During the past week, I began private coaching with a team rewriting a novel and with a screenwriter who’s rewriting a new screenplay at the request of her agent. In the same week, my private class on rewriting, Finish Your Script
began and has nine students, each of whom are each rewriting a screenplay or a novel. Each project is a first, second or third draft, and all tell interesting stories and are well written. They all need work because each story suffers from one or more of the three most common rewriting challenges I find in most of the projects I work on: A passive hero or heroine, an overcomplicated or oversimplified plot, and a lack of suspense.
Here are three exercises that will be helpful.
To Cure Problem: Ask the Right Question
Passive hero syndrome is the number one challenge for a rewriter. There are two possible reasons: The character's wants and needs are subordinated to the plot or the hero or heroine was passive from the conception of the story. The passive lead character is one who reacts to the events in your story, not one who acts upon it. In Star Wars
, Luke Skywalker actively wants to stop the Empire because it killed his father and aunt and uncle. Luke is a strong example of an active hero. In contrast, in Avatar
, Jake Sully merely reacts to events until finally, in Act 3, he takes charge, but in my opinion, this change is not motivated and not plausible. What if he'd had something to prove, such as avenging his brother's death or a moral conviction?
This would have strengthened the entire plot and made the conclusion powerful.
Ask yourself Question #3 of The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting: Who or what would my main character "die" for (a literal or symbolic death)? When answering, make sure that the plot events push the hero or heroine willingly
to make difficult choices in order to achieve a resolution. For example, Luke in Star Wars
was ready to die for the Empire, but Jake in Avatar
had to be pushed into doing the right thing.
To Solve Problem: Make a Scene-by-Scene Outline
Over complication or over simplification of a plot is the hardest thing for the writer to see because you are writing from inside the screenplay and therefore cannot be objective.
Prepare a scene-by-scene outline, and then make a separate list of all the information that leads to the resolution of the plot. Plot and character repetitions will be easy to spot and relatively simple to fix. If there is not enough plot, you will also be able to spot what's missing. Another trick is to tell your story verbally to a colleague and you'll hear what's wrong right away. Alternatively, if another human isn't available, you can tell it to yourself and tape it.
To Create Suspense: Think of Every Story as Being a Mystery
Every good story has a mystery. Even broad comedies such as The Hangover
or dramas such as An Education have mysteries. In The Hangover
, the plot revolves around getting the bridegroom back to the wedding on time, and in An Education
, the mystery is will she marry him.
Watch a classic mystery such as Hitchcock's The 39 Steps
, and note how he doles out key information. Make a list of the information conveyed in each scene, studying how he teases the viewer until the reveal at the end. Feel free to use any film that is more relevant to your particular screenplay, and follow the same process.
Then review your Scene-by-Scene outline and analyze your story using my golden rule: Never tell your audience more than they need to know to understand the scene they are reading or watching. You may be giving away the story too soon or, conversely, not planting enough clues so the audience can follow the character's emotional journey. The comparison with the other film will speed your understanding and decision-making.
To recap, I have attempted to provide solutions for the three most common challenges faced when rewriting a screenplay: a passive hero or heroine, an overcomplicated story, and lack of suspense.
Please let me know which of these techniques helped the most.