There are approximately one million nine hundred and sixty three thousand books out there telling you how to write a script. But as far as I can see there are only two about rewriting. And one of them is Making A Good Script Great by Linda Seger. Which is not about rewriting! It’s about going back to the beginning and getting everything in place before you start the first draft ahead of rewriting it. In other words, it’s ANOTHER book about how to write.
What is the best approach to rewriting? In The Complete Comedy Writer which I published three years ago I had a chapter on this. It was a start – and it’s worth reiterating the main points from that:
1 ALL writing is rewriting
You suddenly have a great idea. You must write it down straight away. The jumble of words or light bulb thought that entered your head is turned into a written sentence. It’s only seconds since you had the idea and already you are reshaping it. This isn’t especially helpful but it’s important to keep in mind that writing is a constant process and the finished product might not arrive until seconds before it is first performed live. If rewriting up to five minutes before curtain-rising was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for you.
2 No first draft is ever good enough
Prepare and prepare and prepare, know a lot of what you’re going to write before you commit to the script – but know that there is more work to be done. You won’t always know what to change when you embark on a rewrite. But there will be moments when writing your first draft where you will say to yourself “here’s something that I know isn’t quite right – I’ll try and come back and fix it later.” Make a note – a written note – that you can come back to when it’s rewrite time.
3 Keir Starmer
Over the last six months there have been approximately one million nine hundred and sixty three thousand articles in newspapers advising Keir Starmer how to beat the Tories. If he followed everyone’s advice he’d be doing one thing today and the opposite tomorrow until 2093.
Not everyone will look at your script and agree about what needs to change. Some people, script professionals even, will directly contradict each other. Go back to all that planning and preparing you did at the start of writing, then go with your gut.
4 Rewriting can make it worse
This is the great get-out clause for the writing coach.
“You told me to change that! And now you say it’s worse!”
“I didn’t tell you to change that. I suggested you might consider changing it.”
The sad truth is that most scripts are never quite good enough. Even great scripts that get made don’t always come out how you imagine or hope. Sometimes when we start rewriting, that thing we were slightly doubtful of in our first draft turns out to be worse than realised.
What do you suggest then Dave?
What I failed to do in that chapter was suggest how to rewrite. Partly because every script is different, and every script I look at will require different solutions. If you’d like to take part in a new course I’m running on rewriting your script you can read about it here https://www.davecohen.org.uk/learn-to-write-comedy/comedy-writing-courses/
Linda Seger says you should only re-write what isn’t working and leave the rest alone. But how can you know?
There are a million reasons why scripts go wrong. Every one has its own faulty DNA. But there are three crucial ways in which most scripts nearly always fail, and your first draft may have one of these or elements of all three. These are:
- Your stories lack high stakes.
- The characters are not driving your stories.
- Your world is not clear.
Ask yourself these questions – and bear in mind these are questions you are asking yourself every day, at every stage of the process, because all writing is rewriting:
Do you have one or possibly two characters driving the story through their actions? Are they making things worse? Is this because of a fundamental flaw in their personalities? Are they making things so bad, that around about three quarters of the way through their world is about to fall apart? Because this is sitcom, are they right back where they were at the start?
Before you even think of rewriting, read the script to yourself in one go – or if you’re really lucky get a bunch of actors to read it for you. Leave your ego at the door and imagine it’s the work of someone else, someone you are not emotionally invested in. You’ll hear where it’s stumbling, which jokes work and which fall into the ether. How your big idea is moving forward, or even if you have a big idea.
Above all, accept that writing is a process, that your second draft is as necessary as your first, there was always going to be a second draft even as you finished the first draft and thought you couldn’t make it any better.
In fact once you consider the whole process, the journey from “I’ve had an idea” to “Coming up on BBC2, your show” – you’ll see that the second draft is just one small step in making you a better writer. I’d like to become so good that I don’t have to repeat myself but it’s no use, for the third time I’ll remind you that all writing is rewriting.