Saturday, August 4, 2012

When Rewriting, Good Enough Isn’t

I’m currently doing the final few passes rewriting my new spec screenplay. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested to hear about how I approach the process.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably know that I do an extensive outline before I start writing and that I try to do my first draft straight through without going back. (This particular script didn’t work that way – I got about 45 pages in and didn’t like the direction it was going, so I went back, revised the outline, and started over.)

While doing that first draft, I’ll keep a page of notes of things I want to change or plant or set up better in the next draft. When I’m finished with the first draft, I’ll set it aside for a few days then read it through in one sitting, adding to the page of notes with probably another page or two. The second draft is largely doing those notes.

The next few drafts generally are guided by "just make it better.” But I have noticed I tend to fix the plot first, then go back through and fix the character and relationship arcs, possibly bouncing back to adjust the plot as the character stuff affects it.

In this particular script, the relationship arc needed some serious clarifying, so before one draft I put note cards up on my bulletin board for each scene where character adjustments could be made, and then added Post-its of each character or relationship beat. That way I could move the Post-its around to better distribute the beats. I haven’t done this before – one thing about writing is each script is its own animal and you often have to adjust your process to the demands of the project.

At that point the script was in pretty good shape. And that brings me to the pass I want to focus on today: Eliminating the “good enough.”

When I first graduated from film school, my day job was working in the technology department at Walt Disney Feature Animation. My job didn’t have anything to do with creative development, but it allowed me to observe the process they used. One thing that struck me was how they would constantly go through the storyboards and look at each beat, each joke, each image, each line of dialogue and ask if they could come up with something better. This was at the height of Disney Animation’s creative renaissance, and I thought that attitude of always trying to be better at every point had a lot to do with their success.

Once I feel like my script is working, I read through it in one sitting looking for all those places that feel “good enough” but not “great.” Usually there are a lot of scenes that I really like, but also several scenes where I solved a problem but I don’t love the solution. There are also scenes that are successful but a little ordinary or predictable.

My next pass focuses on these scenes that are just okay. I brainstorm ideas of what might be better than what I have. I ask myself a lot of “what if” questions. The changes usually don’t alter the overall plot or characters, but they can have a dramatic effect on the experience of reading the script (and hopefully watching the final film). Sometimes the scenes that come out of this pass end up being among the best in the whole story.

Of course you can paralyze yourself by constantly rewriting a script to death. You have to have a sense of when it’s time to let your baby go out into the world and stand on its own two feet. At some point you’re making your script different but not better.

But doing one pass to turn “good enough” into “great” is the kind of thing that separates mundane, forgettable specs from those that get you assignments and sales.

1 comment:

Eilis Mernagh said...

I love this. It's definitely more work to keep reworking things until they're "great" but so worth doing. Thanks for this tip as I'm doing a rewrite at the moment and needed a shot of inspiration!