Drafting The Screenplay

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With your outline as a guide, write with energy and enthusiasm. "Turn the dogs loose and see where they go," as Mark Spragg likes to say. Stir in the I.D. you've already crafted. Make your characters come alive on the page. And make time to work on your screenplay each day, even if you have to get up earlier or stay up later to do it. The cumulative effect of writing each day is amazing.

If your rough draft is too long, grit your teeth and start cutting. A happy problem—subtraction is easier than addition. Try cutting your narrative description (but not necessarily your main character I.D.) in half, making it more vivid, visual, and economical. Cut dialogue that isn't essential, that doesn't work hard for you or your story. This is almost always a vast improvement as you will see when you read the seven student screenplays in Part III and compare them with their films. Again, a visual reaction from a character is often stronger than words, as Lani Sciandra discovered as she was shooting Cool Breeze and Buzz:

I trusted the notion that less is more—how can we say this without saying it?—redirecting the burden of meaning from writer to viewer—in the script, Paula shouts after the man who dusts her on the dirt road in the red Cadillac—this is an example of me trying too hard to punctuate the point— in the film, it's a silent reaction shot which I felt enhanced the mystery—I realize now how much more I could've let go but I suppose that's how the lesson goes.

When your characters do need to speak, let the text (what is said) be simple, and let the subtext (the river of emotion that flows underneath what is said) be complex.

When your screenplay is finished—at least in this incarnation—give it a title if you haven't done so already. I never accept an untitled work, as Barry Jenkins remembers. "When I handed you the script untitled (as it had been for a year), you scratched out Untitled and handed it back to me. 'Anything but Untitled,' you said, and so I scribbled in My Josephine." The title is crucial. It's the first thing your audience sees, your first chance to connect with them and focus their mind on your story.

If you don't have a title, sit down and noodle everything that the story's about. Odd bits and details from the world of your screenplay. Slang for nudity—The Full Monty. A wonderful title! I love to do title workshops in class. As I jot miscellaneous words on the board, students start seeing connections. We did this for Chris Tomko's brilliant but untitled short screenplay about two young losers who kidnap a Sharpei dog so they can make enough money to get out of town. And, lo, someone shouted, "Sharpei Diem! Seize the Dog!" It set up the tone and the subject without telegraphing (giving the story away). The title stuck—and I love it—bad Latin though it may be.

If you try this alone or in class and you're still stuck in what the late great Jerry Stern called "Title Hell"—a place I've been many times—give your screenplay a working title and hand it in. Someone who reads it just might come up with a better one for you.


Repeat after me: Screenwriting is rewriting.

I'm not the first person to say it and I won't be the last. Because truer words that we don't want to hear were never spoken.

"Here is what I always say about screenwriting," Nora Ephron says in the Introduction to When Harry Met Sally:

When you write a script, it's like delivering a great big beautiful plain pizza, the one with only cheese and tomatoes. And then you give it to the director, and the director says, 'I love this pizza. I am willing to commit to this pizza. But I really think this pizza should have mushrooms on it'... then someone else comes along and says, 'I love this pizza, too, but it really needs green peppers'... then someone else says, 'Anchovies.' There's always a fight over the anchovies. And when you get done, what you have is a pizza with everything. Sometimes it's wonderful. And sometimes you look at it and you think, I knew we shouldn't have put the green peppers onto it. Why didn't I say so at the time? Why didn't I lie down in traffic to prevent anyone's putting green peppers onto the pizza?"6

But even before a director or producer starts throwing green peppers on your script, you'll be rewriting—to make it better. If you're serious. If you want to be a successful screenwriter. The version published here of Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the Quickcheck is Thomas Jackson's fifteenth draft. "I didn't even have a story in my first draft," he told me.

After I read the sixth draft of an M.F.A. Thesis screenplay-in-progress, The Buse, I told the co-writer, Rob McCaffrey, what worked for me and what didn't, what was clear and what wasn't, where I thought the emotional flow wasn't working, where a character's emotion wasn't quite earned, what emotional beats he might add to make it work better. A week later, Rob said the screenplay was "beginning to go in the right direction." And it was an excellent script when I read it.

This truth is so important, so fully acknowledged in the profession, that it's spawned a peculiar ritual at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. "It has become a Lab tradition for the Fellows to burn their scripts to symbolize their acceptance that the writer's work is never done and that the script can always be better," said a 1998 fellow, William Wheeler.

Screenwriting is rewriting. Write it down. Pin it up. Make it your screen-writing mantra. And keep in mind that it isn't bad news.

"Revision," Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, "can make a fool look like a genius."

And as you rewrite, these guidelines might help you along in the process:

1. Be sure you're giving your readers the best script you can, however many drafts this may take. Recently a student gave me a short screenplay with a long note attached telling me she had "literally ripped her hair out" writing and rewriting the script. She wanted to know if there was a way to avoid all that angst and hard labor in the future. Alas, no, I told her, at least none that

I've found. Screenwriting is rewriting. Over and over. But I was happy to tell her that her script was terrific. Not perfect, of course, but close. And you should work as hard on your own. As Jerry Stern used to say, "Don't give your writing to a reader until there's nothing more you can do."

2. Get feedback, responses, from the right kind of readers—people who care about you and your work and your future. If the guy who runs your dry cleaners offers to read it, think twice, unless he fits the criteria mentioned above. (I've had my work trashed by one shopkeeper who turned out to be a frustrated writer waiting to take out his frustrations on the first writer stupid enough to offer her work. Now, when I've finished a draft of a screenplay, I only give it to readers I trust). If you're in a workshop or class, you may not be able to choose who sees your work, but there will be those you should listen to more than others. And you will become that same kind of good critic for others.

I try and keep the critiques in my workshops constructive and carefully focused on one common goal—helping the writer strengthen the screenplay. This is an important level of collaboration in the long collaborative effort that is the writing and making of films, and the first level of collaboration if you haven't written your script with a partner.

So I ask my students to tell the writer what is working for them in the script and what isn't. What is clear or unclear; this may be the most helpful feedback of all. What's strong and what could be stronger. How? Is the character's emotional flow working? Why or why not? They must be specific or it just isn't helpful.

You want to know if the precise moment of discovery in your script is clearly rendered. How could it be clearer? Have you clearly shown the difference it makes? Does your audience get it? If not, what could you add or subtract to make sure they do? Are there breaks in the emotional flow? Emotions that seem unmotivated, out of the blue? If a character's emotion doesn't feel earned, we don't buy it. Your job then is to figure out what to add or shade in your script so the emotion is earned. And, when you add, of course, you'll have to find something else to subtract.

Take notes as people respond; you'll be amazed how many wonderful suggestions you'll forget. Before the critique is over, your head will feel like an overstocked fishpond.

Most of all, listen closely to everything that is said. More than once I've snickered (to myself) at someone's suggestion only to discover later it's the key to my screenplay. So be open. Check your ego at the door. Constructive criticism is a gift. Your purpose here is creating a screenplay that works. And connects. To do this, you need other people.

3. Look for consensus. If more than one person thinks a moment isn't working, it's probably wise to take a close look. If only one person thinks it doesn't work, and you disagree, diplomatically disregard it. Ultimately you'll have to run the responses—consensus or not—through your own creative Cuisinart and decide what's best to do.

4. Set the script aside as long as you dare so you can see it fresh when you return to rewrite. "Revise" means to look or see again, and you need distance to do this.

5. Make the changes necessary to make your script stronger—from your character I.D. to your curtain line. Sometimes this involves outlining the entire script over again and completely rewriting (a page one rewrite); sometimes this involves what Jerry Stern called embeddings—small additions you can embed in your existing script that make your story clearer—and stronger.

6. Take heart. Yes, you may have to cut something you love yet doesn't quite work to make room for something that does. But that, as William Wheeler discovered at Sundance, is the nature of the beast. "As I watched my pages curl, smoke and disappear into the flames," Wheeler said, "I realized the feeling of loss and rebirth was one I would always have, one way or another, for the rest of my writing life."


1. I am indebted to Stu Hample for sending this quotation from On Writing, a collection of interviews held at Writers' Guild of America, East, edited by Arlene Hellerman.

2. Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally, Knopf, New York, 1992, pp. 7, 8.

3. Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens, Script Partners: What Makes Film and TV Writing Teams Work, Michael Wiese Productions, 2003, pp. 114-115.

4. William Goldman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bantam Books, New York, 1969, p. 1.

5. George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck, American Graffiti, Grove Press, New York, 1973, pp. 5, 6.

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