Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » Getting it Write Right the First the Second Time

In all professions, from athlete to accountancy, mistakes are not tolerated. The pro must get it right the first time.

Screenwriters catch a break in this department. While screenwriting is just as demanding and competitive as any other profession on Earth, movie and TV wordsmiths get to make initial mistakes. If they bang the right noun against the wrong verb once or twice, they have the opportunity to repair the mishap before anyone else sees the fruits of their labor.

Writing is rewriting. It's perhaps the most utilized cliché in all of professional writing. However, no cliché rings with more truth. How well a screenwriter revises his or her own work will greatly determine how well a story is told. More importantly, the revision drafts determine how the screenplays is received by producers, executives, actors and agents.

Every script writer worth his or her weight in brass fasteners knows that the first draft does not make the script. The first go around can produce inspired images, sensitive characters and entertaining plot twists. Odds are, though, it will also produce wordy dialogue, flabby description and a handful of spelling errors and assorted typos.

Now the real work starts.

Revision is a chore. That's why amateur writers don't use this creative stage as well as professionals. No one cites the presence of a muse when they're pouring over pages with a highlighter. Nobody ever claimed to be "in the flow" of the writing experience with a red pen in their hand.

While three hours can pass like 10 minutes when a writer is really rolling, those same three hours can pass like three days. Every distraction calls a little louder. When it's time to revise, a screenwriter will take a longer lunch or hear the call of every bad TV show.

So, we turn to three Hollywood professionals to learn their revision tips and techniques to make every scriptors job a little easier. To provide the best possible insights, we consult an A-list feature writer, a successful television scribe and columnist and a screenwriting educator and author.

Steven E. de Souza began his career in television as a writer, director and producer on such shows as Knight Rider, V, Tales from the Crypt and the animated Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. His feature career took off in the 1980s with credits including 48 Hours, Die Hard, Commando and The Running Man. He has become one of Hollywood's top action writers.

His recent credits include writer and director on Streetfighter and co-credit on The Flinstones. His latest screenplay, Knock Off, will hit the screen in early 1998.

De Souza said he usually completes a script before beginning revision. He may begin with the beginning or end; or he may write specific action sequences he envisions for the story and flesh out the entire tale using those scenes as a framework.

He writes with a personal computer and edits his work on paper with the aid of a writer's assistant. An aspiring screenwriter may not be able to afford an assistant, but the editing and revision process work the same with or without an extra set of hands to handle the pages.

When finished with a draft, de Souza will print out the entire script and edit line by line with a red pen. While he still looks for any typos, stray grammatical errors or odd spelling mistakes that the word processor program didn't catch, de Souza uses the editing time to eliminate every last unnecessary sequence, paragraph, sentence or word.

Appropriate to his reputation as an action master, he refers to the process as making the script "bullet proof."

"No one should ever submit a first draft," de Souza said. "You should submit a fourth or fifth draft and call it your first."

De Souza used words like "wordy" and "flabby" when describing the work of many young writers. He was quick to point out that a screenwriter with genuine talent can sabotage himself or herself by not being ruthless enough on his or her own work.

He stressed that too many writers take a soft attitude when presenting their work -- hoping the story catches a reader's eye as a product and not as entertainment on the written page.

"You have to realize that the reader is your first audience," de Souza said. "You have to entertain the reader first before it goes any further."

If an A-List feature writer isn't enough to convince you to hunker down and start editing that wordy dialogue, maybe a top-shelf TV writer's encouragement will push you over the edge.

Larry DiTillio specializes in writing science fiction, fantasy and children's animation for television. Currently the head writer on the children's action cartoon Beast Wars, DiTillio has most recently served as story editor and writer for the science fiction series, Babylon 5. He has written for sci-fi and animated series on multiple networks.

DiTillio said that the reputation writers have in Hollywood can often work against them.

"One of the problems writers have is that they can be their own worst enemies," DiTillio said. "They can get a reputation as a loose cannon very easily when it comes time to revise their work according to what a producer or executive says. They resist or resent the notes they get."

When writing for television, you will probably want to avoid long lists of knit-picky notes from TV executives. To keep your TV script as free from such outside influence as possible, DiTillio urges screenwriters to get their work in the best shape as possible before submitting it up the line.

DiTillio added that TV writers can often face very tight rewrite deadlines much more severe than those a feature film writer might face. So, a TV scribe not only has to face input from multiple non-writing sources, he or she has to implement that input in a very short time.

"The best way to avoid that situation," DiTillio said, "is to turn in the first draft that's mainly all there."

Again, DiTillio put the responsibility of revising solely on the writer's back. If he or she can soundly construct their script on their own desks, it'll pass the desks of others much faster and much easier.

"The key to all this is not just knocking off a first draft quickly and turning it in," DiTillio explained. "It's spending time with the first draft and rewriting it four or five times before you hand it in and call it a first draft. That way you cut way down on your rewrite time."

DiTillio explained that he uses this technique to ensure that, when he finishes a teleplay, he knows it's all there.

"When I turn in a script, I know the structure is right," he said. "I know just from reading it that the pacing is right. I can read the script on my own and know that the pace is not right. Then I can go in there and start cutting away."

Maybe the story beats are in the wrong places. Maybe the dialogue is too wordy. Whatever the problem might be, DiTillio's revision techniques make certain he catches and fixes them on his time before anyone else reads the end product.

DiTillio stressed that by spending so much time on the beginning of a project, a screenwriter needn't worry so much about subsequent drafts beyond a few line changes here and there.

Finally, DiTillio urged aspiring TV writers to analyze their story ideas and outlines before they even begin writing. This way, a writer can see areas where the plot might slow down or simply not work at all. By looking for the areas that offer story problems before they're even written, a screenwriter would save the time of needing to cut or rewrite those sections later.

With two professional writers already calling to us to polish our work to a brilliant shine before letting anyone else see it, we turn to a professional educator, playwright and author who specializes in teaching aspiring screenwriters how to make their work jump off the page.

Richard Krevolin is a professor at the USC Film School. This playwright, screenwriter, poet and author holds a BA from Yale and Master's Degree in Screenwriting from UCLA. He also completed a Master's in playwriting and fiction from USC before teaching for the institution.

A finalist in multiple national writer's competitions, including the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, Krevolin optioned three screenplays. He also wrote the plays, Stuck, Trotsky's Garden and Yahrzeit.

In addition to his USC lectures, he appears at screenwriting conferences across the country speaking on, among other topics, screenplay revision.

Krevolin's book, Screenwriting from the Soul, is now available in stores. It includes an in-depth look into the revision process.

Krevolin came right out and said what a professional screenwriter must be prepared to do in Hollywood.

"The joke about the process of revision for a screenwriter is that he or she will revise whatever the studio says to revise as long as he or she gets paid," Krevolin said. "While that is part of the business, the truth is a little more artistic than that!"

Krevolin repeatedly stressed that a screenwriter must have the ability to face and evaluate himself or herself and admit that not every word set on the page is perfect.

"There comes that moment when you have to admit it's not perfect," he said. "And that's hard to do. You might get angry, or you might think the person criticizing the work is an idiot...but eventually, you realize that the criticism is right. Then you have to get back in there and revise."

While Oscar Wilde said, "A work of art is never finished; it is abandoned," Krevolin added that the truth of that statement really rests on how much of a perfectionist an individual writer is.

"I think all projects have a certain point where you have to let go," Krevolin said. "A writer needs to develop that sense of when it's time to complete this project and move on to the next one."

"At some point in the screenwriting process, you're going to release it to an actor or a director to interpret your script anyway," he added. "So, letting it go is something a writer needs to accept."

"Just as mother's are reluctant to let go of their children," he said, "so writers can be reluctant to let go of their favorite scene or to make changes."

That said, Krevolin stressed that a writer has control over the project before it reaches those stages. He or she can shape the story into an original vision before anyone else gets to it -- if the screenwriter is self-critical and can admit shortcomings in the work.

Krevolin recommended writers consider every rewrite a focal point for an individual problem area within a script. Perhaps one rewrite deals only with a certain character's development. Maybe the next focuses on dialogue...the next on plotting. By tackling problems one at a time, a screenwriter can remain much more focused on the story as a whole and avoid getting intimidated or overwhelmed by the rewrite process.

"If writers though beforehand of all the revisions they'd need to do to complete a project," Krevolin joked, "we'd be crippled before we started!"

In Krevolin's book, he offers a list of useful checkpoints a script should pass before it leaves the writers hands. Each checkpoint on this list could be the focus of a revision draft. Consider this list of 10 examples...

  • Never have two characters agree on anything. Did you release the tension from your tires before you got off the road?
  • Don't split your heavy into two or more people. A good heavy = a good heavy.
  • Have at least one strong, castable leading role.
  • Have I ever seen anything before? Always be original and full of surprises.
  • End with one final. Not four quarterfinals.
  • In every scene, come in late and get out early.
  • Every scene must end in a different place than it began.
  • Your main character must have arc/growth/epiphany.
  • In dialogue, brevity is the filet of soul.
  • With your characters, did you scab the wound?

    These points could change from script to script or writer to writer. However, the spirit behind them remains the same. A writer needs to examine their script on level after level, scene by scene, word after word. He or she needs to have the script in the best possible shape imaginable because screenwriters tend to lose control of their work once it ventures into the marketplace.

    Most importantly, screenwriters must master their craft with hard work and attention to detail, even if it means admitting he or she simply isn't the world's greatest writer...yet.

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