How to Know if a Rewrite is Heading the Right Way

How to Know if a Rewrite is Heading the Right Way

friendly note: This post about rewrite is probably more relevant to filmmakers writing a screenplay they’re planning to direct than to full-time screenwriters. But hey, you decide.


(skip if you’ve watched the Film Log or subscribed to In 5 Years newsletter. I’m a modern sapiens, I’m all about time-saving and productivity)

In January 2015 I went through a 30 days marathon to complete a handwriting feature screenplay. It was my second feature film (I buried the first screenplay) and I felt I had something. Over the next three months, I typed my notes and added edits.

By April 2015 I had a typed draft. It took me another 8 months to polish it and in December 2015 I send it to a handful of people including the people who would become my producer and my creative producer.

In 11 months I had written a feature screenplay and gotten a producer. (A real producer, not a friend with money who says she will produce my film. An actual producer.)

I thought the hardest part was done.

Since that first draft, my screenplay has gone through four more drafts, and several outlines (which I had never done before). We got into pitching platforms like Locarno and Antalya and into the EAVE program and each time after that, my new knowledge showed me new flaws and weaknesses in the story.

Right now, the story has never been closer to being what it’s always been supposed to be. It has also changed almost completely. Not the theme, the intention, the name of the main character or the settings. But pretty much everything else has changed one way or another.

It’s fascinating to see how you can change so many scenes while trying to tell the exact same story.

People who don’t write have a hard time to understand when I say I am going through a rewrite almost two years after I have ‘finished’ my screenplay and got a producer. I just tell them what I know: the screenplay will never be done until it’s shot. I know that even during shooting, things will change.

But of course, what I’m aiming for right now is to nail the foundations. To make it a story as tight as it can be. Rewriting the same story so many times, I came to understand that the hardest battle is to bring your ambition and what you actually deliver as close to one another as possible.

It’s one thing to want to write a solid story that is compelling, tells something in a different way, is universal even though the main character is a woman, is generational and that won’t depress people. (That last point became a conscious choice fairly recently.)

It’s another thing to actually write it.

Writing Routines

This morning I started the sixth draft of my screenplay. It’s the first full rewrite after 10 months. Between draft 5 and 6 I’ve been through the EAVE roller-coaster with my producer and only wrote step-outlines, really trying to build a solid story, one that I would enjoy watching even if it wasn’t mine. (Noticed how much slack we cut to ourselves when we write compared to when we watch someone else’s work?)

And for this rewrite, I’ve changed strategy. I used to wait to have a deadline to focus 1000% on my screenplay, pushing through the mental walls and making it happen. Dedicating a full week to doing it. With that tactic, each draft got better, but not good enough for our ambition.

So for this draft, I went through a three-stage process that is a mixtape of habits I’ve developed over the last two years:

  1. I wrote all the scenes on flash cards
  2. I wrote a detailed step-outline where I developed what was on each card. I emailed it to my producer and my creative producer and after a few days, we had a Skype where they gave me their notes.
  3. At that point, I decided to spend the last three days going through the step-outline and questioning each scene in the light of the notes I got. Allowing myself to take a step back and look at the story through different angles (her emotional journey, the patterns, the symbolisms) made me realize something I’ve been feeling for a while but really didn’t want to admit:

I had to kill my darlings

Over the last two years, I’ve found new ideas that I love and helped me stay excited while I was going through yet another rewrite when all I really wanted was to hear people say ‘Nothing to add, it’s just brilliant. Here is a million. Let’s shoot.‘ (Let’s not judge one’s fantasy)

But in an ironic twist, working in-depth through my story has shown me that most of these ideas that are entertaining as singular elements make the story feel pushy and are preventing my character from moving organically through the motion.

About that Rewrite

And I guess that’s how you know your rewrite is going well when you don’t do what is pleasant to do but do what’s right for the story. The truth is that it takes so much more brain power to build a solid structure and try making it look easy and natural.

This morning I started my sixth draft and I’ve changed my routine. I will work a couple hours on it every morning until it’s done. If all goes well, if I stay strong and look at my end goal, this draft will be solid. The future will tell but in the meantime, I’m ready to trade my good ideas for a solid story.