Wouldn’t it be great if we all hit gold with our first drafts and attained the pinnacle of perfection? That would be so much easier. Alas, it never works that way. Even writers who have claimed to sell first drafts (and Clint Eastwood famously has a penchant for shooting them) have tinkered and fiddled with them to one extent or another before cutting the cord and letting them into the world.
There’s a reason why the aphorism “writing is rewriting” is so oft-repeated: it’s true. Screenwriting is such an exacting art form, you have to keep chipping away and refining. Every word counts. Every single word. Every line of dialogue, every bit of action, everything has to work at its optimal level, independently and in the moment and as an inextricable component of a greater whole.
That first draft feels precious. You might very well like what you have, and what you have might very well be pretty good. But the odds are, it can be better. I’ve worked with dozens of writers on multiple drafts of their scripts, and one thing I’ve seen a lot is the tendency to only make cosmetic, miniscule changes…nips and tucks rather than aggressive surgery. Changing a line of dialogue here, adding a coma there, etcetera.
I myself have done this too, by the way, and recognized that I was doing that while I was doing it. It’s easy to get so locked into the key scenes and set pieces you’ve come up with and be afraid to throw them out and start again. But if you’re not willing to bite the proverbial bullet and be ruthless, you’re closing yourself off to new possibilities that could possibly transform your script and really make it work. You can always go back to what you had, nothing is set in stone, but start off by being bold.
Open up your first draft. Copy it all into a new file. Close your original file and set it aside. It’s safe. Take your new file and be bold. Identify your favorite scene and delete it. Kill it. Challenge yourself to come up with something better. If you can’t, then you’ll know that that scene really works and belongs. It’s having this kind of industrious mindset that is going to yield a really purposeful rewrite.
Here are some other good general benchmarks to keep in mind throughout the rewriting process:
- Make sure conflict is present in every single scene. Conflict is the engine of film narrative. If a scene is devoid of any conflict, it doesn’t belong in the story.
- Make sure that your protagonist has an external, clearly-defined goal that he is actively pursuing throughout the story.
- Ensure that your characters act consistently throughout the story, and if they do something that is out of character, make sure to dramatize it as being out of character, so that the audience will understand the significance of the act.
- Keep the emotional stakes of the story as high as possible at all times. More than any other narrative form, screenplays are about characters in moments of crisis, at crossroads, facing their greatest challenges. This is true regardless of genre.
- Remove all adjectives, adverbs, sentences and paragraphs you don’t absolutely need. Economy is the currency you want to traffic in. Less is almost always more.
- Strive to make every scene as visual as possible. You’re not writing a play, you’re telling a story though images first and foremost.
- Be clear on what the theme of your story is, crystallize it into something communicable, and use it as a throughline to tie all of your elements together. Theme shouldn’t dictate character, but it ought to contextualize the story as universally as possible. Theme is the chief vehicle through which to make your story universal and cross-cultural.
- Make your first and last ten pages unforgettable; they are the two segments that an executive will be looking at the hardest. Middles can be fixed, but if beginnings and endings are fatally flawed, your script will be written off as dead in the water.
Most importantly, keep writing. Like anything else, you’re going to get better and have more success the more often you do it.