.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}


Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Rewriting As You Go. When is Enough, Enough?

This is a tricky one. Really tricky for me. I write quickly. This doesn't mean I finish a project quickly, however, it means I generate a lot of pages. And, as all writers know, as you write, things will begin to reveal themselves as you head into your story.

Unexpected things, fabulous things, bizarrre things and bad things.

All these things you may never have imagined at the onset, even with your fabulous outline. But now that you've found them, you may want to include them in your work, which means changing your piece. And sometimes that means changing your piece from the beginning.

Before you've gotten to the end.

So there you are on page 15, and you suddenly realize a brilliant idea that needs to be teased on page two, so you have to go back and adjust.

Or maybe you get the sound of a character's voice right on page thirty. (I've done that. Thought I had it on page one, but boy was I wrong. And when it came in right, it was so clear!)

So that means I want to go back and spruce up that guy/girl up from the onset, so they talk correctly, right? Otherwise when I read the whole draft back it will feel wrong in the beginning.

As some of you know, I'm testing myself to see if I can write a script quickly, like in a few weeks. I'm 40 pages in, but I have just realized a major character change needs to be made and some structural changes put into the first act, changes that I wasn't aware of two days ago, but I realize now are crucial, or the script will really not work.

How did I figure this out? Not enough tension in act two.

Hey, everything seemed to work fine in my short outline, when I started, re-writing was not in the plan, okay?

but I realized as I was writing, that my characters were not orchestrated correctly. There's nothing worse than forced writing. You become aware of it when you're constructing scenes that are situationally tense, but lack tension from the character's drive or need. This is usually what "b" writing or "pulp" writing is - but no offense meant to Bill Cunningham over at Disc/ontent whose blog I reccomend for some very interesting reading about some very challenging writing in impossible time frames.

Anyway, back to me.

So now I'm re-writing the first 40 pages. This puts a real damper on the whole daily page count thing, as there isn't one suddenly. I'm rehashing the delta of the stream, the first bubblings of the pot, because I feel if I don't get jazzed by the tension up front, I can't fake it all the way through.

But I was supposed to blast straight through to THE END, right?

So this has made me think - when does it serve you to go back and re-write, while you are still in your first draft?

Or - the real question: when are you actively enhancing and deepening your project, and when are you just spinning your wheels and wasting your time?

Or shall we put it this way: when are you shaping like a glass blower and polishing a fine object, and when are you caught in a loop, perhaps using the "endless rewrite" to avoid finishing on some unconscious level? (Don't laugh, I know people who've gone into therapy after years of inability to finish projects and have discovered this).

Rod Serling, who cranked out just about every episode of the Twilight Zone in the first three years, and most in the last two, said it took him several days to write a whole teleplay, a week from idea to finished script. He pretty much knew by the second day to drop an idea if he wasn't cranking pages. This is becuase he felt it wasn't working on some level. He knew it instinctively. He didn't take the luxury of figuring out why, he just dropped it, cut the weeds and moved on to a new idea. Because the energy wasn't there, the tension wasn't in the writing, the delight wasn't in the idea, whatever.

Re-writing while you write is kind of like this. And I think I can boil it down to some simple rules or ideas.

1) You must start with a very clear premise, so you know where you start and where you finish.

2) Any adjustments you make must sharpen the premise.

3) Any adjustments you make must increase the conflict between the characters or raise the stakes for the hero, but not change the premise.

4) Any adjustments you make must bring the hero, his desire (love interest or task), and his opponent's refusal to let it happen, all come into direct opposition, without changing the premise.

I really think that's it. Anything else, and you're spinning your wheels. Sure we can discuss new characters, second opponents, new reversals, there's a lot of cool things you can come up with as you write. But I think it comes down to not breaking the above rules. Otherwise you are probably writing tangentially, off topic, or into cool parallel universes of your story that in the end won't be your story.

Focus. Don't relent. Come up with a good premise. Assemble and oppose the characters. Keep them drawn tight to your premise line. And if there is no tension, or they begin to stray, that's a warning sign. And check the rules above.

And let me know if I missed any.


Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Good post Philip!

Something I run into occasionally is a new idea getting thrown into the mix - usually coming from the front office - that they want incorporated into the framework of the script: a new location, piece of equipment or prop, or a gender change. Tone is also a big one - they want either a happy ending (did I just write that?) or they want a scary ending.

With this last treatment that I wrote, I included a lot of references so that no one on the production team would misunderstand what sort of picture I was writing. This helped a lot as they added to the mix and allowed us to define the story in the outline phase. I even told them what sort of music I was listening to as I would write. The final thought regarding tone was: "If ALIENS was rock n' roll, then this movie is (cyber)punk rock."

I usually hold additional notes that I receive during writing until the script that I originally outlined is done. THEN I work that new note into the body of the script - hopefully without being obtrusive. I find I NEED to get MY draft out of my system first, before any major thematic or character changes.

Dialogue for me is always a work in progress and one of the weakest aspects to my writing. I try my best to find the characters' individual voices before the table read with the cast. When it's read, that's when it comes together. Yes, this may seem a lazy way to do it, but it also writes to the actor's strengths and intuition when they first read the dialogue. How they (and the director) perceive the line will often be how it is. My job at that point is to listen, listen, listen and eliminate sticky dialogue (technobabble), provide a parenthetical or two, catch anything that's unclear. It's a great learning process for both the actor and the writer.

Afterwards, the company has notes regarding the read usually "amping up a character" or possibly consolidating a location.

I like this method (at least for dialogue) as it has more of a theater methodology than a production one. We do two table reads before pre-production and I recommend it for any writer. You WILL want to slam head against the table as people read lines "wrong" or you catch a mistake you made, but the pain is worth it. It generates enthusiasm amongst the cast as they begin to define their characters and make them theirs.

Bottom line: try to address everything you can in the outline stage and brainstorm as much as you can. It saves time and energy. But when it comes down to the deadline and they give you a note you HAVE to incorporate - bite the bullet and "gitter dun!"

Sunday, August 21, 2005  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Hey Philip! Another good post on an important topic. As I sat here reading it, I came up with the following:

When to revise -- when it would take more work to do it later than to do it now.

When not to revise -- when it is little more than a procrastinatory tool.

Pretty much everything else is in the middle somewhere. But for example:

Adding a secondary character? Could relatively easily be done later. Tweaking dialogue? DEFINITELY could be done later, and most probably procrastinatory. Rearranging story structure? Likely would be more work later.

Sunday, August 21, 2005  
Blogger Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

Great blog and great post!

I'll add your blog to my blogroll. Drop me a line if that is a problem.

I often wish I could go at that pace. I have the will, but unfortunately with the time available to me to write after the day job and family, changing that voice from page one through the forty, turns into a painful process.

Oh to be able to do this full time :)

Sunday, August 21, 2005  
Blogger Steve Peterson said...

I think this is my first time posting here so thanks for sharing your insights with us, Philip.

I like to run through the first draft -- but I'll hit that, "should change this thing in the first act" issue too. What I've been doing is just throwing a note in my outline software for the revision, then finishing off the rest of the screenplay as if I had already made the change.

It feels a little thin and weird, since I'm writing as if something happened earlier even though it didn't -- but usually works out fine in the second draft, when I have more time to think about the changes, anyway.

RE: Bill's Comment about Dialogue
I read somewhere that Hitchcock would tell the writer to work out all the action, then once that was write fill in the dialogue at the end.

That would terrify me -- but it does seem that there's no need to beat oneself up about dialogue early. Just make sure the story and emotional beats one wants are indicated in the dialogue, somehow, then make the stuff snappy later on.

Sunday, August 21, 2005  
Blogger The Moviequill said...

call me a Heinz 57, I'm a freak, I do it all. I go back and add in something (example I want my main character to have severe burns so I added in one scene showing that, so it is in my mind as I continue), I let my characters go on and on talking in straight dialogue without any action (add it in later but who am I to shut them up if they are on a roll?), and then I also just plug away and if I hit a snag I say 'screw it' and keep going...so really I do it all in the first draft

Monday, August 22, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Bill: fascinating post. I've had table reads too, and they are terrific, no better way to get a sense of flow and hear your story - as you'll never hear it whole again with the cast until it's finished and in the can. As for holding notes until you finish a draft - I think that must be a case by case thing - as sometimes I'm required to do just that. And it's incredibly frustrating. But I agree with you, get as much as you can in outline and then fly.

Fun Joel: very interesting points, and as a general rule I think avoid more work later is sensible, but that usually means do the work now, even if it means going back because you realized that your structure is crap because it's not playing out correctly halfway through your draft. As for dialogue, I think it depends on the genre - as in my next post I make just that point - I think you can sail forward with first draft dialogue in a drama, but it's deadly (at least to me ) in a comedy, and you really need to keep the comedy working as your progress, so going back to adjsut dialogue in a comedy makes sense to me.

Chris: Of course you can add me, it's not a problem, thanks. Look, Einstein came up with the theory of relativity at night while working in a dead end job, in an unhappy marriage and living in a small uncomfortable apartment with a little baby. So, what was that complaint again?
There's always a reason not to do something.

Steve: yes, I think that makes sense. You drop down a note, I do to, when you can still forge ahead, knowing that after page (54, for example) you're writing to your new note in your head, and will go back and adjust the beginning later. It's when you may have to change the open, or add a new character to help get your hero's dialogue out into the story, that those bigger changes may have to be addressed.

Moviequill: that is very interesting, as it seems you are being flexible with your structure and letting the whole thing expand to allow for the creative flow. If you could share more about your process and if you feel your drafts are successful with that technique, or how you shape afterwards, I think it would be interesting to everyone. I think dialogue is critical and will generate many pages of dialogue just to get the characters talking, getting their voices down, hearing their "music" as it were, and then finding the few lines I need to make a six line scene, and then I cut it down to that and move on. But I wouldn't have found those six lines without writing the six or sixteen pages, that I then cut and paste to my scrap file and keep going, perhaps to come back and mine for goodies later.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005  
Blogger Warren said...

Hey Philip,

Thanks for that list of four ideas for rewriting. I'm working on my second draft right now, and I'm actually going to print them out and post them on my whiteboard to keep them in mind as I rewrite. Always great craft advice over here at Screenwriter Bones. Thanks as always!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Warren: I find equal pleasure at your site in how you offer ideas, links and musings. Anyone who doesn't know it, check it out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home