Saturday, January 5, 2013

6 Tips to Re-Build Your Story From the Ground Up

 Originally written on, this is exactly where I'm sitting with my screenplay.  I thought it'd be helpful to share with others as well.

1.   Remember:  The first draft of anything is shit

I’m quoting Ernest Hemingway here. And when asked about rewriting, he answered that he rewrote the ending to “A Farewell to Arms” thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Unfortunately, oftentimes new writers believe that their first draft is gold and that it will only take a little bit of fixing before it rocks. They naively assume they’ll just need to improve lines of dialogue, transitions, or formatting errors. They hand me their babies thinking it has a cold, but most of the time it turns out it has a bad case a pneumonia and needs more than a spoonful of cough syrup to get it back on its feet. In fact, their script often needs a total RE-STRUCTURING of the plot. There is a great French word, RESTRUCTURATION, which has a better ring to it than “re-structuring” and is sadly missing from the English vocabulary!

2.   Accept that bruises to your ego are part of the process

The problem is, as soon as I prescribe a “RESTRUCTURATION” of their script, many new writers go into panic mode: they just can’t picture themselves re-building the wobbly castle they took so long assembling. Or their ego is so wounded they bury their script six feet under the earth and prepare the noose and chair for a hanging. Which is a shame because most of my literary patients have something in them that is worth saying and saving. Believe me, I have been there many times. When I was honing my craft at UCLA, I freaked out when a screenwriting professor ripped apart a script I had sweated over for two years. It takes eating large portions of humble pie to become a professional writer and get the best out of your story and characters. It’ll never stop wounding our egos, it’s only human nature, and it’s okay. Go to the gym, go for a walk, sulk for a few days, do whatever you need to do to get past your disappointment. But at some point you need to roll up your sleeves and get back to developing your screenplay.

3.   Stop putting pressure on yourself

Too many new writers want to have their script completed by Christmas, or for a looming competition deadline. Giving yourself a deadline for each rewrite is a healthy thing to do (I always give myself deadlines) but the truth is you never know how many drafts you’ll need before a script is rock solid and there is no point in sending a half-baked script to a competition. Just accept that some scripts take more time to develop than others. After all, if took a decade for Darren Aronofsky and his writing team to hone “Black Swan.” Similarly, Christopher Nolan spent ten years developing “Inception” before it was a shooting script. Originally, “Inception” was a mere heist story and it’s only when C. Nolan threw the Marion Cotillard character into the mix that the script truly came together.
The less experienced you are the more time it might take to complete your script. So unless you’re being commissioned to write a script and you have a REAL hard deadline to meet, relax and enjoy the process. And besides, developing your script, aside from it being necessary to get it sold/optioned/placed in a competition, etc., is good practice because the horrid reality is that once it’s good enough to land a producer, actor, agent, financier, etc., then it’ll be regarded as draft 1 from that point on – and then you’ll need to start incorporating other people’s notes, producers, directors, actors, etc., which means your ego and your script are going to be challenged again and again and again. The more you get used to this and accept it as part of the process, the closer you are to becoming a professional writer.

 4.   Re-outline your screenplay

Proceed methodically. Don’t dive in blindly into your script as it’s a sure-fire way to hit a wall and get lost. Instead, step back from your screenplay and re-outline your story. A script is like a house and you can’t build it if the foundations aren’t rock solid.
First write a ONE-PAGER delineating the 3 acts of your script. On the back of the page, write down your protagonist’s outer goal, inner goal/need as well as their transformational arc (and if this terminology is alien to you I urge you to buy a screenwriting book ASAP!). Then, turn your one-pager into a 4-PAGER, with one page for Act 1, two pages for Act 2, one page for Act 3. Workshop your 4 pager, read it to your friends, etc. until it’s rock solid, and then, and only then, turn it into a treatment. TREATMENTS are usually 10-12 pages but can be up to a hundred pages if you detail every beat, scene, etc. In any case it’s a prose version of your story. Before commencing with the screenplay format, some people then write their treatment into a STEP-OUTLINE (also known as a Beat Sheet), meaning a description of the content of each scene. Others feel it impedes their creativity and skip that step, which is absolutely fine.

5.   Don’t be stubborn

Many new writers scream out “No way, I’m not going back to square one!” They are scared their beautiful words and witty dialogue will go down the drain. So they haphazardly toy around with their script, add and remove lines of dialogue and shuffle up their scenes in the hope the script will come together in the end. I’m not saying that strategy never works, but in my experience – I’ve read hundreds of scripts for film and TV over the years – it seldom does work because for most writers and their screenplays it doesn’t solve the problems in the script. You have to take it apart and carefully reconstruct it. And it’s a lot easier to do that with a one page document, and then a four pager document, etc.
I hate it when a writer comes back to me one year after I script doctored their work, admitting they tampered with their script without a roadmap, got lost, and now they need me to help them re-outline their story from the beginning. What a waste of time! I much prefer when writers devote their energy rewriting their outline for a few weeks or months until it’s structurally sound and come back with a solid new draft the next time around. You know why? Because then we can move on to the fun stuff like dialogue, visual transitions, motifs, imagery; things that are a lot easier to fix once the house is properly constructed so to speak. I liken this step in the development process to choosing the color of paint for the walls in your home, the style of carpet, the fabric for the curtains, etc., meaning you wouldn’t and shouldn’t do this until the foundations, walls, roof, number of bedrooms, style of kitchen, etc. have all been designed well and properly constructed – then you can do the finishing touches to your home/script.

6.   Find the tools that work for you

If you struggle with structure, I’d encourage you to use a structural template. The BEAT SHEET provided in Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” works great (by the way, if you haven’t read his book get is asap!), the Hal Ackerman SCENOGRAM is a fine tool as well, but there are other ones out there that can prove just as helpful. Make charts if you like charts, use 3 x 5 cards, highlighters, whatever works for you. Develop your own tools, but by all means don’t jump in blind to rewrite or restructure your script.
I can’t yell it loud enough, RE-OUTLINING is an effective treatment against wobbly structures. Re-outlining might save you months, if not years of your life as a screenwriter. And no matter how badly side-tracked you were when you wrote the first draft it’s never a waste of time to go through the process of “restructuration.” Even if you bungled your story structure or picked the wrong protagonist (which happens in a lot of scripts I read), things will fall back into place if there is some method to the madness of developing screenplays. The essence of your script, the diamond in the rough will eventually jump out at you and make itself clear. Make no mistake, writing is a difficult, long process. It takes a lot of hard work, frustration and floundering around. And if you don’t believe me, here are a few words by John Irving for you to ponder:
“More than a half, maybe as much as two thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.”
As E.B. White said in “The Elements of Style”, “The best writing is rewriting.”
Or as I like to say, the best writing is re-outlining. Happy “Restructuration!”

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