Screenwriting 101: all writing is rewriting

Many readers have written in to tell me that they would like to write and have plenty of ideas but can’t seem to complete any of them. They say they have all these little scraps of paper with notes scrawled on them but can’t seem to develop them into a full-length story/novel/comic/screenplay.

The bad news: the storytelling impulse is something you are born with. If you don’t have the urge and drive to tell stories, there’s not much you can do to get it.

The good news: every other part of the writing game is a skill and can be learned.

(When I was in college I fancied myself a short story writer, but my short stories were constantly being criticized by my professor for their lack of basic grammar. I dangled participles, split infinitives, misspelled key words, mixed tenses and had run-on sentences. I couldn’t keep all the rules straight — I didn’t have a head for them. However, my professor consistently praised my ear for realistic dialogue — I understood the way people talk. So instead of applying myself, learning about sentence structure and becoming better, I started writing stories that consisted almost entirely of long dialogue passages: “John met Mary at the restaurant. He sat down. He said…” and then the rest of the story would be what he and she said. My grades went up and I abandoned short stories for plays, where I wouldn’t need to remember all those goddamn rules.)

First thing you need to understand: all writing is rewriting.

Isn’t that a relief? You don’t need to “make stuff up,” you just have to be able to recognize good writing and have a mind for understanding how it works. If you have that talent, the rest is just putting other people’s writing into your own words, as your third-grade teacher used to say.

This means two things:

1. There is nothing new under the sun. Any idea you have for a story, it’s been done, a thousand times over, whether you know it or not. This should not be an impediment. One thing to do when you get an idea for a story is to read a whole big stack of stories similar to yours and see how those writers solved their narrative problems. Then you can copy them. Feel no guilt about this: those writers did the same thing when they were writing their stories. There’s the old quote: steal from one writer and it’s plagiarism, steal from everybody and it’s research. When I get a writing assignment I sit down and watch every movie I can find in the genre I’m looking at and note patterns, tropes, key moments, character beats, anything that makes the movie enjoyable. Then I sit down andwatch a bunch of movies in a completely different genre and note how the two genres connect and contrast, and think about how I can steal traits of one genre and apply them to another. This is what will keep my screenplay from being rote formula.

2. You must be able to look at your own writing as though it is someone else’s. You cannot become too attached to your work. You cannot fall in love with a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, a line of dialogue or even a word merely because it happened to turn out nice. The fountain of creativity is unceasing, you cannot worry for one moment that you will “run out of ideas.” This means that the writer you will be rewriting the most is yourself. You must learn to love this aspect of creation — not just the initial spark, which is the fun part, but the heavy lifting of merciless revision and improvement, which is work. If you don’t love rewriting your own work, you’re dead in the water.

Let’s say you have the simplest possible idea for a movie: a good guy fights a bad guy, and wins. There! You’ve just written a hit movie! Now all you need to do is mercilessly re-write that idea until it’s a screenplay, and you can have the respect and admiration of Hollywood a great deal of money some money.

First, let’s take a look at that “good guy.” Probably, this “good guy” is your protagonist. Then we ask the question, yes, What Does The Protagonist Want? The answer, it may surprise you to learn, is not “to beat the bad guy.” “To beat the bad guy” is meaningless, the protagonist must have a reason for beating the bad guy. To Preserve His Honor, To Protect His Family, To Save The Farm, To Impress The Girl, To Save The World, any of these will do, it really does not matter. All that matters is that the Protagonist want the thing he or she wants with a passion sufficient to make the audience want that thing too.

(In Pee Wee’s Big Adventure the protagonist wants only To Recover His Stolen Bicycle. A bicycle may not seem like much of a maguffin to hang a narrative on, but all that matters is that the protagonist wants it badly enough, and in the case of Pee Wee he wants it badly enough that he cannot think of anything else. If that does not seem like high art, De Sica’s classic of Italian neo-realism, Bicycle Thieves, has the exact same premise, employed to greatly different ends. In this way, we could say that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a re-write of Bicycle Thieves, although it was, understandably, not marketed as such.)

Now then: here’s where “stakes” comes in. The general rule is, the higher the stakes, the bigger the hit. If a good guy fights a bad guy in the privacy of his own home with nobody watching, that would be a “small movie.” If he fights the bad guy for the sake of protecting his family, that has the potential of being a a bigger movie, if he fights the bad guy for the sake of preserving his community or nation it could be a huge movie.

(And if he fights the bad guy to save the world or the galaxy, you have the potential of having the biggest movie of all, although this is also a tricky area, because “To Save The Galaxy” is a vague, uninteresting thing for a protagonist to want — a protagonist may fight for a nation, but who could possibly care about an entire galaxy? The two protagonists who leap to mind charged with saving the world/galaxy are Luke Skywalker and James Bond, and I would argue that “To Save The World/Galaxy” are secondary goals for them — Luke’s primary goal is To Win The Love of Leia and Bond’s goal is To Get Back to Drinking and Screwing.)

So let’s say our protagonist (good guy) has to fight an antagonist (bad guy) in order To Preserve His Community. This has the potential to become a huge, huge movie.

Now: what would raise the stakes for this protagonist? Well, we have to decide who our protagonist is. Is he a fine, upstanding, strong, utterly capable man, skilled in martial arts and a keen strategist? Maybe, but then the movie won’t be very interesting. No, what would make the story better is if the good guy who has to fight the bad guy is The Least Qualified Person In The Entire Community.

(Back in the day, many people urged me to see Under Siege, which they said was a better-than-average variation on Die Hard. Imagine my sadness when it is revealed that the lowly cook who must defend the battleship from terrorists is, actually, the World’s Foremost Terrorist Fighter.)

Okay, so The Least Qualified Person In The Entire Community must fight the bad guy. And, conversely, the bad guy must be not merely “bad,” but bad in a way that directly imposes upon the protagonist’s weaknesses. That’s good. Now then, what would raise the stakes even higher? Well, what if the entire community hates the protagonist?

Okay, time to give the protagonist a job. Let’s make him a sheriff in a dusty down in the Old West. But let’s make him the new sheriff, the sheriff from Back East who doesn’t understand The Way Things Work in this community. So not only is there a bad guy threatening the community, the community hates this sheriff’s guts. So now the protagonist not only has to deal with the bad guy, he’s got to deal with the community who hates his guts. The stronger the forces arrayed against the protagonist, the higher the stakes, the bigger the movie.

Now we’re cooking with gas. There’s this sheriff, and everyone in town hates him because he’s the new guy, and then this bad guy comes to town. How bad is this bad guy? He’s really bad — he’s a psychopath, killing townsfolk off like crazy. He doesn’t even seem to be after anything, he’s just a stone killer. And the town panics, and they bring in an expert and a gunslinger to fight the bad guy and the expert is a snob and the gunslinger is a creep and nobody is listening to the sheriff, not even his own family, who are worried that maybe the townsfolk are right, that the sheriff is not qualified to deal with this bad guy.

What is this sheriff going to do? There’s an evil out there he can’t begin to understand, there are these experts and gunslingers who make him feel like an idiot, the townspeople dislike him, and even his own family is looking at him sideways. What the hell is he going to do?

(This is the “second-act low point.”)

What the sheriff must do, it seems to me, is figure out a way to befriend the gunslinger, get him to work together with the expert, and then the three of them go out into the desert to fight the bad guy.

Great! Now you’ve got a hit western. Except for one thing: it sounds a little cliched. It could work but it sounds a little cliched. People will feel they’ve seen this movie before. It needs one more rewrite.

Hey — what if the bad guy is a shark?

Yes. We make the bad guy a giant shark, and we don’t set the story in the Old West, we set it in the present day, and we set it in the exact opposite of a dusty western town — we set it on an island on the East Coast. Yes — a giant shark comes to town, and you know what? We’ll make the sheriff a man who is afraid of water! Everyone in town hates him because he’s not “one of them,” and this shark comes along and nobody listens to the Sheriff because he’s not One of Them, and the Expert is some snooty Rich Kid with a degree in Sharkology, and the Gunslinger is a crusty old Shark Hunter who’s really creepy. And the Hugely Underqualified Sheriff and the Expert and the Shark Hunter have to work together to go out into the ocean to kill this shark, because Nobody Else Will Do It.

So, there’s one example of how to write a big hit movie: take acliche from one genre and give it that one brilliant twist that makes it into another genre and makes an audience see it from a different point of view.

Now, I understand that Peter Benchley, when writing Jaws, did not start with “A Good Guy Fights A Bad Guy, And Wins.” He started with a “cool premise,” ie: What If A Giant Shark Showed Up Off The Coast Of Martha’s Vineyard? And that is, in fact, where most stories begin, with a “cool premise.” What If An Evil Robot Came From The Future To Kill Somebody, What If Aliens Were The Guiding Force In Evolution, What If A Man Fell In Love With A Teenage Girl. And we can get to that in a bit, but this for now is a good place to start.

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16 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: all writing is rewriting”
  1. igorxa says:

    ok, this is totally off topic, but i saw there will be blood last night, so i really wanted to get your opinion on it. i thought it was nothing shy of amazing, but the audience was horrible. people were laughing at all sorts of things that my girlfriend and i didn’t think were supposed to be funny. i admit that a lot of the violence, both physical and verbal, and some of the more emotionally intense moments (most notably the first scene of eli preaching/casting out the arthritis) was just that, intense, almost over the top, absurd. maybe the laughing was a reaction to that absurdity. there were musical queues, and in many instances i would consider them sublimely subtle (i LOVE the soundtrack. johnny greenwood is a musical genius.), so maybe there wasn’t enough context for general audiences. i dunno. what do you think?

    again, i’m really sorry to ask this in the comments for this wonderful screenwriting post.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve seen There Will Be Blood a couple of times now and I think it’s pretty freaking brilliant. I’ve been a fan of PTA for a long time now (I thought Boogie Nights was astonishing) but this seems to be a whole new ball game for him.

      In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that, in PTA, our generation may have finally found its Kubrick. That is to say, one can look at Lolita and Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove and 2001 and Barry Lyndon and The Shining and so forth and see that, even those these are all very different movies in very different genres, they all come from a strong, individual point-of-view, an acute, specific intelligence that one doesn’t encounter very often in movie theaters. And I could go on about why the screenplay for Blood works the way it does, but suffice to say for now that it does work and work well, in spite of being unconventional and elliptical.

      And yes, people often laughed at Kubrick movies too, when his bold stylistic choices struck them as too absurd to be taken seriously. The Eli scene you mention is a good case-in-point — I saw nothing particularly weird or unbelievable about it, I’ve been exposed to preachers like that before and what he does in that scene is pretty tame compared to some of these guys. But because PTA shoots it with a steady, uninflected camera, and because the actor’s performance is so committed, the audience feels uncomfortable. It’s the same as the first acts of A Clockwork Orange or The Shining or Blue Velvet — the audience is being shown unbelievable things in a language so assured and committed that it doesn’t know quite what to make of them. And one response is to laugh.

      I don’t know if There Will Be Blood will be a big hit or not, but its place in movie history already seems pretty assured to me.

  2. binaisagnome says:

    I’m constantly sifting through finished prose and unfinished short stories. My problem with the stories is once i know HOW i want them to end, i never put it to paper, because the ending is either unsatisfying, or “well i know the ending now, next one!” without writing it down. There is one story i’m writing that makes me want to finish it… but what then?
    Seriously, thank you for this entry!

  3. thenyxie says:

    This is such a wonderful read. It’s always reassuring to read that these things are true, though of course, we already know them.

    I especially love and admire your twist of good guy vs. bad guy in a cliched Western into a very not cliched setting ala one of my favorite movies ever, Jaws. That’s just sheer brilliance.

    This was delightful!

  4. mattyoung says:

    Nice advice. Especially about becoming too attached to one’s own words.

    I’m going to school for cartooning and comics right now. Over last semester, I wrote and thumbnailed about 9/10ths of a comic. I planned to start drawing it over the holiday break, not remembering that the damned holidays are in there and wreaking havoc upon the most basic of schedules. I had this binder of prospective story that I’ve carried like an albatross for the last month or so, and around Jan. 4th I finally got to sit down and look at it. And I started re-doodling the opening. My second act still needs to shape up, but the first is way tighter than the stuff I was going to start drawing two months ago.

    Neil Gaiman harps on this a lot when people ask him about “how to write.” Step 1: write complete stories. Step 2: get the hell away from them for at least six weeks. Step 3: Write another story while the first gathers dust. Step 4: Look at the first story with alien eyes.

    Rewriting: So essential, and probably the hardest thing to get used to doing. Do you need to take a while to remove yourself from a story, or has the time necessary shrunk over the course of your writing life?

    • Todd says:

      Well, it becomes habit. I don’t have a specific time-frame, it can be a day or a week or a month. I’m usually writing on a deadline so I often don’t have the luxury of waiting six weeks before reading it again.

  5. There is no question that you’re right about the need to mercilessly revise your own writing. Whether in fiction or in research, I never want to part with a clever turn of phrase or a pleasant tangential story. Such things might even be enjoyable for the reader, but no doubt they detract from my communicative goal.

    But perhaps this rule is only ironclad in screenwriting and academia, where people almost always need to get the entire story in one sitting. In long-form fiction, there’s room for something like Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which bombards you with ridiculous digressions and makes you love it.

    The only catch is that you have to be an amazingly good writer to pull that kind of thing off. So I can console myself with this idea, while not allowing myself to wriggle out of the need to cut, cut, cut.

    • Todd says:

      My wife is a huge Neal Stephenson fan, but the Baroque Cycle was too much even for her — she gave up on it.

      Let me also add that Stephenson took a while to grow into his brilliance. By the time he got to the Baroque Cycle, he felt that he had earned the right to impose on his audience’s patience.

      Here’s a story: a while back I was up for the gig writing the movie of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And I was going through the book, analyzing its structure, and I realized that Eco spends 300 pages, and 12 years of narrative, before anything substantial happens. And I thought that was an odd choice for a master storyteller to make, and I said so to the producer, who laughed and told me that Eco had been surprised by and suspicious of the overwhelming success of his previous novel, The Name of the Rose; he felt if it were that successful, it must not be smart enough. So for Foucault, he deliberately made the reader wade through 300 pages of sluggish backstory before rewarding them with an electrifying, fast-paced thriller.

      • I didn’t know the story about Foucault’s Pendulum, but it does clear a lot of things up. Fortunately, esoteric conspiracy theory is exciting to me, so I didn’t mind much. I also think there is a narrative in the earlier part of the book, it’s just about scholarly detective work. The backstory is anything but static, so it’s not as bad as if it had just been 300 pages of exposition.

        I figured that you needed experience before you could become a good enough writer to do that kind of thing, but I like the other part of the equation you pointed out: You have to have a record of success before readers are willing to give something that long a chance!

    • Anonymous says:

      “perhaps this rule is only ironclad in screenwriting and academia”

      No, it’s ironclad for all writing and that’s the end of it.

      When I was a newspaper reporter, and thus always on deadline, I still found that after laboring over the perfect lede graf (that’s how these things are spelled in the biz) for hours, when the story was done, I usually had to throw it out.

      Now, as an editor, I find that the clever turns of phrase and most pleasant tangential stories are the things writers are most attached to — and the the things that least server the reader. Cut them out, no matter how painful. Belabored metaphors, too.

      Also, delete all adverbs.


  6. Anonymous says:

    Please, please, PLEASE do a article on second acts.

  7. Since you did that whole series on futuristic dystopias a while back, I was wondering if you’ve seen I Am Legend yet?

    • Todd says:

      I saw I Am Legend and enjoyed it. I agree a little bit with the predominant criticism of it, but in general found it effective and intriguing. On the other hand, I was utterly blown away by Cloverfield.

  8. craigjclark says:

    I took a somewhat similar path to playwriting, although I segued through comedy sketches along the way. Dialogue has always been my forte, but recently I’ve gotten back to the short story form and I’ve found that I’m not as bad at it as I used to be.