In the last blog I mentioned that there is almost no writing about rewriting. Which is ridiculous if you think about it. Everything you’ve ever read, or watched at the movies or on TV, has been through several rewrites. Yet the dream you’re being sold that you can become a writer, is framed only within the context of its first stages.
Imagine being told that the key to becoming a really good plumber is to own a monkey wrench, and every single book about plumbing tells you how to use it. That’s going to get you so far, but you need more. And if you think that’s a crap metaphor, well I do too but at the moment I haven’t got time to think of a better one.
Which brings me to the first point about rewriting. The most successful writing is where the writer has worked hardest to eliminate everything they believe isn’t working. No one ever knows if a piece of writing is going to be successful until it comes into contact with the audience. At which point, it can’t be changed. All that we can know is that we worked and worked and worked on that script, or novel or screenplay, we examined every story, every character action, every sentence until there wasn’t a word we wouldn’t fight to keep.
If you can’t know for sure what difference the rewriting will make, how then can you hope to improve your work?
The answer is to take the work you do at the very early stage of developing your idea, and keep coming back to it.
Regular readers will know I have a series of questions that need to be answered before a word of script is written. It used to be my key big five but I’ve realised it’s six. These questions are:
1 What’s it about? This sounds like the simplest question, and I used to spend the least amount of time on it. Not any more. Reading your scripts has made me realise how easy it is to lose sight of its importance. You may have always known you wanted to write but as you go through the process of creating the script you may get carried away by a new thought and forget what your original idea is about.
This is not a bad thing. It may be brilliant. It may be the breakthrough that allows you to push forward. But what you have to do before you continue, is revisit that initial premise and change it accordingly. Otherwise you may find that you’re writing two different sitcoms, the one that has moved on your initial idea and you’re all excited about, and the one that originally inspired you. There’s nothing wrong with a sitcom being about lots of things, but that anchor has to be one thing. The clue is often in the title: Father Ted. Miranda. Dad’s Army. “In this week’s episode of Miranda, the whole story is about mum’s new boyfriend.” Promising idea, you can see where the jokes will come, but unless it’s all about Miranda it isn’t an episode of that show.
2 What’s it really about? This is the underlying theme, the cliché you might use to describe the story you’re telling. Clichés are great shortcuts to letting people know what you’re writing about. “Fish out of water” is the classic sitcom idea. “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives” another biggie. Whatever is the biggest one you have, you should have it written on a post-it note that you can see every moment you’re writing the script.
3 Who’s it about? This is the most common problem I come across with first draft scripts. We don’t know who the main character is, or characters are. And even when we do, we don’t know why they are that main character. Your main character has an outward goal – to be the best boss there is. And a personal goal – to win the respect of their workers. They think they’re something they’re not. And you have a story designed to make them fail in achieving their goals, and not learn from their mistakes. That’s it. Even if you have that nice and clear before you start to write the script, keep checking while you’re writing the script. In this scene I’m writing, is my main character chasing one of their main goals? If they’re not, you’re writing the wrong scene.
4 Why me? This is always the hardest question to answer, it feels amorphous and difficult to pin down. What are the authentic bits of yourself that you’re bringing to the show? This requires a degree of self-analysis, a self-awareness that your characters lack. A sense of times when you’re not being honest with yourself about who you are, or how you react in certain situations. If you can see that the scene you have written needs something extra, a better punchline or a further plot development, look to yourself and see if you can remember one of the many occasions where you called it 100% wrong. Those moment are unique to you, and they’re often funny.
5 Why now? We often fall in love with an idea, which blinds us to the fact that someone else has already done it. You are perfectly entitled to write a sitcom about a mismatched pair sharing a flat. We’ve seen that situation work, many times. But imagine you’re with a comedy therapist, discussing why this script didn’t work out. Are you being honest with yourself about how far you’ve moved the flatshare idea on from Peep Show? Are you just getting your own favourite sitcom out of your system so that next time things will be different?
6 Where are we? Fanfare, drum roll, a new question. I’ve been working a lot with writers taking their ideas from zero to first draft, some have great stories, others have great characters, but unless I can get a feel for the world they’re creating it can make me a bit seasick. I need to be anchored. You can go anywhere, especially on radio, you can travel to new planets or ancient historical times or 26 different flight destinations, as in the 26 separate episodes of Cabin Pressure, one of the finest radio sitcoms ever. But unless I know where you’re starting from in Act 1 scene 1, chances are I’ll get lost in the middle of the script. And so will you.
Learning how to rewrite is a similar process to learning how to write. The more you do it, the better you should become. That means you have to write every day. I’ve swung back and forth on this hoary old piece of writing advice, advocating it in the book before last, disagreeing with that in my next book and now, I’m back to the “write daily” mantra.
That doesn’t mean “write a chapter of your book every day”, it’s as much about establishing a habit. Finding 10 minutes – or 15 if you can – every day, to sit, and let your thoughts run free. You’ll never run out of topics, here are a few examples to get your process moving:
- What is it about this idea more than any other at the moment that makes me want to write it?
- What are three more ideas I’d really like to write?
- Examine 10 “what ifs” for my character. What if their partner left them? What if an old friend they never liked came back into their life? What if they started a new job? (And so on)
- What are my two main characters like when they’re alone watching TV? At the pub with friends? Discussing politics?
- What is the main “sit” in my show? Describe it in detail.
Writing every day, preferably at the same time, turns an emotional desire into a professional habit. It helps to diminish the baggage of expectation we bring to the blank page, when the idea of “being a writer” can seem so overwhelming that it can make you want to give up and go back to stamp collecting or scuba diving.
And it means that when you come back to that script, which last time you looked was so perfect there wasn’t a single word you needed to change, you’ll be ready to work on it with a fresh view. Probably best though not to go at it with a monkey wrench.
FROM NOVEMBER I’LL BE RUNNING A 4 WEEK REWRITING CORRESPONDENCE COURSE. INTERESTED? READ MORE HERE https://www.davecohen.org.uk/learn-to-write-comedy/comedy-writing-courses/