Rewriting Secrets for Screenwriters: Seven Strategies to Improve and Sell Your Workby Tom Lazarus
Every screenwriter needs to rewrite—more than once, probably many times—to make the story work and then to make a sale. And then again later on, to please producers, studios or stars. Tom Lazarus--author of "Stigmata", among other scripts--is a working screenwriter and professor at UCLA extension. In this book, he's distilled his own experience and
Every screenwriter needs to rewrite—more than once, probably many times—to make the story work and then to make a sale. And then again later on, to please producers, studios or stars. Tom Lazarus--author of "Stigmata", among other scripts--is a working screenwriter and professor at UCLA extension. In this book, he's distilled his own experience and that of other screenwriters into a system. SECRETS OF FILM REWRITING will teach writers how to:
-prioritize big scenes
-add new information
-pass through for dialogue
-do an "on the nose" rewrite
Hugely valuable to first-time screenwriters and to grizzled veterans of Hollywood pitch wars alike, SECRETS OF SCREENPLAY REWRITING is larded with humor and attitude as well as information. Its anatomy of a screenplay rewrite breaks down the book's lessons into their practical application—a must for anyone looking for a break in the film business.
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Writing Secrets for Screenwriters
Seven Strategies to Improve and Sell Your Work
By Tom Lazarus
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Tom Lazarus
All rights reserved.
WHY GREAT FILMS ARE GREAT
GONE WITH THE WIND
Based on Margaret Mitchell's epic novel, Sydney Howard's first-draft screenplay for Gone with the Wind was an excessive four hundred pages long. Over the next two and half years, the producer, the legendary David O. Selznick, hired writers Jo Swerling, Oliver H. P. Garrett, E Scott Fitzgerald, John Van Druten, and Charles MacArthur to do rewrites before Gone with the Wind went into production. George Cukor started shooting, but was fired as director two weeks later. He was replaced by Victor Fleming, who refused to film a single scene until he had a realistic shooting script, prompting even more rewrites by Ben Hecht. Still unsatisfied, Selznick brought back Sydney Howard's screenplay and Ben Hecht rewrote that.
Right before production, Sydney Howard himself was brought back to do some additional writing. Six writers. Countless rewrites.
THE WIZARD OF OZ
The first of a dozen screenwriters consulted on The Wizard of Oz was Irving Brecher. Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the official first draft, which was rejected by MGM. Then, Ogden Nash did a rewrite as did playwright Knoll Langley, who continued on the project for three months and wrote many, many drafts. Langley's rewrite was ultimately unfiimable and the producers brought in another writer, Samuel Hoffenstein, who only worked for a few days. Langley continued rewriting and finished the "shooting script." Producers Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed brought in the veteran writing team of Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf to do a rewrite, but it was still not considered right by the studio and they brought Langley back. He rewrote Woolf and Ryerson. Edgar "Yip" Harburg, who had worked on the score, was also brought in to do some rewriting. Writers jack Mintz and Sid Silvers did even more rewriting. When Victor Fleming was brought in as director, he had writer John Lee Mahin hired to do some final rewriting before they started shooting.
Arguably the greatest film of all time was a collaboration between Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz wrote an excessive 250-page first draft. (Screenplays today run from 95 to 135 pages. It better be good if it's 135 pages.) Changes were made in that script and a second draft was completed. Mankiewicz left the project, but rewrites continued under the supervision of John Houseman. A writer named Amalia Kent was the next writer to do a rewrite, then Welles worked on the rewrite after her. Welles rewrote a hundred seventy pages and deleted more than seventy-five pages. The picture was budgeted ... way over budget. Welles was forced to do even more rewrites. After that, Mankiewicz was brought back onto the project and generated three new rewrites. Another rewrite was generated for the Hays office, a self-regulating standards and practices organization set up by the motion picture industry. Finally they had an official shooting script.
The film classic Casablanca began its life as a play by author Murray Burnett. Hal Wallis, the producer of the film, brought in his brother-in-law, Wally Kline, and his writing partner, Aeneas MacKenzie, to do work on the script. They worked for seven weeks. Even before they finished, Wallis was talking with twins Julius and Philip Epstein about the script. They wrote and rewrote until they completed the "final" script. Another writer, Casey Robinson, was hired and worked for three weeks doing rewrites. Still unsatisfied, Wallis brought in Howard Koch to rewrite the first part of the script.
Lenore Coffee also worked on the script for a week. It turned out the Epsteins were rewriting the second part of the script and Howard Koch was rewriting the Epsteins' first act. Ultimately, seven writers worked on Casablanca.
SO, WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
It indicates to me that a great film from a great screenplay takes lots of work, great creativity, and most of all rewriting. I know this isn't a surprise. After all, this is a book about rewriting.
When I first started reading screenplays, Ï thought that writers wrote what I was reading out of the chute. That it just came out onto the page perfectly the first time. That's what a right writer was.
I didn't know about rewrites.
I didn't know about restructuring.
1 didn't know about working scenes to make them better.
I didn't know about developing threads and arcs and subplots and subtext. Hello?
It's clear to me now that it takes time and many drafts to make a script great. It's clear to me now that the cliché "A horse designed by committee is a camel" isn't true at all. Sometimes, a horse designed by committee is a triple-crown winner.CHAPTER 2
A STRATEGY FOR REWRITING
Normally, I'm a proponent of writing prom the gut and trusting your storytelling instincts, so it's a little odd for me to propose a formalized Strategy for Rewriting. What I'm really up to is proposing a new and different way to think about rewriting. The key, of course, is to think about rewriting. It all starts there.
You know· the famous shot in The Matrix where multiple cameras take 360 degrees of photographs of Keanu Reeves and when they meld them together in the film we, amazingly, wheel around him showing every angle of him moving through the air? That's how I visualize the process of rewriting, Keanu Reeves is your screenplay, The Strategy for Rewriting is the cameras viewing Keanu from all sides-
This Strategy for Rewriting takes a 360-degree look at your screenplay.
This Strategy for Rewriting is composed of seven separate mini-rewrites — seven secrets, if you will — each one targeting a different facet of the screenplay.
The Strategy for Rewriting allows you to isolate characteristics of your writing so you can — divorced of story — be more objective about them.
Objectivity about your writing leads, inevitably, to improvement.
After you've rewritten a couple of screenplays using the Strategy for Rewriting, you'll see how it dramatically raises the level of your writing and your screenplays.
Secret #1: Gaining New Perspectives
Most of us find it's easier to critique someone else's screenplay than our own. It's one of the truisms of screenwriting. The reason? We have a clear perspective on their work. We haven't toiled over each word, spent weeks and months perfecting it. We see it fresh.
The key to rewriting your screenplay is to be able to step away from it to get into a position where you can see the different aspects of your screenplay anew. It's important with any rewrite, but particularly when you are rewriting your own screenplay.
After you've finished your rough draft, put it down. Do something else. Cleaning your workspace is always good. Get that long-needed haircut. Clean your keyboard — mine always has a disgusting mix of cookie crumbs, salt, dust, unidentifiable herbal material, and dirt. Organize your files. Repot some plants. Read some good, inspiring fiction. Go into rehab. Anything that gets you out of your head and shakes up your brain cells so you can be fresh when you return to your screenplay It could be a couple of days. It could be a week.
When I return to my screenplay, the first thing I do is create a scene list. The scene list is a chronological list of scenes, not your outline, not the work you did before writing, but a simple list of the scenes you've actually written. This will help separate what you planned to write, what you think you wrote, and what you actually wrote, and give you a chance to get a fresh angle on the basics of your screenplay.
For example: Here's a partial scene list from an early draft of a new script of mine called Reborn.
Introduce Rome – Night
Introduce four young men drinking
Surprise, the young men are priests
Drunken young men in Rome fountain
Terence in papal gardens
Terence has vision
In the morning, gardener discovers sleepy Terence
Terence rushing to Vatican job
Late for job, tries to tell pal of vision
Each of the scenes — representing seven total pages of screenplay — is a conceptual reminder of what I've written. I just scan the pages, getting the idea of the scene so I can put it on the scene list. I'll read the screenplay later. The scene descriptions are purposely brief so I don't get involved in the details of the writing or storytelling. I want to think about the script in conceptual blocks. In that way, I can relook at the screenplay as a whole, the big strokes.
This process of listing scenes gets me thinking about the basics of the story. I do see things differently after I've stepped away.
At this point, I may move scenes around or delete scenes that suddenly, with this new perspective, seem irrelevant. I do the work in the scene list first. Then, after I've made all the changes that I want, I make those changes in the screenplay.
Another way to get a new slant on your screenplay is to color and shape code different elements in your scene list. Red for action. Blue for dialogue. Diamonds for the hero. Boxes for the antagonist. A heart for the girlfriend. A circle for scenes with humor, and so on. I put a code or codes to the left of each scene; then, when I'm finished, I tape the scene list pages together, top to bottom, push-pin it up on the wall, then "read the codes." This allows me to "see" the movie by the different rhythms of the shapes and colors, the basics of the screenplay. You'll see if your hero is not in enough scenes, if the girlfriend has disappeared for too long, if there are too many action scenes too close together. Coding is an incredible tool for getting perspective. If it isn't a coded scene list, its three-by-five cards; whatever the tools, getting perspective is the goal.
When I've finished charting the movie and absorbing it, I'm ready to read the damn thing word for word.
I try to approach this first read as much like a fresh reader as I possibly can. I don't read it on the computer. I don't read it with a pen in my hand (that quickly changes, but I try). I choose a location different than the place I wrote the screenplay. I try and read the screenplay as if I've just picked it up at the local screenplay store — if only — and I'm going to read it to pass a few hours.
I try and read the script at one sitting, no writing, no distractions. If a rewrite does come to mind, and it inevitably does, I just make a note of it and don't do it.
When I finish reading, I gather my thoughts and write any further rewrite ideas down. After that, rewrite notes in hand, I'm ready to begin the actual rewriting.
My Usual Reaction When I Read My Rough Draft?
I'm pleased and disappointed. Pleased because I usually don't remember much of what I've written so I'm occasionally really surprised at the writing or a twist of the story, and that's great. I'm disappointed because I always want the writing to be better. I want it to be as good as the original thought, the initial flush of excitement that prompted "That's a good idea for a movie" in my head. If I can reach that moment and extend it for the length of the screenplay, I'm there. It's daunting. It's what drives me as a rewriter.
Secret #2: Prioritizing the Big Scenes
Call them big, or important, or key, whatever you want, but make a list of the big scenes, the most important first. It could be four, it could be ten. Usually they're the key dialogue scenes that turn the story or explain the characters. They may be the major set-piece action scenes, the big love scenes, the murder scenes. They are the scenes people will remember in your screenplay/movie. They are the scenes that will grab a reader and get your script produced.
Frank Capra said you need four such big scenes, but that was many years ago and times change. The pace that films are cut these days — influenced by TV, video games, music videos, the evolution of the art and technology of editing — has sped up the editorial pace of storytelling.
The result? An audience's appetite and expectation for more: more action, more big scenes, more, faster — the roller coaster. Today's theatrical feature market is driven by the twelve-through-twenty-four age bracket and the results are tent-pole action/comic-book franchises. The roller coaster experience needs for that genre are high. Those audiences have an appetite for big action movies and that's what the studios are delivering.
Needless to say, the more important scenes you have in this roller coaster storytelling world the better. When I saw The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich's global warming blockbuster, I was as much astounded by the magnificent state-of-the-art effects as I was about the paucity of human stories. It felt to me there were ten drafts of writing on the special effects and the human stories were still in rough draft. Call in the rewriters.
A way to think about the prioritizing of the scenes is to think how a studio would market your film, what the trailer and TV spots would be. Those scenes are what make up your list.
I believe one of the key reasons for the success of a film 1 wrote called Stigmata was MGM's extraordinary television campaign. There were enough intriguing scenes to make a terrific trailer.
Finally, once you have your list of prioritized scenes, study it. See how the scenes relate to each other. What you're looking for is an arc. The scenes should start good and evolve to great. They should start small and get bigger and better. There should be a build so that the reader/viewer is fed more and more as they go along. This keeps the reader/viewer tuned in. It's called rising action. If your arc is flat and the reader/viewer is getting more of the same, scene after scene, they tune out.
Rising action is a concept that works across genres. In a love story, the relationship must progress or stagnate. In a murder mystery, the number of corpses has to build. In action movies, the stunts have to get bigger and better.
This evolving arc is vital to keeping the reader/viewer hooked into your script.
Secret #3: Tracking the Transitions
This third focused rewrite specifically targets how scenes end and how they begin and how the transition between them works.
Read only the beginnings and ends of scenes and visualize how they will look as they transition from one to the next.
I believe the mind "sees" the movie as you read it and a bad visual cut on the written page will read badly in the mind of the reader.
Do I have proof of this?
Am 1 a brain researcher?
Well, Tve written brain researchers for TV.
Transitions are one of the keys to writing smooth-reading screenplays. Rewriting transitions goes a long way to evolving your screenplay.
Feedback on my writing is pretty much always the same: "It was a smooth read." "It was a page-turner, I couldn't put it down." Good transitions are a major factor in getting back comments like these.
INT. ST. PETER'S BASILICA – DAY
Father Terence jumps over the small railing and, unbelievably, climbs up on the crucifix and kisses the wound of Christ. It immediately starts bleeding ... real blood ... dripping on Father Terence. Security personnel grab the bloody father, pull him off the statue, and hustle him out past the wide-eyed tourists. He's disoriented and confused.
INT. VATICAN PALAZZO DE GIUSTIZIA – DAY
Father Terence sits in front of the elderly CONSIGLIORE, who studies Father Terence as he talks.
Now, a more cinematic, brain-pleasing version:
INT. ST. PETER'S BASILICA – DAY
Father Terence jumps over the small railing and, unbelievably, climbs up on the crucifix and kisses the wound of Christ ...
... And it starts bleeding ...
... dripping ... onto Father Terence.
Security personnel grab the bloody father, who is disoriented and confused, and pull him off the statue ... they hustle him out past the wide-eyed tourists.
EXT. VATICAN PALAZZO DE GIUSTIZIA – DAY
The age-stained marble facade wet from the rain.
INT. VATICAN CONSIGLIORE PSICOLOGIA – DAY
A mahogany-lined office. Leather-bound books in bookcases. Modern religious art. A tense Father Terence sits in front of the elderly CONSIGLIORE, who studies Father Terence as he talks.
The first version is workmanlike, rough draft stuff, with a "Father Terence" to "Father Terence" cut, which is not very visual.
The second version sells mood and place, cuts from Father Terence to the new place he is, to the specific office he's in; it's a moment for the reader/viewer to catch their breath — and then to resume Father Terence's story. It's the rewrite.
One of the best transitions is when you're cutting from a wide shot to a tight shot, or vice versa.
It's the difference between the shots that makes the good cut. The better the transition, the better the read, the better the movie.
Simply put, badly executed transitions lessen your chances that the reader will buy your screenplay. Motivation enough?
Excerpted from Writing Secrets for Screenwriters by Tom Lazarus. Copyright © 2006 Tom Lazarus. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Tom Lazarus is the author of SECRETS OF FILM WRITING. He has had eight feature films made from his original screenplays, including the #1 hit "Stigmata." He has also taught an Advanced Screenwriting Workshop at UCLA Extension for thirteen years and writes, directs and executive produces an hour-long drama for cable television.
Tom Lazarus is the author of SECRETS OF FILM WRITING. He has had eight feature films made from his original screenplays, including the #1 hit “Stigmata.” He has also taught an Advanced Screenwriting Workshop at UCLA Extension for thirteen years and writes, directs and executive produces an hour-long drama for cable television.
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