The Rewriting Process

As I mentioned when discussing story structure, our second collaboration (after Moray Creek) went a little off the rails.  We started mapping the story out, but couldn’t quite figure out how long it was actually going to take us to hit our plot points, so decided to dive in and see how it went.

It did not go well.  As we reached the close of the second act, we realized we really had no idea how the protagonists were going to resolve the conflict.  I had a sort of half-baked idea, which, like all of my half-baked ideas, centered around anamnesis – the remembering of forgotten things.  This is not a concept that lends itself to cinema.  Or action.

We muddled through as best we could, then, dispirited, set aside the script to work on other, clearer projects.  In the interim, we wrote another six scripts, and I’m fairly confident we’ve gotten much better, both in our writing and our method.  Since the script in question is a Christmas movie, we decided it was time to take another look at it.

Rewriting’s a strange activity.  There are certainly easy changes to make.  We have found that, by the end of the script, we have a much better grasp on our characters’ voices than we did at the beginning.  Part of this is due to character expressing itself through action.  Would a character who happily shoots a half dozen Chinese embassy guards really be such a pushover in the first act?  No.  No, she would not.

Tightening up the structure is always a fun and rewarding aspect of rewriting.  I read a nice interview with Shane Black a while back that talks about his fondness for well-structured set-ups and pay-offs:

There’s a great example of this in Face/Off. Near the start of the film John Travolta explains to his daughter how to defend herself with a knife: he says she should stab a guy in the leg and twist the knife once it’s in there. By the end of the film, the audience has half-forgotten the scene. But when the daughter has a bad guy holding a gun to her head and pulls out a knife, everybody remembers. When she stabs him in the leg, they cheer. And when she twists it, they cheer louder. Audiences love those moments when something from much earlier in the film comes back and makes them slap their foreheads and say to themselves, “Of course!” Sometimes I write a scene and I think to myself: “That would be even better if I’d somehow set it up earlier in the film.” So I turn back to page 15, insert a set-up and wind up looking like a genius who had planned it like that all along.

Where rewriting really gets frustrating, at least for us, is when there is a definite structural problem with the film.  Once a film’s plot is laid down, I find it really hard to start moving major plot points.  Moray Creek was kind of a mess in its first draft, and our solution was to let some time pass and try to map out a scene breakdown from memory.  That worked, but it meant basically throwing out the entire first draft and starting over.

I’m sure there’s a better way to handle this, but maybe this is why studios generally hire people to rewrite other people’s scripts.  There’s something about the initial creation that makes it so difficult to rebuild the skeleton once the flesh is on.  Maybe, as we approach our mess of a third act, we’ll come up with a better way.