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Approaching Rewrites

For the lovely H who asked last week for my thoughts on rewrites. If you have a query for the blog, leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll get to it as soon as I can.
The thing to remember with your spec scripts is: it’s a work in progress. It’s never finished. You may do three billion drafts of a spec before it gets an option, but chances are you’ll end up doing a billion more AFTER the option. I have never heard of a writer optioning a script and a producer or director making it the way it is (if it isn’t a collaboration, that is).

Even if your spec ends up languishing on your desktop, chances are you will go back to it at some point in your lifetime. I had a spec I thought completely, hopelessly dead; I hadn’t so much as thought about it in years (except in “Aaah, that was so crap, how sweet” kind of way) until someone phoned me up and said “I need a pitch for something to do with space pirates.” I said (somewhat foolishly I might add), “Oh, I have one of those.” Then freaked out when I remembered how crap my original draft was. Luckily they only wanted a one page pitch, not an actual draft, so I was able to think about how I might approach the crap execution I did all those years ago now I’m a little more experienced. So I redid the premise. And lo and behold, it works. As a pitch, anyway!

But how do you approach a redraft once you’ve got that all-important, actual first-first, words-on-paper draft?

Well, as in all things scriptwriting-related, it’s entirely personal. I know writers who write a first draft and then workshop it with actors before attempting a second draft. Others print out said first-first draft, put in a drawer, then come back and hack at it with a red pen. Some stare at their drafts on a PC screen like madmen and ring people up to complain about how shit their work is and how they’re going to give up screenwriting. I know writers who send their first-first drafts to readers and friends in the first instance; some only allow their agents to look at their stuff when it’s in a bit of a state (as all first-first drafts are). Others do a combo of all of this.

If I was giving general advice on approaching a redraft, the first thing I would look at in a second draft is structure and plot. I’ve said before that dialogue is the last thing I look at, but even character comes after structure and plot for me. Why? Because characters can always be re-aligned around plot in my eyes, but a good plot can’t be drawn OUT of a character. I read too many scripts that have interesting characters that don’t do anything much to think plotting is subordinate.

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the likes of character and dialogue when you really should be looking at how your story works as a whole; otherwise it’s like you’re moving around the tiles in one of those annoying puzzles where you have to make a picture, yet one tile is always out of sync. By investing in plot and structure in the second draft, you can really work on your characters’ arcs and make us care about them in the third. However a plotless or badly structured script can mean messing around with the incidental scenes and moments, hitting your head against a brick wall in my experience.

Way I see it, the first-first draft is a throwaway draft. You might feel a sense of achievement for getting the thing finished, but don’t let that euphoria fool you and make you believe for one second this draft is anywhere near finished. It isn’t. Yes there will be some good stuff in there – stuff that might even make it into the final version of the first draft you send out. But nine times out of ten, you can do better. Scrub that: you MUST do better. There will be incoherent chunks, woolly characterisation, on-the-nose dialogue. There will plot opportunities wasted; there will be moments that can be realigned, leaner, cooler.

In short: even if your first-first draft is good, it’s not as good as it CAN be. And writers that come through Bang2write generally get this. What they don’t appear to always get is that drafts AFTER the first-first draft won’t be perfect either. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard something along the lines of:

“Thanks for your notes, I agree with your points… It’s a shame I still haven’t written a shootable draft”.

A shootable draft?? There’s no such thing. Even when your drafts ARE shot, there’s a good chance you will see things you *should have* written, even if people tell you they love your work. What’s more, with filmmaking being a collaborative effort, you may not agree with a director’s choices or a producer’s demands in a rewrite – yet you will have to do it. It’s the way that is, hence the back-handed compliment I’ve heard writers sometimes give each other: “Hey, congratulations on getting a prodco to fuck up your script!”

So if you’re striving for perfection in your rewrite second time around (or even four, five, six times around and more!), you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You won’t get perfection. Your reader won’t come back to you and say, “Hey, this is fine now, send it out”, they’ll hopefully say something along the lines of: “You’ve worked out [these issues], now you need to concentrate on [these issues].” This is a GOOD thing, it’s a sign you’re making progress, not a failure – because your second first draft will be what it is: a slightly better first-first draft.

But there is one other thing when considering rewrites: don’t be afraid of returning to page one. It’s not a sign of failure or even weakness and you can still use your original draft(s) as a foundation for the new script. When I wrote Thy Will Be Done, I wrote nine drafts of my first draft and three of them (a third!) went back to page one. Each time it was needed and each time it got stronger as a result. Now I have a script in my portfolio that I am confident with and that I know is good – even when people have told me they didn’t like it. I know it’s story preference, rather than craft. And that counts for so much.

How do you approach rewriting?

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6 thoughts on “Approaching Rewrites”

  1. Hi Lucy, I’m still alive, and halfway through my penultimate day in this job.

    I hate the thought of rewriting, but I actually don’t mind the “act” (ooh err, missus).

    And I always work on paper the first few times. Print out, go through with the red pen (well it’s usually blue or black but I prefer red), make changes, new scenes in, redundant scenes out. Or indeed wipe out a complete character.

    I admit I’ve never done a page one re-write. I really hate the idea of that. But it may come.

  2. We always hate the idea of page 1, but it’s strangely liberating. I’ve had some of best writing highs doing page 1 rewrites, defo.

  3. Lucy,

    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been debating this on my blog,, all week and I reposted your post there.


  4. I have mixed feelings about rewriting. On the one hand I find it reassuring that rewriting is what it’s all about. My first drafts are awful. I know most writers produces dodgy first drafts but I’m definitely one of those that needs *lots* of work on all aspects of the script. On the othe hand it’s incredibly daunting going back to page 1. For me this isn’t so much because I mind starting again (I agree with Lucy that it can be strangely liberating)but it feels like the previous draft has been an avoidable waste of writing time if only I’d spotted the problems sooner. Grrrr!

    Also, as Lucy knows, I like to get feedback after the first draft. This is because *if* I’m going to go back to page 1 then I’d rather do it before I’ve worked on the dialogue and so on.

  5. As I’ve said to you before Caroline, previous drafts are NEVER wasted… But it can take ages – and many scripts – to appreciate this, since it’s only over time you see yourself utilising stuff you’ve written and discarded before!

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