theory

Coming to Grips With Rewriting

For a while, I hated the thought of re-writing. Loathed it, in fact. At this point in time, my reference for re-writes came mainly from the studios bringing in new writers to eviscerate a decent script into a complete pile of shit. (“Nottingham” or “Green Lantern” anyone?)

I was young, I was stupid, I was uneducated.

I thought rewriting your own script meant a complete page-one rewrite where you change the names and genders of all your characters and reset your story in space. Or something. Like I said, I was stupid.

Some perspective is needed. When I first started writing, I thought I could write pretty well, and just needed to learn formatting. This was mainly assumed because of the scripts I was reading were all completed versions typed up nicely after the movies came out. These are a horrible example of scripts to read in one sense: these tend to have camera directions, scene numbers, and the writers may sometimes write extensive paragraphs of description.

On the flipside, these scripts can be a terrific resource when looking for how to write great character descriptions, taught action sequences, and a wide variety of descriptive verbs.

When I say I was uneducated, that is partially true. I had gone through David Trottier’s book for formatting. This became a large problem.

As I’ve stated before, when I discovered Scriptshadow, the doors to an education in Screenwriting were blown wide open. One of the earliest things I remember reading was to never, under any circumstance, have a description paragraph be longer than three lines. This was a game changer, and a bit of a wake up call.

In Trottier’s book, he said it was okay to have (If memory serves) no more than five lines of description. Then, in the next edition, he reduces that number to four lines. Thus, I began to really take issue with this so-called guru. He kept changing the rules every single edition. Add to that, his latest edition of the book still states that the dialogue blocks can be four inches wide.

In the first article I read of Carson’s, he discussed cheating the margins, and how bad it looks on the writer. Since then, I have only glanced at Trottier’s book a couple of times just to compare recent editions.

In the year I’ve frequented the site, I have read current articles as well as the first year’s worth of archives; this leads me to state the following: He is consistent as hell! There are few to no differences in what he has been saying. If he changes his mind, or shows how an exception to a previous theory can work.

And that’s a big deal to me. With Trottier, his message was “Do this this way, because that’s how it’s done!” and with Carson, his message is “Using this movie as an example, here’s an example of how you can make a straight-up exposition scene become way more interesting.” FYI, the example I just used was from his breakdown of “The Big Lebowski.”

Scriptshadow is all about constantly learning a craft and finding ways and examples of how to improve.

This is the type of education I will take over all others. The we’re-all-in-the-same-boat idea. We’re learning together. Nothing turns by brain off like the teacher who acts like a know-it-all with his paint-by-numbers lessons that say there is only one way of doing things.

With a year’s worth of education absorbed, I can look back on previous projects with a clear sense of what I did wrong.

A couple of Scriptshadow articles really made me take notice: 10 Ways I Know I’m Reading an Amateur Script and Thoughts from a Script Reader. Both of these mentioned a couple of issues readers had with a script I submitted, and I never really knew how to address them in the next pass.

The big thing was discussing the fact that there were too many characters, some of whom didn’t seen three-dimensional. That was something I never quite understood. The characters were so clear in my head, why weren’t they coming across as clear on the page?

First things first, I never wrote up biographies for my characters. It seemed like too much of a hassle, and all I wanted to do was get to the writing. What I soon learned was that by digging deep into each character’s past, you will be able to create a character with consistent actions from beginning to end. If a character’s actions are inconsistent, it just shows the reader that the story was made up on the fly, and no real effort seemed to be put in.

Here’s a bit of character perspective: A one-dimensional character is nothing more than a single character trait. You see these on bad TV dramas. The heroin addict who is only seen getting high and doing literally nothing else. (A bit part) A two-dimensional character is a person with a family, some friends, and a couple traits. Maybe they’re successful, maybe they’re funny. We may find out a little about them, but only a bit. (A guest star) A three-dimensional character is someone whose past has been fully explored, and their current traits, habits, and behaviors reflect that exploration. (A series regular)

While all three of these types of characters might (and almost certainly do) appear in an episode of “CSI,” which of the three are we most likely to respond to? The most fleshed out, of course. Save for Sara Sidle, I could imagine being friends with all of the main characters.

With this knowledge in mind, I recently came across Carson’s article on rewriting. This made a ton of sense. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. (This site tends to have a lot of those moments) Basically, you go through the draft in passes, with each new pass focusing on one character. That way, you make sure they have proper motivation, a clear voice, and they’re consistent throughout. And best of all, you’re reading a story from THEIR perspective. That way, hell, you can just look at their previously written actions and say, “There’s NO WAY Tony would ditch his girlfriend to hang out with Jimmy; he already told him he had dinner with her parents that night. This is a major plot-hole!” I’m exaggerating the situation, but you get the gist.

From now on, I see rewriting as each pass being another chance at making the original idea stronger, not rethinking the whole thing. Sure, some things may change, but who knows? It may be for the best.

Since reading the rewrite article, I’ve come up with a few ideas of my own for the types of passes that can be done to enhance the script. I won’t share them until I test them, and be sure that I’m on the right track.

This has been a terrific year of education that I couldn’t be more thankful to have gotten the chance to undertake. I look forward to continuing with this endeavor and seeing how much I’ve improved as a writer after I complete the next script.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

What I’ve Learned This Year

On the second of September, it will be one year since I’ve had employment. This was planned to be the year that I wrote six to ten screenplays before setting off to work and save up for a move to Los Angeles.

There was a change in plans shortly after my job came to an end. My parents, who I’ve been living with, informed my brother and sister that they had decided to move to North Carolina, and we were all invited to come with.

This news came as quite a shock, and naturally, I was pissed. This changed everything. How would I live? Where would I work? Why the fuck bother? I hated the notion, and hoped to move straight to the west coast. Following some examination of living costs out there, I recanted. My brother asking aloud, “Did you come to your senses, then?” He’s kind of a shit at times, but he’s family, so what can you do?

Following a couple months of wallowing in self pity, and being quite direction-less, I finally managed to get my act together and get some ideas down.

First was the month-long research period for “Soldiers of Fortune.” I spent days on the internet trying to learn all I could about the weight and size and classes of 16th century ships. Around Thanksgiving, my library facilitated me with a book on Columbus’ ships that proved most helpful.

One of the critical parts of planning this story was figuring out the time frame of it all. As it was an Action/Adventure film, there was naturally globetrotting. What I had trouble with was finding out the travel times between destinations, the time difference and how long each of the events in each location would last. It was necessary to create an actual time line for the project, and it came in quite handy.

Before I wrote, I outlined, with a simple rubric I plan to touch on at a later date. Any problems with a scene about to be written were further outlined on my trusty 4×6 notecards. When completed, there were at least 100 cards related to this particular project. Each of them handwritten.

The writing was rather fast, two weeks, I believe. I had it at 100 pages. And I saw that it was good.

A month later, I wrote my second script. “While This Offer Lasts.” A rewrite of a script I had done the year before. This project is what I refer to as the “Manic Draft.” Named that for when I told my doctor at a checkup and he said, “Good God, are you manic?” He was taken aback by the particulars of the project: 113 pages written in eight days.

The project itself took all of ten days total. The first day was the beat sheet. The second was outlining. On the third, I started. I used notecards in the same capacity as the previous project. And like it, I used over 100 cards.

Shortly after finishing the second script, I sent in the first to Scriptshadow’s Amateur Offerings. Around that time, I started really delving into the articles on the site. It was there that I found the article discussing cheating the margins. Putting the script into Final Draft, I realized I had been doing things wrong.

Once I took care of the formatting, I read more of the articles. It soon became apparent to me that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. On one hand, it was terrible. There went the last two months of work I’ve done, all the while thinking it was good. On the other, it was exciting. There, on the web was an example of something similar to what I’d written, what was wrong with it, WHY it was wrong, and a suggestion or two about how to correct it.

In the past year, I have bookmarked hundreds of articles on one site alone. (A great thing about the bookmarking feature in my browser is that I can re-name each bookmark, and say why I bookmarked it, instead of going to the page and having to re-read it.

Another helpful aspect was the reading of two books: “Scriptshadow Secrets,” which, as I’ve stated, is the best screenwriting book I’d read to date. That remains true. The second one I haven’t finished yet. It’s called “Crafty Screenwriting” by Alex Epstein. This book, I would venture to say, would be tied for the title of the best screenwriting book you can buy. I’m dead serious. This book was written by a former studio suit who knows what the hell he’s talking about. For instance, in the first chapter, he says that you have to hook the reader by the third sentence in a query letter. I’ve NEVER heard that. Not in all of the books that Writer’s Digest peddles, or anywhere else.

I’ve also joined a screenwriting forum. It was probably the best decision I’d made all year. On there, I think I’ve really found a place I belong. And if this site is any indication of what networking with other screenwriters is like, I can’t wait! I’ve met a ton of really great people on there who I just love chatting and exchanging ideas with.

An example of this is how for a long time, I was having trouble with loglines. Through this site, as well as a book or two (see above), I’ve managed to help a couple writers better fine-tune their stories. It was all from the realization that if the information in your logline does not directly have an effect on the story, lose it. IE, if your story takes place in the early 19th century, but it’s about a construction worker being blackmailed, the time really doesn’t play into the pitch, since it’s all about the construction worker.

But by far the two biggest things that I’ve pounded into my head are building a concise character description, and understanding the economy of the page. A side note for the latter being more diverse with descriptive verbage. These two subjects became the biggest focuses over the later part of the year.

I will admit, however, I feel a little guilty, not having written a single page since January. This was really when I discovered I was doing it wrong. The good news is that I’m still technically writing everyday. I always have my phone, a notebook, or notecards handy to jot down an idea when I get it.

Another reason for my sloth-like behavior was the fact that my family is moving to North Carolina, and we sold our house back in April. It was fast. I mean, REALLY fast. We put it on the market on a Wednesday, and we closed the sale the following Wednesday. Yes, ONE WEEK.

So it was really hard to do much writing with all of my noted being packed in moving boxes. Then, we moved to an apartment in Madison until we were set to move South in the fall. Currently, we have a month left here, so my notes are going BACK into storage for the next move. Where, I’m told, we’re going to be at another apartment for an initial three months before possibly looking for a new place to rent. It’s kind of harrowing.

Once I get settled in, I plan on seeking full time employment. After I get into the swing of things, that’s when I’ll get into writing again.

In the meantime, I plan on creating a sort of handbook for screenwriting that breaks down the aspects of screenwriting. (Excerpts from articles all having to do with writing a concise character description would all appear under the same category, for example.) This may take some time to put together, but I feel it will be well worth it in the long run.

I’m also really hoping that the public library system down there holds a candle to mine here in Wisconsin. The resources have just been phenomenal.

All in all, this has been a pretty well-utilized year. I’m still far from where I’d wanted to be a year ago, but with all that I’ve learned, I’m okay with that. I’d rather try writing one great script after a year of learning how to improve, rather than having six projects that I would have to agonize over rewriting. I’m just as sure now more than ever, that this is the only career path that I want, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

Preparing for Action

Sorry it’s been a bit since my last useful post. My family and I just finished moving to a new place and all of my notes for future projects have all been in storage. Now I have them, so I plan on getting the ball rolling on making progress. There’s a lot to do, so a plan is always necessary.

On the right of the page is the list of my current projects. The one that’s the highest priority right now is “Soldiers of Fortune” so that’s what in all likelihood I’ll be updating you on the most as far as personal projects go.

The other one is “Hindsight.” With that one, the updates will more likely than not be about taking the finished script and breaking it down for potential production.

One side note: My old computer with all of my software (Photoshop, Sony Vegas, etc.) is in the midst of dying. More specifically, the hard drive is failing. Having been without employment for nine months make replacing the parts a more trying task.

The unemployment has been intentional, however. I was going to utilize a year or so to write a few spec scripts before once again gaining employment so I could save up to move to Los Angeles. My parents’ decision to move to North Carolina did upset that plan, but when you’re living rent-free (for now, anyway) you aren’t left with a whole ton of options.

I am planning a computer build in the near future, and that project I will most likely document on here as well. (An editing/authoring machine — it’s been in the works for a few years now) I will most likely have to get a job here in Madison before the move to North Carolina to start saving up. I’m hoping in the free time I have, I will be able to fine-tune my screenwriting process and figure out how to utilize what little time I’ll have to maximize results.

Right now, this week and next are going to be devoted to getting 100% settled in to the new apartment, and getting my head back into the screenwriting game. In the near future, you should expect a few more films dissected for screenwriting tips to be gained from them.

I’m thinking these will focus on the lower budget (in my mind) spectrum of filmmaking. IE, what I can put into the low budget feature script that I can shoot locally and still have the project kick ass. Right now, I’m thinking of looking at the first three features directed by Tarantino, for starters.

There are some other really good titles in mind, but I’ll discuss them later. So I’ll beg your indulgence, since this week will be a little slow.

Until next time, Movie Buffs.