Now You Can Finally Finetune (How to Revise): The Archive

One of my mottos is “Don’t Revise, Rewrite!”, so I always direct writers to my “How to Rewrite” series first, but yes, eventually, once all your rewriting is done, you will be ready to revise, so I’ve got this additional series as well. Some of these got moved to other places in the book.

Now You Can Revise, Conclusion: You’re a Poet But You Don’t Know It.

There’s one aspect of screenwriting that I’ve never discussed on this blog: the quality of the prose in your descriptive paragraphs.  I’ve avoided it because many beginning screenwriters are way too focused on this tiny aspect of the art.

As Carson at Scriptshadow likes to point out, screenwriting is 99% storytelling and 1% writing.  If you’re telling a great story, no one will care very much about the quality of your prose.  On the other hand, if you’ve got a sloppy story and you’ve wasted hours dressing it up with Ellroy-style cool-cat descriptions, then your reader will be infuriated.  Your screenplay is not “professional” just because you took out all the pronouns.

But, with all that said, there is something to be said for bettering the quality of your prose, just enough to get people to actually read it.  Most screenplay readers, including myself, get in the habit of just glossing over the prose paragraphs and only reading the dialogue unless we lose track of what’s going on.  Why?  Because the prose is usually just too turgid to wade through.

The danger is what John August calls “Dungeonmaster prose”, wherein the screenwriter categorically describes the size, shape, and contents of each room, as if walking the reader through a “Dungeons and Dragons” module. 

In reaction to this, some screenwriters have adopted a “macho haiku” style, as perfected by Walter Hill’s screenplay for Alien (and never successfully replicated by anyone else.)  The problem is that, in the end, you are more of a dungeonmaster than a poet: you really doneed to describe everything well enough for your reader to picture the setting and understand everything that happens.  When I read these macho pronoun-less screenplays I usually can’t figure out what’s going on.

The trick is to describe just enough to set the scene without boring the reader.  And yes, along the way, you want to have punchy, fun prose. Here are some dos and don’ts:
  • DO introduce major characters using colorful descriptions of their “type”: “In walks BRIAN, mid-30s, the sort of guy who offers to help you move the first time he meets you.” 
  • DON’T bog down your action scenes with needless similes: “The henchman’s head snaps back so fast you’d think it was an angry mongoose.” 
  • DO assume that the reader has been in this sort of location before: give a sentence or two describing what type of bar it is, but please don’t mention that it has barstools.
  • DON’T use a simile instead of a description: “Brian enters a bar that might as well be the armpit on the world’s sweatiest plumber.”  (I swear to you I’ve read descriptions like this.) 
Punchy, high-impact sentences reward your reader for reading.  The way to do this is to embrace your inner poet, and I mean Frost, not Bukowski.  It wasn’t until I did some work crafting advertising taglines that I realized how basic the connection was between catchy writing and old-fashioned poetry: it’s all about alliteration, assonance, parallel construction, and, yes, rhyme.  At first I blanched: I can’t really rhyme, can I?  That’s so tacky!  People won’t be able to take it seriously!

Then (and this literally happened) I looked over at the cover of the book I was reading, Naomi Klein’s rousing and deadly serious economic history of the last half century, “The Shock Doctrine”.  And I suddenly realized: “Hey, that title isn’t merely descriptive!” It rhymes!  And that makes it more memorable, which makes it more powerful.  She did that on purpose!

Remember two entries back, where I ended my post by saying, “Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.”?  You’re allowed to get away with stuff like that. Don’t knock our socks off, but don’t be afraid of punchy sentences, either.

But whatever you do, and this is the last time I’ll say this, don’t worry about the prose during your first draft.  Just clarify everything.  You’re going to have to change it all anyway, so all that work would be for nothing.  Punch it up once you’ve done everything else.  And now... you’re done!

Now You Can Revise, Part 6: Use the Final Draft Tools

You’ve probably written your screenplay using Final Draft software, because that’s become the industry standard, but even if you didn’t, you might want to import it into that program now, because Final Draft has great, little-used tools that help you fine tune your script.

Many of these tools are intended for use by other professionals, such as line-producers or actors, but they come in handy for screenwriters as well:
  • As I’ve talked about before you can use the “Speech Control” tool to hear Stephen Hawking read your script out loud.  Not only is this the most foolproof way to proof-read, it also highlights awkward sounding sentences.  There was a certain TV show this season that contained this line: “There are walls even a man as dextrous as you can’t climb”.  No actor can deliver that line well!
  • You can also export “scene reports”, listing the page-length, location, and cast for each scene.  These tell you which scenes are way too long, which locations we see too much of, and which minor characters should probably be combined or eliminated.
  • You can export individual “character reports”, which allow you to see each character’s dialogue isolated into its own document, making it very clear if that character’s voice is consistent.  This is the time to make sure that character has a consistent metaphor family, default personality trait and default argument strategy.
  • It also allows you to cut out instances of multiple characters using the same turn-of-phrase.  In one episode of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”,  Detective Logan shows up at a crime scene and get briefed about the victim by a street cop:  “He was blackmailing a local newscaster” “Gay sex?” “Nope, call girl.  Think Spitzer, not McGreevy.”  Then, just two scenes later, Logan is in the lab talking to an expert who points out that a bomb was both old-fashioned and cutting edge.  The expert sums up by saying, “Think Tony Bennet, not Steve and Edie”  These are two completely different characters in different places, using the same distinctive turn-of-phrase!  
It’s perfectly natural to make these mistakes.  During your first draft, you can’t be bothered to create full personalities for every minor character, and there’s no reason you should, since you’re going cut out and combine a lot of these characters in subsequent drafts. 

But once your screenplay is approaching its final form, you need to go back and eliminate embarrassing examples like these, in which it become instantly obvious that each minor character has the same personality: yours. Now that Stephen Hawking is reading your script aloud, these errors should stand out like sore thumbs,

Next time: the finale: You’re a Poet and You Don’t Know It

Now You Can Revise, Part 5: Set Up More of Your Pay-Offs

A little bit of repeat here from much-older pieces as I continue to recontextualize and tie things together for the book…

It took me a long time to realize that heroes need special skills.  You can’t just start out with a blank-slate everyman who encounters a problem and solves it by reacting in the way that anyone would. 

Instead, the hero must rely on a specific set of special skills that pre-date the movie.  Harrison Ford in The Fugitive was a doctor, so he finds ways to use his medical skills to clear his name.  Will Smith in Enemy of the State is a lawyer, so he uses thoseskills to get the NSA off his back. Neither one of them suddenly busts out with kung fu moves...

In those cases, the heroes made use of their day jobs, but often you’ll find that those aren’t enough to get the hero out of every scrape, and the hero suddenly need a heretofore unmentioned skill in order to overcome a specific obstacle.  Each time this happens, you can stop, go back, and pre-plant a reason those skills exist, or you can do what I do: just keep going, and fix it later.

You wrote your screenplay by going forwards, but now’s your chance to re-write it backwards.  Set up a plant for every pay-off, so that, as the audience gets to gets to each twist, they’ll say “Ah ha!” instead of “Yeah, right!”

The trick with pre-establishing special skills is to do it subtly and organically.  Here are contrasting examples:
  • In Aliens, Cameron establishes early on that Ripley can run the fork-lift exoskeleton, which will come in handy later.  He hides the significance of this by turning the plant of it into a nice little stand-up-and-cheer moment, wherein Ripley proves that her lowly dock-loading job can be useful in her new military setting.  By giving the moment a meaning of its own, he hides the fact that he’s really just setting up a special skill that Ripley will need later.
  • In Salt, on the other hand, Salt’s husband is an expert on spider-venom, which seems random and apropos of nothing.  Only later, when Salt uses a ridiculous spider-venom bullet do we realize why they put that in there.*
You can also write backwards to pre-establish things that will go wrong for your hero.  A recent episode of “Breaking Bad” began with an odd little scene establishing that a young boy was motor-biking around the collecting spiders.  The audience then forgot all about it until he showed up later, at the worst possible time.  (This also provided a nice visual thematic metaphor: you can’t bottle up evil for long.)

This is why, as per the breakdown I got from Simon Kinberg, producers are so focused on the amount of plant-and-pay-off in your script: it shows that you literally know your stuff backwards and forwards, that you’ve been circumspect, tightened all the screws and battoned down the hatches.  This assures them that the script won’t fall apart under pressure.

*Referring back to the debate in the comments of this post, this is another reason why I allow myself to make minor decisions, such as the hero’s previous jobs or the spouse’s expertise, somewhat randomly as I write the story, instead of trying to make every detail thematically significant in the first draft.  I often have to change those details later in order to shore up developments in the plot, and I would be reluctant to do so if I had already made them thematically significant.

Now You Can Revise, Part 4: Add More “I Understand You” Moments

We’ve all had the experience.  You’re sure that you’ve met your perfect match.  You rhapsodize for hours about everything that made you fall head over heels, but at the end your friend just shrugs and says, “Are you kidding me? 

The problem, of course, is that your hormonal response is distorting your reality, and your cool-eyed friends are evaluating the shelf-life of this new relationship dispassionately, asking: Do these two have enough in common?  Will they treat each other well?  Most importantly: Do they need each other?

In a “first person” novel, you can try to capture the subjective experience of falling in love, but screenwriters have a much harder job.  Movies are always in the “third person”, which means that the camera eye never gets to fully identify with one of the lovers, so it must take the perspective of that dubious friend. 

(You can try to cheat, like West Side Story did, by using subjective camera effects to capture Tony’s besotted vision of Maria, but even back then viewers just rolled their eyes.  The camera eye is not the hero’s eye, and we will always see more than he sees.) 

So this is one case where you don’t want to write what you know—don’t trust your own distorted memories of love and/or heartbreak, and instead think back to the relationships of your friends.  Which relationships did you root for, which ones infuriated you?  Which ones endangered your friends and which ones saved them?  Most importantly, how did you know that they were right for each other, maybe even before they did?

Whether your first draft is one huge love story or the romance is a minor element, you may be shocked to discover, once you’ve gotten some notes, that nobody sees what you see in the love interest. 

The reason that so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag movies down, is that the filmmakers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.   As I described here, the entire massive seven-book, eight-movie “Harry Potter” juggernaut seriously falters because nowhere in all those mounds of franchise did Rowling or any of the screenwriters put in any “I understand you” scenes between Harry and Ginny.  She’s just “the girlfriend”.  

The revision is your chance to add that element of understanding, but it’s tricky.  Given that your hero starts off with afalse goal and a false statement of philosophy, it’s tempting to make the love interest the character who’s lecturing your hero from the beginning to adopt the right goal and philosophy, but then you risk drifting into anothercategory of alienating character: Just as you don’t want a hero who just says no, likewise you don’t want a stick-in-the-mud love interest, such as the kind you find in Old School, and many other manchild comedies.  (These love interests also violate the rule that “People Only Want What They Want”.  At the end of the day, nobody really wants to save you except you, and maybe your close family)

Better “I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for the Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Sometimes you can establish that they understand each other before they even meet.  Ironically, we know the heroes in Friends with Benefits will bond because we see that they have a shared dislike of relationships.  And what could be more romantic than the song that drifts from Maurice Chavalier in the city to Jeanette MacDonald in the country in Love Me Tonight?

Just as when you have to occasionally check with your buddies to make sure you’re not blinded by love, only once you’ve gotten notes on your screenplay will you know how well your romance is playing.  Don’t be surprised if you have to give it a firmer foundation.

NOW You Can Revise, Step 3: Build a Theme Tree

It’s very hard to worry about theme when you’re writing the first draft. Yes, you need to have a vague sense of what it all means, but you’ll never be able to make the plot and character motivations make sense if you’re constantly trying to say something profound.

In fact, you may have to allow the meaning of your story to change as you write it. You can’t force your characters to do things that they refuse to do. In the end, their actions may make a different point than you thought they were going to make. Whatever you do, don’t force them to act a certain way because you want to prove a point.

As you write the first draft, simply assume that, if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. As a result, however, when it’s time to tackle your later drafts, you may find that your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable.

But wait, you say, isn’t that good? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Well, yes, but if that’s the case then, like any good sub-audible hum, it has to be persistent.

Now that your story and characters are set, you should go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have, where are the heroes when they get the big news, which blunt object is used for the killing, etc.

I’ve discussed before the way that a masterpiece like High and Low finds all sorts of ways to weave the the idea of high vs. low into every fiber of the story, but this is something that less ambitious movies should do as well.  Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the NSA from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good vs. good” theme of security vs. privacy. This theme is explicitly stated by the hero’s wife, who works for the ACLU, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways...
  • In the beginning, he’s trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed.
  • Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but he now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her.
  • Where is he when he runs into his friend? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid that she would assume he’s buying for someone else.
  • Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means that they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on.
These are all things that subtly make that point that we all do things that we don’t want exposed to scrutiny, even if they’re not illegal.

I suspect that none of these details were in the first draft, since they aren’t essential to the story, but once the plot had been worked out, screenwriter David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he had originally made with new details that subtly tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to a making a “theme tree”, yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole.  Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.

Next: Strengthening the relationships...

NOW You Can Revise, Step 2: Cut Ten More Pages Out

If you’re anything like me, your first drafts will be far too long, and then, as you begin to re-write them, they’ll get even longer, as you add the elements that are needed. But the hope is that, once you’ve expanded these things enough, they’ll begin to contract. If you can create a new scene that makes the character’s flaw poignantly palpable in half-a-page, then you can eliminate those ten pages that merely implied the flaw. As you clarify things, then hopefully the less-clear pages will start to just fall away.

But even after that process is done, you still might end up overlength. Script-readers are overburdened, and the shortest scripts get read first. Everything you send out has to be lean, lean, lean. In fact, I would guess that the most common note writers get from their agents is this, “I love it, don’t change a thing, just cut out ten pages!” But how on earth are you supposed to cut pages without changing the story?? Well, there are some ways…

I mentioned one trick while discussing Easy Living, which was written by the great Preston Sturges: Cut out the middle of scenes. In one scene, we see Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold start to argue about compound interest in the back of a car, then we cut to an exterior shot of the car crossing town, then jump forward to them getting out of the car once the argument has reached a crescendo. Later on, Arthur walks into work wearing her new mink and eyebrows are raised, so then we jump inside the boss’s office as she’s already halfway through trying to explain how she got it.

In each case, Sturges uses a cut to from outside to inside to hide the excision. The same trick was used when they decided they had to cut a line out of Chinatown: the fact that the conversation moved out of the office hid the fact that part of the conversation was missing.

But you can also cut chunks out of the middle of scenes even without cutting away from the space you’re in. If you’ve got multiple conversations going on, you can hide time jumps every time you cut back and forth between them. The 40 Year Old Virgin cuts between four guys who are speed-dating, and manages to compress an hour down to five minutes, without resorting to jump-cuts.

Other classic tricks include:
  • Try cutting out the first two lines and the last two lines of every scene, so that audiences hit the ground running each time and end on a question that propels them forward.
  • Go through every scene and ask yourself, “If I cut this scene entirely, would anyone miss it?
  • Look for places where two crises happen back to back and ask yourself “what if these two crises hit at the same time in the same scene?” This is also a great way to keep the audience from getting ahead of you. They’re playing checkers so you have to play chess.
Next, let’s strengthen the theme…

NOW You Can Revise, Introduction: When It’s Finally Time to Fine Tune

My previous series, “How To Re-Write” began with the admonition: “Don’t Revise, Re-Write!”. The first instinct of screenwriters is to finish a first draft and then “tweak it” every time you get notes, so I wanted make clear my position that the second draft should almost always be a complete re-write of the first. This might easily apply to the third and fourth drafts as well.

But, let’s face facts. Though I’m reluctant to admit it, in the end you do get to a place where you need to start tweaking, and that’s a whole different set of skills, so let’s talk about those in this series.

In the previous series, we looked at ways to overhaul your plot and characters. It’s important to tackle those changes first, before you waste any time refining the language or trimming individual scenes. After all, once those overhauls start to snowball, everything is going to change, and you don’t want to find that you’ve fallen in love with some well-polished scene that now has to go.

Buy by the time you’re actually ready to revise, the personality of the main characters and the general order of events are pretty much locked in. The changes you’re making here are less likely to snowball, so now you can start sharpening each plot point, punching up every line of dialogue, highlighting the theme, etc.

But you’re still going to be cutting scenes, cutting minor characters and/or combining them, and maybe even cutting out sub-plots. When doing so, it’s good to keep in mind...

Step 1: The Only Way Out is Through

As a general rule, it’s best to cut out anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Always interrupt your characters before they get a chance to apologize, skip over fallout scenes, and remove any repeated beats.

In The Fast and the Furious, Paul Walker infiltrates Vin Diesel’s gang and seduces his sister. Later, he has to dramatically confess to the sister, in the middle of a crisis, that he’s a cop. Sometimes afterwards, she reveals the secret to Diesel and his gang, but we never see that scene, despite the fact that it was presumably quite intense, because, for the audience, it would be a repeated beat.

What’s even more remarkable is that, even when they finally confront each other, Walker and Diesel don’t discuss the betrayal! That would be “fallout”, and the script doesn’t need it. The discussion at that end is entirely about whether Walker will arrest Diesel, without any “You betrayed me!” recriminations about the past. A great way to speed things up is to keep your characters talking about what’s going to happen, not what happened previously.  The audience won’t miss it.

Next, step 2: Cut ten more pages out...