Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part X: Writing is Rewriting

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As one who is so tired of this overused screenwriting homily, often provided by lazy screenwriting consultants who feel the need to justify their expenses through the tireless repetition of overused screenwriting homilies, I felt that it was time to take on this platitude, in all of its blusterous splendor, and debunk it once and for all.

Writing is not rewriting.

Writing is writing.

Editing is revising.

Rewriting is a combination of both. You are writing, but on another level from your original story. Oh, sure, a minor technicality, but it’s true. Esoterically, all rewriting is writing, simply by the act of putting pen to paper, or four thumbs to a keyboard, as in my case.

But, to truly commit to a screenplay rewrite – ah, that takes skill — and a plan.

First you have to take an objective view of your story, and see if the whole package actually works; is it entertaining? If it’s a comedy, is it even funny? Is your theme addressed, and is this the message you want to impart?

Assuming all of the above is to your satisfaction, you must then come to the realization that:

YOU CANNOT BE OBJECTIVE!

You wrote the damn thing. Go get your “peers” and “rocketeers” to give you feedback and see if THEY think it hits these marks.

Rewriting may actually involve changing the protagonist or the antagonist. It may involve adding or deleting major scenes. During one of my rewrites, the first draft was written as a violent Mafia crime family drama, the second draft more of a dark comedy, and by the final draft, it had transitioned to a buddy-buddy, cross-country comedy involving the Mafia. THAT’S a rewrite!

Once that is done, review the story to see if your story beats are in place, assuming you even bother with beats.

Review for conflicts. A great screenplay will have conflict in every scene, on every page, in every exchange of dialogue. At some level, someone is trying to do something and someone else is trying to stop them.

Next, review your characters. Are they unique? Are they compelling? Do they speak with an individual voice? Do they have subtext, either in their actions or their dialogue? Do they serve a purpose to the story and help move the story forward? Do you have your characters interacting with each other? Are any or all of your characters written in a way that will attract the A-list actor to want to play them?

When stepping back and looking upon your story, is the theme stated and supported throughout? Does it ever stray off message?

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Check your action scenes. Do they even qualify as action? It doesn’t have to require a shoot-out or a fight scene to be action, but it does require movement, and that movement of some sort should be exciting, compelling and entertaining at some level. I once read an action scene that involved only the movement of the eyes of a paraplegic character, but that was all that was needed to define the action.

You’ll want to review the dialogue. Do you find anything overtly expositional? Are your responses “on-the-nose”? Are the lines delivered in a way that is consistent with your character? I like going line by line, word by word, and make sure this is the best WORD for this character to use in this situation at this time in the story.

Lastly, wordsmith your project. Having the Master Writer software or a solid online thesaurus is always a good idea at this stage. Try your hardest NOT to repeat any adjectives throughout your screenplay, if at all possible. Stay away from cliché. If it sounds somewhat familiar to you, scrap it; it will be familiar to everyone. Check for spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Then, do something that no one has ever told you to do before: count the words. Not individually, dummy-dog. I copy the entire screenplay and shove it into a word document, then press the word count button. Divide your total word count by the number of pages written (hopefully, between 90-110 pages tops). If you average between 150-180 words per page, my guess would be that it is a lean, mean fighting machine of a screenplay. It may not be the best writing, but readers and producers will sit down with this first, based on the overall “more white than black” appearance.

These are steps your “RE- writing” process should take. You want to maximize what you’ve already written, elevating it to another level of greatness. This is why I do NOT ascribe to the myth, “writing is rewriting”.

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