7 Tips to Navigate a Complex Rewrite

7 Tips To Navigate A Complex Rewrite 1000x400

by Armaan Uplekar

You’ve written a first draft and have been making small tweaks at the script since. You’ve had some feedback from friends and family and received coverage from a couple of reputable sources. You know the script needs some work and now you’ve got some pretty killer ideas that you want to incorporate into the next draft of your script, but they are going to change things and have ripple effects throughout your story in a pretty big way. Sound familiar?

There’s a saying you’re probably familiar with – writing is rewriting. It might sound like a tired, overused platitude, but it’s also one rooted in truth for several reasons. What this expression is getting at is that writing is, fundamentally, a work in progress. It requires diligence, patience, and the willingness to revisit your ideas in order to get things right. As a result, one of the fundamental aspects of being a screenwriter is the ability to return to your work and improve upon the choices you made in your first draft.

Now, this can be a daunting task. Many writers can sometimes feel overwhelmed at the prospect of just writing their first draft. The idea of coming back and making changes, especially ones that might fundamentally alter some of the initial choices can be downright scary and intimidating. Luckily, there are some reliable methods you can use that will lessen the pressure and allow you to approach your next big rewrite with a clear game plan in mind.

  1. Get Some Healthy Distance

When you first finish a draft, your first impulse might be to dive back in and make changes. Maybe you’re the kind of writer who instinctively knows what you’d like to correct on the next go-round. It can be tempting to circle back and launch into a rewrite immediately after typing the words “fade out” on your final page.

However, it might be wise to resist that initial temptation. Consider giving yourself some space from the work at hand. Maybe use the next two weeks as time to work on another project or recharge your batteries. This distance can be extraordinarily helpful in allowing you to appraise your work with a refreshed attitude. You might not only be able to see flaws you hadn’t noticed before, but you also might be able to take better stock of the strengths of your screenplay once you have some time away from being completely immersed in the writing process.

  1. Get the Perspective of Someone You Trust

An important thing to remember about the craft of screenwriting is that you’re not just writing for yourself – you’re writing for an audience. That’s why it can be extremely helpful to get a fresh pair of eyes on your work. Consider reaching out to someone your trust and seeking their opinion on your draft. It could be a close friend, a former classmate or a peer whose opinion you admire.

Getting an outside opinion on your work can help inform your perspective; that fresh pair of eyes can help tell you if a complicated bit of fantasy backstory needs more clarification or if your hero is unlikable. Their opinion can help you get out of your head and jumpstart some new ideas that you can use to supercharge your next rewrite. Just make sure to be polite and value their time; it’s important to accept their notes and any possible criticism with an open mind.

  1. Give Your Script an Objective Read

Now it’s your turn. A lot of writers assume they know their material inside and out – and maybe they do. But for every writer who knows their script like the back of their hand, there are ten more who might be surprised how their work reads. That’s why it’s important to dive back into your script with an objective read before jumping into your next rewrite.

Try your best to pretend you’re a complete newcomer to the story. Imagine experience those story beats and character introductions for the first time. By putting yourself in the place of someone who might encounter your script as a blind read, you might be better suited to recognize some of the inadvertent flaws in your material. Maybe a set piece lacks clarity; maybe a beloved scene feels unnecessary when viewed in the wider context of the story. An objective read can be a key step to getting a new perspective on how your script reads to others.

  1. Make a Specific Plan

One of the chief reasons why rewrites can be difficult for many new writers is that they jump into the process without a clear plan or set of goals. This can be confusing and even disastrous – scripts are tough to write in the first place. But renovating a screenplay from the inside-out, tweaking plot points, adding new scenes, getting rid of characters without a blueprint? It might be enough to make your head spin.

That’s why it’s so important that you approach your rewrite with an action plan designed to help you through the work that is to come. A specific plan will keep you on track with your goals and keep you from making impulse decisions out of frustration or uncertainty. It’ll keep you moving fast and with a guiding set of principles.

  1. Enhance the Work You Already Have

Let’s face it: first drafts can be messy, loosely structured and even borderline incoherent. It varies from writer to writer, but in some ways there is one virtual certainty – the writing won’t come out the way you expect it to on your first pass. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t good material on the page, however – it just means you need to fine-tune some of your work. Use the rewrite process a way to improve on the good work you’ve already done.

Maybe some of your scenes are skeletal, or maybe some are too long and all over the place. Use your rewrite as a way to add some meat and backbone to the work – add in punchlines, missing character beats, dial up the tension and make your storytelling more visual. By tweaking as you go, your work will slowly but surely become all the more professional and polished.

  1. “Kill Your Darlings”

Let’s say you’ve written an extravagant and exciting set piece that lands smack dab in the middle of your script. It’s a sequence you’ve dreamed of writing for a long time and it’s hard to ignore – even in the writing, it draws attention to itself. Its ambitious, its big and its bold. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not right for your story.

This happens. Sometimes the best laid plans – whether it be a blockbuster action sequence or a colorful character – can ultimately end up feeling out of sync with the rest of the script. This can be a disorienting or disheartening experience, but at the end of the day, it’s all part of the process. That’s why you can’t be afraid to, in the words of William Faulkner, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

There comes a time where scenes or moments that you cherish might begin to fit less and less into the story you’re trying to tell. When that becomes apparent, make the hard choice to get rid of material that isn’t in service to your story. That doesn’t mean that you can’t repurpose these ideas for another project – it does mean, however, that you’re well on your way to becoming a more mature writer and that you’re willing to make tough decisions in order to best serve your rewrite.

  1. Make Radical Changes

If you’re truly unhappy with a previous draft and looking for ways to improve upon your work, you might want to consider an extreme option: fundamentally altering the nature of your story. This, of course, is a drastic course of action. It’s not undoable, of course (make sure to save copies of all your previous drafts), but it does take time and commitment. Maybe you realize that your first draft was told from the perspective of a character whose viewpoint isn’t as exciting as you might’ve hoped. Maybe, during this process, you’ve realized that there’s another character who might be better suited to acting as your audience’s surrogate.

This happens sometimes when you’re approaching rewrites, and you shouldn’t shy away from creative revelations such as these. They may lead to sleepless nights, sure, but don’t be afraid to embrace radical changes in order to make your screenplay better – a new point-of-view, or a change in narrative circumstances can really help you get to the finish line.

As you can see, there are several things you can do and questions you can answer before you begin a page one rewrite, that will maximize your time so that it is an effective and satisfying process.


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