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Tracking Story Thru-Lines: The Secret To Successful Rewrites

By Catherine Ann Jones

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"I didn't have time to write it shorter."
-- Woodrow Wilson

Each writer discovers his own writing process because, in the final count, writing is not something to learn but something to do. There is no one right method to the writing process. Each and every writer must discover his own rhythm. Some write endings first, while others write detailed outlines, structuring the whole before beginning page one. Tom Stoppard, the English playwright and co-writer of the Oscar-winning film, Shakespeare in Love, says he begins a play by hearing the voices of the characters talking, and has no idea of any plot.

It is fine for one writer to begin writing a first scene and have no idea where it will end up while another may start with the ending and work backwards. Another may rewrite sentences or scenes as he goes, perfecting before moving on. Furthermore, each and every play or book by the same author may be written in an entirely different manner. The way and form must serve the material -- and not the other way round. As long as the story is completed, it matters little how it got there. Experience -- that is, the regular practice of writing -- will help you to discover your way. That said, let me try to be helpful by sharing my approach, acknowledging that it is just one of the many paths to Rome -- or Hollywood.

After writing and re-writing the story outline, I prefer to jump in and write a rough first draft, rather like a snow ball rolling down hill, stopping at nothing. Only after completing a rough draft will I invite my inner critic to sit on my shoulder and become a welcomed ally in the re-writing process. This is also when outside readers are invited to look and comment.

Before a first draft is completed, I suggest you lock your inner critic (usually the internalized voice of a parent) in a closet and leave him there until later. Though constructive at the appropriate time, an inner critic can become an obstacle to the writing.

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost Almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
-- Michael Jordan

Any writer -- regardless of how many awards and successes -- has endured the failures or almost successes. Hopefully, however, he will learn from the failures. John Bishop wrote a fine play, The Trip Back Down, which closed its first week on Broadway. It is the story of a famous race car driver who, older now, is beginning to lose races. He returns to his small hometown and someone criticizes him for losing a recent big race. He turns to the man who has never left home, and says, "Just remember, in order to lose, you have to be in the race."

Sadly, the inner critic may surface quite early in a career. When I was an undergraduate, I delayed writing my first play, thinking, "It can't compare with Chekov or Shakespeare, so why bother?" Not the most constructive attitude for a beginning writer. Then a lucky thing happened. I learned that the University of Texas at Austin had a fine collection of original manuscripts of such renowned authors as Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas, George Bernard Shaw, and Tennessee Williams, among many others. I also learned that you could obtain a pass to sit and read them in an authorized room. Epiphany! I observed that Dylan Thomas would cross out one word twenty times until finding the one right word. In other words, a great published poem like Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, does not arise perfect from the writer's mind, like Botticelli's Venus from the Sea, but has undergone several drafts first. At eighteen, this fact was a godsend. Holding in my hands the original manuscript of Shaw's Pygmalion, seeing the playwright's hand slicing and adding words spurred me on when I most needed it. For a writer, libraries are sacred temples in which to realize a hidden destiny. It goes without saying that in order to write well, you must read well. That includes all those interested in writing screenplays, for, as I would tell my graduate film students at University of Southern California, it is not sufficient simply to view movies. Why? Because screenplays -- as other forms of narrative -- are written with words.

Any writer worth his salt, will spend adequate time reading and fine tuning his craft, becoming a wordsmith. And, remember, what you cut, can't fail.

"Kill your darlings."
-- Ernest Hemingway

The best advice I can give for successful re-writing is to target specifics. If story is about everything then it's about nothing. The universal lies in the specific and not the other way round. Don't write about a dog but a sheltie. Use research for fiction as well as non-fiction narratives. Use libraries, the web, calling or write directly to experts in the field you are writing about. The police, physicians, scientists, Vietnam vets, etc. are usually generous with their time. Just call and say you are writing a novel or film about Alzheimer's disease, for instance, as I did for the Sundance film, Angel Passing, starring Hume Cronyn and Calista Flockhart. Ask them if you might call them at a convenient time and talk with them for a few minutes. I have never had a refusal. It might be a person who has lived what your main character will, such as a drug addict or a soldier who fought in Iraq or Vietnam. People are surprisingly generous with their time, and, too, they usually don't mind talking about themselves!

Dare to be personal. What is the emotional personal thread from your own life which can be woven into your story? Answer this, and you will have the key to meaning for yourself as the writer as well as for the audience, who will identify with your feeling. It is no coincidence that the greatest novels and plays are often inspired by the author's own family background. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day Journey into Night, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, or Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel are all examples of this form of inspiration. Fiction is often referred to as disguised autobiography.

The family drama is a more tightened space, observing one of the classic unities: setting. The other two unities, according to Aristotle, are one central action and the entire story occurring within a twenty-four hour period.

Subjectivity is necessary for all great art. Story is no exception. I will go on record and say that subjective point of view from the writer as well as the subjective response of reader or audience is the most important aspect of any book or movie. This is why sometimes our favorite movies or books are not classics, but simply something we strongly identify with. They hit a nerve. A disaster film depicting a great love story, Titanic became the best selling movie of all time. One of my favorites is Anne of Green Gables about a little girl with too much imagination. Ask yourself what is your favorite book or movie, the one you like to return to, and it may surprise you that it may not be a great classic, but simply the book or movie you love. Craft without art: it works but who cares? The audience must care. Caring sells tickets. We care by identifying with the main character, something within must emotionally connect to our own life.

When television producer, Martha Williamson, asked me to write for her hit series, Touched by an Angel, I said I preferred to make up my original stories. She asked me to make up a few and pitch them to her. She told me that if she did not like any of my stories, she would give me a story to write. I pitched nine original stories, and the one she chose for me to write first was the only one of the nine that was inspired by an incident from my own life. I was psychic as a child and would often tune out and listen to inner music, so my teacher thought I might be hard of hearing. This diagnosis began a series of doctors and examinations to find out what was wrong with me. Of course, nothing was wrong. I was simply creatively entering into my own world. So this was the starting point for what became the episode, A Joyful Noise. It is about a little girl who hears angels singing and is sent to a psychiatrist to rid her of her voices. In the end, it is the psychiatrist who is changed by the little girl and her angels. Olympia Dukakis plays an archangel in this episode. This was one of Oprah's favorites -- she once screened a clip on her weekly television show. So, the moral is: dare to be personal.

Excerpt from The Way of Story: the craft & soul of writing by Catherine Ann Jones

About Catherine Ann Jones

Catherine Ann Jones is an award-winning writer whose films include The Christmas Wife (Jason Robards), Unlikely Angel (Dolly Parton), Angel Passing (Hume Cronyn, Calista Flockhart) and Touched by an Angel. Ten of her plays have been produced both in and outside of New York City. Winner of the National Endowment for the Arts Award among others, Ms. Jones, a Fulbright Scholar to India, has served on the writing faculties of The New School University (NYC), University of Southern California (L.A.), Pacifica Graduate Institute, and the Esalen Institute.
Screenwriting Article by Catherine Ann Jones

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