Friday, October 16, 2015

5 Tips for Organizing Your Rewrite

Approaching a rewrite can be daunting. Sometimes you have a ton of notes ranging from big structural changes to small line fixes, from character adjustments to plants and logic tweaks. You may have to move scenes around, write new scenes, or go through line-by-line to adjust a character’s dialogue.

There is no real universal method of organizing your rewrite. I’ve developed some procedures over the years that work well for me. Maybe you’ll find some of my ideas helpful for your rewrites.

1. Back to Treatment. I will often write a one-page treatment of the story as it will unfold in the new draft. If I’m making structural changes, this will help me to see how the story plays in broad strokes. If I’m keeping the major beats mostly the same, it will help me identify what the core of the story is, so I know what to protect as I cut and trim.

2. Divide the rewrites into stages. It’s usually better to fix the big problems first before delving into the small problems. Why noodle a line of dialogue in a scene you’ll ultimately cut? If I have a wide variety of notes, I’ll divide them into passes. Each pass creates a new draft of the script (I’m a bit obsessive about saving every iteration of my scripts in case I later want to go back to something I cut), but I won’t show the script to anyone until I’ve gone through all the passes. I would typically divide up the passes in this order:
  • First Pass: Structural and plot changes, cutting and adding scenes, and cutting, combining, or adding characters.
  • Second Pass: Major character changes (may be subdivided into multiple passes, handling a single character each time, if more than one character needs work).
  • Third Pass: Scene fixes and dialogue revisions.
3. Create an outline for your rewrite. Just like I create an outline for my first draft, I often create a new outline for each major rewrite. I start by listing every scene in the current draft (often by editing my original outline to match the draft). I’ll add descriptions of any new scenes I have to write with big “NEW SCENE” labels before them. Then, I’ll list the changes under each scene that I plan to make to that scene. I can then use this as a checklist to make sure I’ve addressed all of the notes.

4. Track your structure. I will identify the major structural beats of the story in the outline – where’s the Catalyst? The Midpoint? The Act II Turning Point? That will help me make sure I’m executing each beat effectively when I reach that point in the rewrite. Sometimes I’ll also make a note under each scene as to the purpose of the scene in the plot.

5. Track the character beats. I will also identify the beats of the character arc(s), and of the changing relationships between characters, and note the scenes where these changes are dramatized. I will often color-code these in Word. For example, I might use red for a romance. The beats might be things like, “They meet,” “She reveals her big secret,” and “She feels betrayed and leaves.” Then I can make sure as I’m rewriting that I maintain the integrity of the emotional storylines. If I cut a scene that contains an important beat, I’ll know I have to replace it somewhere else. And I can see where I’m skipping or under-dramatizing emotional beats.

Here's an excerpt of an actual rewrite outline I did for a romantic comedy script. It starts with the paragraph from my original outline, followed by my notes for the rewrite:


We meet KELSEY STONE, a war photographer, having an Egyptian street delicacy in a market. She has a friendly repartee with OMAR, the proprietor – she’s a regular. MARK BURTON, an A.P. BBC journalist, joins her. They banter and flirt, revealing Kelsey as a live-for-the-moment person, and Mark happy to participate in that lifestyle. Mark is trying to get Kelsey to come back to the hotel with him, but she makes him work for it. Mark: “Come on, nothing’s happening here.” Omar is protective of Kelsey, which also frustrates Mark’s attempts. However, when Omar suggests Kelsey ought to get married (and says, “What would your parents think of you running around over here?”), Kelsey suddenly agrees to leave with Mark. On their way out, Kelsey gives money to a poor woman – which draws a reprimand from Mark: “You can’t save these people that way; you’re here to document what’s going on.”

Purpose: Introduce Kelsey and her attitude about life, tone

-Make opening more exciting - actual danger, a serious protest.

-Plant Kelsey's skills that will pay off in wedding scenes.

-Make Mark British. Make him a BBC reporter.

-Kelsey is more anti-marriage. Mark suggests Omar set Kelsey up.

The rewrite outline then becomes a roadmap for the rewrite. You can go scene by scene, making the necessary changes, without having to worry about keeping the big picture in your head or worrying you’ll forget something.


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