Thursday, August 8, 2013

Do It Once Well

Since I'm currently rewriting a new spec script, my mind is on rewriting a lot lately. So, I thought I'd do a series of posts on rewriting. Today I want to talk about the screenwriting saying, "Do it once well." This isn't purely a rewriting concept, but it often comes into play in your second and third drafts.

The idea here is if you do something well in a script, you only have to do it once. For example, if you want to establish that a character is afraid of water, you are better off creating one scene that clearly and dramatically shows this rather than vaguely hinting at it three times.

(The exception here is when you don't want something to be clear to the audience. Also, once you've established a character trait, you need to be consistent with it or explain why it's changed. Once you've shown a character is afraid of water, if they encounter water again they should still be afraid of it - that doesn't violate the principle.)

There are two ways this idea can be helpful in rewriting. First, if you are creating repetitive scenes, your screenplay may be running long, the pace may be slow, or it may seem on-the-nose. Second, if you need multiple scenes or beats to establish something, it may be a sign you are not properly dramatizing it.

So with our character who is afraid of the water, three consecutive scenes of him walking near the ocean, a swimming pool and a fountain and looking at the water nervously would both take a lot of words (and production time) and possibly still fail to make the point. You're relying on the actor to properly convey fear and on the audience to infer the source of the fear is the water.

Much better to do one scene that dramatizes the fear. Perhaps the character slips and falls in a shallow fountain, and freaks out, screaming for help. An old lady pulls him out and wonders what all the fuss is about - it's only a few inches deep. The character mumbles that he doesn't like water.

Of course knowing this principle and spotting repetition in your own work are two different things. That's one of the challenges of rewriting. It can help to step back and think of the various storylines in your screenplay.

What is the main character's emotional arc? What does the audience need to know about the character at the beginning of the script? Which scene establishes those facts? Where does the character change? Is there a single, effective scene establishing each change? Repeat this thought exercise for each relationship, the main plot and each subplot.

To organize this process, I often make a "rewrite plan" when I'm starting my second draft. This is very similar to the outline I made before the first draft - sometimes I can even just cut and paste large sections of the outline. I'll list every scene* and a few sentences of what happens in each. Then I'll list the changes I want to make in that scene. (Often there will also be new scenes to add, or a few scenes that are rearranged.)

I then identify the purpose of each scene in the story. Valid purposes for a scene are establishing/advancing character, advancing plot, or scenes of preparation and aftermath. I also grudgingly allow myself one or two scenes of exposition, and a couple set pieces that are just there for genre payoff (a funny set piece in a comedy, scary set piece in a horror film, etc.). **

I make these things specific. So a scene's purpose is not "advancing character," it's "Megan gives up hope." If I see two scenes with roughly the same purpose in close proximity, it's a sign I'm not doing something "once well" and I should probably either cut one scene or combine them.

A good outline reduces the amount of work you have to do in rewriting, but it's impossible to perfectly predict how the script will go in the first draft. Things won't work as well as you thought and characters will demand to go in directions you didn't anticipate. That's why when rewriting you have to let go of some of your preconceptions and be willing to make changes.

After all, "writing is rewriting."


*For these purposes sometimes a grouping of scenes may count for a single dramatic scene. A chase that moves through various locations may be multiple technical scenes but is really just one dramatic beat of the story.

**Ideally most scenes do multiple things. So a set piece could also advance plot, or an exposition scene could also reveal character.

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