My Wild Card Tuesday interview with film director Kevin Lewis this week emphasized the fact that a screenwriter more often than not has to rewrite his work based on elements completely out of his control. Like new story comments provided by the myriad of producers involved in a project, or the actors, or the director, or financiers. A character becomes young or old and changes race or sex depending on what actor receives the submission, and that often depends on the relationships the producers have with the kind of talent that can green-light a film.
A screenwriter has to be prepared to work in a new idea at a moment’s notice, and that means tossing out previous story points that don’t gel organically with the new material. Often, to make a new idea work, old ideas must be excised. Completely. A favorite scene or piece of dialogue suddenly doesn’t belong, and it’s not going to belong, no matter how you try to justify it. When you leave these bits of tissue on the bone you create a Frankenstein from the cannibalized parts of incompatible monsters.
But this isn’t restricted to screenwriting alone. We go through the same process with our novels. Sometimes we get into the last third of our book and realize that a major plot point doesn’t work. We have to establish something new and rework it, thread-by-thread, from the very beginning. And we know what needs to be done. We might not want to toss the good stuff, but the fact is, it’s no longer relevant. Sometimes, as they say, we have “to kill our babies.”
Sure, we can fool ourselves for a while. As long as the manuscript stays in our hands, we can assume it’s perfect. That’s why we need trusted readers to tell us the truth. People who aren’t tied to previous incarnations of the story. People who can say, “Why did your character do or say THAT?” If our answer is something like, “Well, you see, in an earlier draft I had this hot air balloon fall on his house, and I liked the way he always looked for things to fall from the sky after that, and…” then you know you’re holding onto something that has no place in the new story you’ve chosen to tell.
Of course, if you really love something and can find a way to work it in organically, go for it. But, more often than not, it’s a brush-stroke meant for a painting that doesn’t exist.
I’m thinking about these things because I’m doing another pass on GRINDER, probably the final pass before the script goes back to actors. This draft addresses feedback we’ve received about elements that make the story confusing to the reader. And there is one fundamental story point that I’ve always loved, but it has managed to polarize the people who champion the project. There’s a change I’ve wanted to avoid making, but now that the success of the project hangs in the balance, I’ve had to find a way to make the change in a way that benefits the story. And what I’ve discovered in the process is that the new change strengthens the story’s themes and helps create a stronger resolution.
Once the decision was made, it became necessary for me to put the old subplot out of my head. Eliminate it from my thoughts. The director–Kevin–and I both loved the old subplot, but we also see the need to sacrifice it for the greater good of the story. The only thing left for us to do was to accept our loss and MOVE ON. Because what’s ahead is actually better, as long as we don’t try to force old story elements into the new idea. I’ve done that before with GRINDER, incorporating scenes from previous drafts, scenes that everyone liked and wanted to see realized, and it didn’t work. Each major rewrite required that I reinvent the story, and, in doing so, old scenes had to be tossed. And only then did the script begin to take shape.
What’s great is that the story is strong enough to adjust to the changes. The new ideas don’t deter from the story’s themes, but strengthen them. Stripping out the previous subplot helped identify a larger problem, and the new ideas helped solve it.
It’s amazing how things really aren’t done until they’re done. It’s true, I jump through fewer hoops when I’m writing novels. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. GRINDER has benefited from the many eyes that have scanned its pages. But my willingness to listen, borne from years of receiving project notes on dozens of writing projects, combined with my experience on the other side, as a development executive, is the key element that keeps me attached to the project on the one hand, and helps me to improve it, on the other.
In the end, the reader/viewer won’t miss the missing scenes. They don’t know what existed before. What they’ll see is a finished product, and it will either work or it won’t.
So, there’s really nothing to see here. Best just to move along…
La, la, la, la, la, I can't hear you . . .
Sigh . . . I know you're right, but I can pretend for a few more chapters, right?
Sarah, LOL! I sometimes go through four or five passes with the words COULD CUT scrawled across the same pages. I always do cut them, sometimes it just takes longer to be READY to cut.
But since I'm in the endless polish stage right now, I also find the opposite is true – once in a while I cut something and realize that it actually WAS there for a reason and have to rush to put it back. That's when I know I'm getting near the real end, actually.
"But, more often than not, it's a brush-stroke meant for a painting that doesn't exist."
Love that phrase.
In HARD KNOCKS, one of the characters was there for symbolic reasons, and I fully intended them to be the guilty party, but in the end I had to face up to the face that they simply hadn't done it, and I couldn't frame them no matter how hard I tried.
I had Charlie beat the crap out of them, though …:)
You hang on and hang on to the darlings, but then when you finally let them go, it feels SO good. The more I've hung on, the better it feels. And then, the miracle is that I don't actually miss the darlings. At all. There's a life lesson in there somewhere.
Sarah – it's best to get this information when you're just about done with the project. Hearing it up-front makes it almost impossible to continue. I can't stand writing a scene and thinking, "I wonder if this is the scene I'll have to cut someday." That keeps me from moving forward at all. Kinda like where I'm at with my current WIP…
Alex – I admire the confidence your process reveals. You've got guts – you push forward, relentlessly.
Zoe – thanks for the kind words. I sometimes find that little gems appear when I'm not thinking too hard or trying too hard to find them – and that they often come out in my blogs, when I'm up against a quick deadline and I don't have time to edit myself. That's one of the reasons I like writing the blog – it pushes me to invent, and produce.
Lisa – I wish I could say I've had the same experience. To me, letting go of those babies is hard, it's a loss, and I just try to pretend it never happened. Not the healthiest way to do one's life's work.
See, I seem to have the opposite problem. I have no compunction when it comes to cutting my own work. If I had my druthers, I'd do a page one rewrite every single time. I can't see the forest for the trees so I just take out a flamethrower and torch the whole thing.
I may need to work on this impulse.
This is part of my introduction for THE ART OF CHARACTER, which Penguin is publishing next year:
There is perhaps no more crucial discipline in writing than acquiring the intuitive sense of what’s necessary and what’s not. It remains a sad but essential truth that there are, indeed, darlings who must die. Some deserve it more than others, but in all cases it’s best to go about the business ruthlessly, and let your grief be short-lived.
I'd add that your comment about the collaborative process improving the work reminds me of something a friend said to me long ago: You don't know yourself by yourself. As true of our writing as it is of who we are. We need wise readers, thoughtful editors, friends with chops. People who get what you're after and won't settle for less than your best. I hate them. I need them. I'm grateful for them.
Steve, your blog should be mandatory reading in all screenwriting classes.
Josh – thanks for sneaking in this morning. There's always a point in a project where I lose all objectivity. I can't tell if my writing is brilliant or pure shit. Maybe that's the nature of bipolar disorder, which I may or may not have, I'm too afraid to find out. Maybe it's just the nature of being a writer. But, of course, I'll never admit this to the producers or my editor…
David – words to live by, my man. We so need to hear other perspectives of our work. So much is subjective, anyway. I make sure at least a few good writers read my work before it goes out to the editor, despite how anxious it makes me feel. The anxiety comes from the anticipation, really. Or maybe from the knowledge that I'll have to take yet another crack at the manuscript after I've heard their responses. By the time I hand my work over for feedback I'm at the point where I want it to be over, and I've convinced myself that nothing more can be done to improve it. But that's never the case. I depend on the feedback I receive from others. From people who understand what I'm trying to do, as you mentioned. My big obstacle is when I start out fresh on a project and I know that much of what I'm writing will be cut. That drives me nuts. It's too much for me to process. And it keeps me from starting. I prefer to be two drafts into a project.
Ian – thanks, bud, I appreciate that.
Have you read REWRITES by Neil Simon? I love that book and the descriptions of the work that happens once his plays begin to be read aloud . . . the negotiation and learning from so many people to make the works better.
Reading your post today reminds me of that process. I have such admiration for you and what you do.
Pari – great tip on that Neil Simon book – that's right up my alley.
And thanks for the kind words. Really, I'd love if all my work was perfect from the get-go, but, sadly, it doesn't work that way. We all need the input of others – it behooves us to remain malleable.