One of the most time-consuming and difficult parts of writing a script is the rewriting stage. While the rough draft may not be perfect, it might be hard to cut things that aren’t working especially if you spent a lot of time on them. Once isn’t enough, either. It’s rare to get a good screenplay done in just the first few drafts. It takes five or more rewrites to get your screenplay on the right track.
Now it may seem daunting or unnecessary, but it’s a part of writing that every writer experiences. There is no one out there who can type up their first draft and immediately sell it. Like the Grand Canyon, amazing things take time.
Here are some ways to rewrite right:
Jodi Picoult said, “You can’t edit a blank page”. That’s why it’s imperative that, before you start rewriting, you have the whole story down.
I don’t mean every scene written and all the dialogue, if you have it that’s great, but even if there are simple scene placeholders in some places, that’s fine. If you’re stopping midway through your script because you have an amazing idea and want to change everything: don’t. Jot down the idea and continue as best you can.
During the first draft stage, you’ll come across many new ideas that feel necessary to change everything, but getting a good structure down first is the easiest way. It can be easy to stall in later scenes if you keep going back to the beginning and rewriting. Creating content is hard work so you have to power through it and get that under your feet before you start editing it.
These are the tethers that keep the audience intrigued by your story. They are what moves the plot forward and creates conflict. This means you need to take extra care with your characters. Do they have proper motivation for their actions? What is their relation to other characters? Are they believable? These are just a few questions out of many you can ask yourself, but it all boils down to one thing: how well do you know your characters?
I currently have a character who I didn’t know what she looked like. I didn’t think it was important since casting will change that anyway. However, during a few scenes where I see her in a specific way in my mind, those are the only scenes where she actually seems real. I went through and found images to represent my characters and found what they looked like in my mind actually helped me flesh out their characters. Even if some information, like their exact description or minor preferences, doesn’t make it into the script, you can still use it to craft a more in-depth and believable character.
Speaking of characters, make sure your characters speak the way they should. Is that something they would say? Do they all kind of sound like the same person? An important part of dialogue is making sure that your characters have unique voices. It’s also a good practice to try to cut down on lengthy speeches or unnecessary dense language. If something said in three sentences can be reduced to one without losing the character or information, then it should be done.
Similar to scenes, if dialogue is not adding to the story or moving it forward, it might be a good idea to reduce or completely cut it. Dialogue is tricky and is sometimes easier once characters are fully developed. It helps to go through, looking at a character one by one and looking at only their dialogue to make sure it sounds like the same character.
Of course, this is one of the biggest parts of a screenplay, the actual plot and themes. Make sure everything in the story is moving the plot and characters forward. If you find that exposition is clogging up dialogue or some scene, think about this wisdom from Lajos Egri: “Exposition never stops”.
Spread out your exposition, if you can. Chop it up into tidbits and see how you can balance them into different scenes and where the best place it can go is. Do you really need to tell the audience all of this at once? It might help to challenge the timeline of your story. Using notecards for this can help. Write down all the necessary parts of your screenplay, the basic scenes. Move them around and see how it works in a different sequence. You can go as detailed as you want in the notecards. It all depends on how far into the rewriting process you are.
I prefer to take blank paper and create a timeline for every character. Even if a character is not on screen, I want to know what they’re doing. It can help with their next entrance. What have they gained that can forward the story? How do they transition back into the main plot?
One of the biggest benefits to your rewrite can be having a fresh pair of eyes look at it. Not only is this a good spell check, but they can also see problems in plot or characters that you might have overlooked. Taking critique is not always easy. For instance, I allow myself, while reading the comments for the first time, to get angry at them. I never make it through the first read before I start agreeing with the critique and bottle up my pride.
If you want to go over your work yourself, don’t do it on a screen. Print it out. You catch way more mistakes and having the physical paper to write on (I like red pen) and highlight makes it feel more official and less permanent than on the screen. Because you know the real document is safe on your computer, you’ll feel more willing to take things out and experiment. Having all hundred plus pages in your hand feels like you’re really making progress.
Checking your spelling is incredibly important. Whether it is the apostrophe in “it’s” or the wrong “their/there/they’re”, it leaves an impression on the reader that you didn’t read your own script closely enough. If you don’t care about it enough to check, they don’t either. Don’t just rely on the built-in spell check, either. Have friends or colleagues read it. Reread it yourself. You could even pay to have it checked for spelling errors. While this may not seem like a big deal, it is a huge pain to readers if there is a lot of spelling or grammatical errors.
Everyone’s rewriting processes are different. For instance, if I stall for too long in a scene, I remove it completely and start over. If it’s boring to me or I can’t figure out how to continue from there, something went wrong and it’s easier for me to start over than to knit-pick through it. That doesn’t work for everyone and makes twice as much work for me, but it’s the only way I’ve found that gets me the best results. The biggest thing about rewriting is just doing it. Sitting down and making the time. If you’re just “thinking about it” and not writing down ideas or outlining possible other routes the story can take, you’ll stall. If you need help with creating a writing plan, check out one of our other articles about how to get started.
If you have any thoughts about these methods or wish to share your own, please comment!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.