Wednesday, May 09, 2012

How to Re-Write Part 1: Don’t Revise, Re-Write!

Bah!  Enough TV for now, on to the next series...  
This series was originally going to be titled “How to Revise”, but let’s face it: revision is bullshit.  You can tinker around the edges all you want, but you won’t really improve your story until you tear it apart and rebuild it.  You hope that you can just tweak a few plot points or sweeten some dialogue without affecting any other scenes, but that’s not going to get you anywhere.  In fact, it’ll just piss everybody off.

The screenwriting world is filled with unwritten rules and I’m still discovering new ones everyday.  Here’s a big one:  If someone reads your whole screenplay and is thoughtful enough to give you a ton of notes as to how you can improve it, then don’t you dare ask them to read it again unless you’ve massively re-written it. 

There’s nothing more annoying than re-reading a screenplay thats only been slightly revised since the first draft.  That’s true even when friends read each others’ scripts, so imagine how infuriating it is when producers or reps devote more time to their re-read than you did to your re-write. 

Don’t be precious.  Don’t be resistant to change.  Don’t defend your script against notes.  Follow the Back to the Future rule.  On the DVD commentary, screenwriter Bob Gale says “If we got a note only once, we could tell ourselves that only one person felt that way, but as soon as we got the same note from two different people, we knew that millions of people would feel that way.”

Indeed, they describe years of re-writes both before and after it sold.  Let’s start with the most basic: what does a time machine look like?  Well, it’s big metal booth that you climb into, right?  So if you needed to re-charge it back in the ‘50s, what would you do?  You’d hoist it up onto the back of a truck, throw a tarp over it, and drive out to New Mexico to steal some nuclear material.  And in the first twenty versions of this script, that’s exactly what happened...

Finally, after years of beating their head up against the wall, one of them thought to ask, “Hey, what if we invented a time machine on wheels…Wouldn’t that be more convenient?  And what if he could stay in town and re-energize the time machine with lightning?  But how would he know the exact moment that a lightning bolt would strike.  Wait, that gives me an idea…”  

That’s hardcore, ground-floor re-writing right there.  Let’s figure out how to do that in this series…


j.s. said...

I suppose I have this fantasy that if they had spent more time and energy prewriting, outlining and/or working in scriptment form, they would have arrived at some of these changes sooner. Granted it's a very solid screenplay. But if every one you write is supposed to take years and scores of drafts to get that good, how does anyone ever get anything done?

Matt Bird said...

The answer, of course, is that it's a massively inefficient system. For another of the hundreds of examples: see Ken Levine's recent piece about the number of drafts "Volunteers" went thru:


When outsiders hear how much screenwriters get paid for a script, they assume that we're all instantly wealthy. The sad truth is that, amortized over years of re-writes, it's easy for a $100k payday to end up being close to minimum wage as an hourly rate.

Matt Bird said...

And I guess the less depressing answer is that, if this sounds too maddening then you should write for TV instead, which, from everything I hear, is massively more efficient, more profitable for everybody involved, and more artistically satisfying.

I've said before that, in terms of non-household-name, no-big-award-winning screenwriters, I think the career every writer wants right now is Graham Yost's. He sold three big, silly action specs, (Speed, Broken Arrow, and Hard Rain) then parlayed that heat into a long, steady career writing much smarter TV shows. (Band of Brothers, Boomtown, Justified)

j.s. said...

In Levine's recounting, he was actually being paid for at least part of that time.

The maddening part, like I said in the comments on an earlier post, is that I can't imagine more than a couple serious rewrites completely on spec, and only then if the script is actually improving. It's one thing for a project everyone believes in to be carefully nurtured and honed in development, especially if there's really some kind of business relationship already. But quite another for just any movie to be rewritten to death in a way that makes it different a dozen times but not substantially better after the first few.

Which is really my experience and many of my friends' with most notes and rewrites. Theoretically something can always be improved. But unless you're really a 100% drafter type who doesn't bother prewriting, boarding, outlining or using tools like your ultimate story checklist, then don't most scripts fail to justify 20 drafts? Isn't it better to move on to something else?