11 August, 2007

Red Planet Prize Project - 10

I hope your project is going well, I'm now going to look at re-writing.

No thinking - that comes later. You
write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite
with your head. The first key to writing is... to write,
not to think!
Finding Forrester by Mike Rich

According to Jim Brooks,
The Simpsons Movie went to 166 drafts. But half that amount will probably do. I kid. That film was in production for 18 years and if it was being set for release next year instead it might have gone to even more drafts. In the professional world, re-writing doesn't usually stop until the film or television programme goes into production.

Outside of competitions, we have to set our own deadlines and decide when a script is developed enough to venture off into the world on its own. Underdeveloped scripts won't gain friends but they will be ignored or called cruel names like 'rubbish' or 'pants'.

When the underdeveloped script comes back rejected, the unconditional love can be so strong that some of us will send it right back out again, unable to believe that love isn't shared by the rest of the world. Some of us will shun it and lock in it a cupboard as they try and give birth to a more loveable script. Some of us will decide it's worth saving and aid it's development and help it to mature.

I think we need to get used to re-writing and get used to doing it quickly. Even if we sell a script then the liklihood is it will go through a couple more drafts, at least, before it is produced. Script editors, producers., directors and actors and other members of the crew will offer valuable contributions. They'll also offer pretty stupid contributions as well but you will be grateful for the valuable ones because it will improve your script and everyone will think it was your idea.

I am aware of people who have entered their first drafts into the competition more than a month before the deadline. Perhaps this is just a "different personality traits" thing as I always leave it until the last week. But I just think the extra time is useful, at least, to put it in a drawer and get some distance from it before looking at it again with fresh eyes.

It's probably fair to say that when most of us do re-write we tinker and don't really change anything significant. By doing pre-writing the re-writing will be easier but it's a vital part of the process.

Sometimes you can make things better with minor changes in the odd scene here or there but sometimes it may require major changes in lots of scenes. There's no point in using a band-aid on something which needs surgery.

So why do most of us spend so little time re-writing? I think one reason could be to just get the script out there and sold as soon as possible. Another could be that if we don't know it's broke, then we don't know it needs fixing. However, one script-reader pointed out that most people who send scripts back to him, after reading his notes on the previous version, haven't addressed the major problems at all. So he suggests the main reason has got to be laziness.

There is of course an alternative point of view, which I have read in quite a few interviews over the years with British writer-directors who often say something like, "I write the first draft in the week before production starts. I never re-write because all it does is drain the life out of your script, the first draft may not be polished but it is more authentic and real and raw and that's what true cinema is all about."

I think it’s simply that pre-writing and re-writing is harder work and because it’s harder work we’re reluctant to do it and will find any excuse to avoid it. I'm a firm advocate of it and totally committed to the cause but even I can't be arsed sometimes.

Previously I’ve managed to convince myself that any problem, which will mean I have to change the plot to fix, is probably not all that big a problem really. While I was happy to dialogue tweak all day as that's a piece of piss.

When checking my scripts looking at re-writing them I would often skip boring dialogue and dull descriptions. It was done on a subconscious level but once I noticed I was doing it I had a new rule, "if I'm bored by it, the audience will be bored too."

Of course, you might have read a script a hundred times and the audience will only be seeing it once, but I think the rule still applies. There’s things I’ve written I never tire of reading over and over again because, false modesty aside, they are so utterly and completely brilliant. (No, I’m not going to post examples, you’re just going to have to take my word for it.)

That boring dialogue tended to be speeches that were too long or exposition that was badly done or unnecessary. Now I try and cut or split up long speeches and try and make the exposition interesting.

As David Trottier said, you have to listen to your inner guide:

“The single most helpful key to revision lies within yourself. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the inner voice that decides.’ The most common comment I hear after one of my script evaluations is this: ‘Dave, I kinda knew it all along but I needed you to tell me.” What is it that they knew all along? How did they know?

When we are honest with ourselves, we get a feeling that something works or something doesn’t. We may not know intellectually exactly what the problem is, but there is something silently nagging at us from inside.”

He believes the voice of truth is an intuitive feeling that comes after the writing is done, it’s not emotional, it’s not intellectual but it’s reasonable.


Rather than try and look at everything with each read through of the script or pass, what I do is take a different pass looking for something specific:

Dialogue pass -
I read it out loud to see if it feels as natural saying it as it does reading it. A friend used to be embarrassed and refused to do it. Who cares if your family or your neighbours hear? This is too important a step to wimp out on. To quote Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars, "George, you can write the shit, but you can't say it" Incidentally George learnt nothing and the dialogue for his last three films have been diabolical. But he can do what he wants.

Action pass -
I know what I mean by the description but will everyone else? Can it be clearer and more concise? Have I broken up descriptions so it doesn't go to more than four lines? Have I used descriptive verbs to help convey the images?

Format pass -
While I don't believe this is as big a dealbreaker as some make it out to be, as it's so simple to do and helps the reader, it's worth doing it properly. You have to decide for yourself just how many of the specific 'rules' are worth considering or not.

I think the latest was: "Thou shalt not use more or continued." Who says? Was there a meeting of all the script readers of all the agencies and prodcos and networks in the world where they decided this? Who really gives a toss? While it means less black on the page, it's not going to throw the reader out of the story and you will not be rejected for it. Not in the UK anyway. That kind of fussing and worrying about format is better spent on story and characters.

Character pass -
If I covered up the character names would I still know who was speaking? Or do they all sound the same?. Developing good characters before I start would help me avoid that but it's something that I can superficially adjust afterwards by changing their speech patterns and vocabulary.

But I also have to check the names of characters as well. I have sent off stuff where it's the wrong character speaking and I didn't notice because I was concentrating on the dialogue when I read it through. You hope the reader will realise but why should they have to?

Spelling pass -
I've read scripts where some writers haven't even bothered to use a spellchecker which has baffled me. I use the spellchecker and also manually check the draft as well.

Once I clicked the wrong button and didn’t realise the spellchecker had changed ‘aubergine’ for ‘aborigine’ which made a lame gag into a lame racist one. A homophone, for instance, will be spelt right but can completely change the meaning of what I intended. If a character says "he didn't know witch one was wrong", the reader might be thinking "who the hell is Witch One?"

If you have a form of dyslexia then hopefully your family or friends or work colleagues can be roped in to check for you. Don't let that be a barrier to you trying - Guy Ritchie, Stephen J Cannell and Lynda La Plante have dyslexia as did Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl.

Logic pass -
Where I've strayed from my outline and incorporated new characterisation then I have to make sure each character's motivation and behaviour still rings true.

Sometimes it’s only at this stage that you finally notice something witch doesn't make sense that seemed OK at the pre-writing stage. Time lines are a bugger for this as people can't be in two places at once. Unless it's a science fiction, obviously. This even extends down to something simple like the time it takes to make tea or eat dinner.

I saw something recently where there was this stuff about drinks being made for visitors but then the drinks weren't drunk and they weren't intending to stop long enough to drink them anyway. Simple solution: "Do you want a drink?"/ "No." Problem solved. Instead I'm watching the scene shouting, "but it was made in next to no time and they're not even drinking it. WTF?"

Because lack of logic is one of my main hates in drama I feel compelled to try and ensure I do something to avoid it.

Locations pass –
I know what they are meant to be but is that what I put in the slugline? In checking it's easy to skip it and focus on the dialogue or the action and not notice you've got too much of the same dull location or put the wrong location in.

Scene pass –
Are the scenes necessary to the story? Are they too static? If the characters are just talking and not doing anything, I need to either cut the scenes or find the characters something to do.

Fact check pass –
Is what I've written accurate? No matter what level of education we reached there are going to be gaps in our knowledge or simply things remembered wrong.

For one script I was so sure of a particular fact I didn't even bother checking it while I checked everything else. I did eventually check it and it was totally wrong and if left in would have brought me shame and embarrassment.

In ye olden days fact checking and research meant a hazardous and arduous journey to the library but with the Interweb there's no excuse really.


I recommend a quick re-write of your first draft to fix the obvious simple problems. Ideally once we have finished that second draft we would put it away for a while - at least a week - to try and obtain some distance from it before looking at it again.

An alternative, especially if you’re in a rush, is to get someone else to read it either through peer review, power of threes or a professional script reader. Family, friends and lovers are your potential audience but they’re only useful for pitching the concept in the first place, not for reading the script.

When you give feedback try and be honest and try not to be personal, if you receive feedback try not to take it personally and be defensive. Always thank the reader straight away even if the truth hurts. Unless you're paying them for the read. Who bothers to thank staff?

I think the reading process is most useful when you present a script that you cannot see anything wrong with at all and not when you see lots of problems but hope the reader won’t notice them so you don’t have to re-write.

In the links below there are checklists that script readers use and lists of their pet hates. You need to know your enemy. Your script is a weapon and it has to be equipped with enough deadly power to breach their defences.

Hmmm...That metaphor was a bit militaristic and violent wasn’t it? Hold on a sec. Got it.

You need to know the gate-keeper. Your script is a car which has to be equipped with the right passes to enable the gate-keeper to lift up the barrier and wave you in with a cheery smile.

Nah. I prefer the first metaphor. More conflict.

The thing to remember is that - with all the feedback you get and the opinions offered up for free or for fee - it is your script. Be open to advice but don’t accept everything said to you automatically. Only you can write your script.

One idea is to make a copy of the original script and incorporate changes to that copy. If it’s rubbish or far from your original vision then just go back to the original script. It’s important that your passion for the project and what made you want to write it in the first place remains.



We wanted to write a new character driven script of 30 minutes or an hour to use as a calling card to get work on continuing drama for television.

This project was designed primarily to help new writers break out of the plot-driven, dialogue focussed approach to screenwriting with no pre-writing or re-writing. David Bishop said recently:

“Some genius [William Goldman?] divides writing a screenplay into 60% preparation, 10% spent writing the first draft and 30% rewriting.”

So far we have:

  • identified our own passions and interests.

  • thought of ideas and themes based on those passions and interests.

  • thought of the best characters and stories to explore those ideas and themes.

  • thought of the best structure and outline for those characters' stories.

  • looked at writing the first draft and those all important first ten pages

  • looked at re-writing.

Having gone through the process you can see what works for you, what doesn't work for you and what works if changed a bit. Over time with more experience you will find that the pre-writing stage will get shorter as you develop your own shortcuts and techniques.

I think the key is to strike the right balance between art and craft. Writing screenplays by winging it and hoping for the best can work only to a limited extent if you haven’t learned the basic principles of screenwriting. Equally, it would also be a mistake to think you need to read and learn every single theory and article about screenwriting before setting quill to parchment.

Aristotle said, "What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing." As I've said before, while that basic grounding in the craft is crucial, you develop good instincts and ability by watching lots of drama critically, reading lots of scripts and writing lots of scripts. Anyone can do it but you have to have the right aptitude.

If the thought of writing a script which you’re unlikely to get paid for and is unlikely to be made horrifies you then maybe it’s not going to happen. If you’re writing for the fun of it and because you know that each script is a step nearer to you becoming good enough to get paid and produced eventually then success is more likely to happen.

I believe that while something like the Project provides a short-cut - as someone else has already made the trials and errors – it’s also important to make your own trials and errors.

"There is a kind of script in that slush pile, much more prevalent since Syd (Field) and co started visiting us. A sort of equivalent to the Well-Made-Play - the Well-Presented-Script. Where the formatting is to-die-for. Where the plot-points fall with military precision and the second act swells to its climax and the central protagonist fights the obstacles and... they're dull. It's like the writer has fallen back completely on technique and forgotten that what makes him/her special is what they have to say.

So I'm not saying that new screenwriters don't need to learn technique, far, far from it. They just need to remember its a means to an ends. The ultimate aim of screenwriting is to fuse technique with magic. Or what Yeats called "Blood and intellect" running together." Ashley Pharoah

Writers write.

Good luck.



Finish What You Start - David Anaxagoras

Organized Worry - Jane Espenson

Respectfully Disagreeing - Jane Espenson

Your First Page Sells Your Script! - Hal Croasmun

What is Dialogue - Bill Martell

Character Moments - Bill Martell

Voice over - Bill Martell

Does bad work spoil mine? - John August


Writing Is Rewriting - Charles Deemer

How Do I Critique My Own Work? - Leigh Michaels

Bulletproof your Script against Reader Rejection - Derek Rydall

The Reader’s Backflip - Richard Walter

Don't Waste My Mutha*$%*^* Time! - Lucy

Is this scene necessary? - Bill Martell

Cutting Scenes from a Screenplay - Martha Alderson

How do you delete your favourite scene? - Vasco Phillip de Sousa

Re-writing - Danny

Rewriting your Screenplay: The Road to your Audience - Gordy Hoffman


Handy Checklist for Script Assessment

Death to Readers - Terry Rossio

Studio Reader’s Checklist

Screenplay Evaluation Checklist

Structure Checklist

Scene Checklist

Is your Script Really Ready for Market? - Lenore Wright

TAPS script editing course • Day 1 notes - David Bishop

Script Questionnaire #1 - Before You WRITE a Script

Script Questionnaire #2 - Before You MARKET A Script



Pillock said...

Great stuff, Robin, thanks.

Lucy said...

LOVE these articles Robin, you the man. And thanks for another link - though you had to pick my most foul-mouthed one didn't you? Now people will think I am a sewer rat and not the demure and ladylike silph I actually am. For shame.

miss-cellany said...

Cheers, for this. Wandered over here via random blog leap-frog as a distraction from - a monumental rewrite.

Don't feel so bad about it now, well, except the fear of the looming mental gymnastics, coffee shakes, insecurity etc...

Robin Kelly said...

Which is interesting because I wrote it as a distraction from writing ;-)