHRIS and his teenage nephew, BJ sit at a kitchen table during a small, black family gathering. The uncle is very heavy and very loud. BJ, thin and close-mouthed, speaks with a genuine love for his uncle.

                               BJ

Uncle Chris, do you ever plan on
getting married?

CHRIS
I love women, but it’s only two things
in this world I ain’t never seen.
A spaceship and a bitch I need.

Scene Description

You must be able to communicate your great story to someone else -- on paper. If they can’t get it off your page, your story is worthless. The words on the page must explain the movie in your head to the reader. It’s way more complex than you might think.

“All they read is the dialogue.”
-Overheard at the Farmers Market, Los Angeles

Believe this at your peril. If the guy who said that were a working writer, he'd be in an office on the Universal lot instead of pontificating at the Farmers Market in the middle of the afternoon.

Scene description matters. Readers who appreciate good writing will notice your scene description. By the end of the first page, they can't tell if you know what a reversal is, but they will sure know if you can’t write a decent sentence.

Be clear. Don’t write, “Frank dresses in nice looking clothes.” because we might think he's getting dressed. Instead, write “Frank wears nice looking clothes,” so we know he’s a fashion plate. Make sure we understand the picture you’re beaming into our brain.

Here is scene description, the final version --

He takes out his phone and dials. It RINGS without picking up. He calls a different number.

Obvious that the guy makes two phone calls, one after the other, to different people. Now, the original. Remember: Confusion = Tearing of Hair and Gnashing of Teeth.

He takes out his phone and dials. It RINGS without picking up. He calls again.

We think he calls the same number twice. Because he doesn't, we're confused.

This dialogue seems fine until you read it a couple of times --

                               SOOTHSAYER

He has protection from a spirit.


Does this mean the spirit protects him from those trying to kill him, or does it mean he has an amulet that gives him protection from a spirit trying to do him harm? One sentence. Totally opposite possible meanings.

                               DEPUTY SHERIFF

I heard her come in the Chrysler.


Which meaning did that writer intend?

Your scene description must convey the meaning you want with as few words as possible. Trimming + Rearranging = Rewriting.

In his rearview mirror, Jimmy sees a cop car, lights blazing, right behind him.

Jimmy sees a cop car, lights blazing, in his rearview.

We still get it. It's quicker. We see a better image that takes less time to read. Here’s a first draft sentence.

The lawn has beer bottles and a rolled up "Slip n' Slide" scattered about.

This becomes --

Beer bottles and a rolled up "Slip n' Slide" scattered about the lawn.

A stronger sentence. Ends on a better word, and, whoa!, it's shorter!! The third draft improves it even more --

Scattered about the lawn -- beer bottles and a rolled up "Slip n' Slide."

Cut for the speed of the read as well as the reader’s understanding of what you’re trying to get across. Don’t hide the meaning of your image by piling on tons of words. You’re no longer an English major, getting paid by the pound. Think minimalism. Remember, unless the reader is your boyfriend, he doesn’t really want to read your material in the first place, so make it as painless as possible.

Finally, visit my website www.yourscreenplaysucks.com and check out the “7 Deadly Sins of Screenwriting” checklist. Do what it says and your writing will automatically get better!

Sadly, you can’t stay in the comfortable world of rewriting forever -- you do have to finally finish. Listen to John Singer Sargent --

“It takes two people to paint a portrait. One to paint it, and one to tell him when to stop.”

Or Max Wong, Hollywood producer --

“How do you know when your script is ready? When the only choice is do another draft or blow your brains out.”

At some point, it’s done. And after that point, I say, “Good luck!”

About William M. Akers

A Lifetime Member of the WGA, William M. Akers has had three feature films produced from his screenplays.  He has written scripts and series television for studios, independent producers, and television networks.  He is Chair of the Program in Motion Pictures at Belmont University.  Akers does story consulting and gives writing workshops around the world.  His bestselling book, Your Screenplay Sucks!, has a five star rating at Amazon.com.

Screenwriting Article by William M. Akers

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