Prewriting and rewriting are my two favorite parts of the writing process. Prewriting sets you up for success so that when you spill everything out on the page in your first draft, it gives you something solid to work with. But rewriting is where you get to take that material and make it truly reflect the best of what you have to give to the world.
Even if you strive to create a first draft that’s as close to the final form as possible—which is my own personal writing objective—there is always a revision process. We’re often too close to our own work to see it clearly, so getting notes can help you to see where you could improve.
Working with a writing coach or trading pages with other writers in your writing group can be excellent ways of getting feedback—and of course, you can check out Stage 32’s coverage services. If money is tight or if you’re not currently part of a writing group, then you’ll want to take some steps so that you can review your own work with fresh eyes. I recommend setting it aside for as long as you can afford it. When you come back to it, consider printing it out rather than reviewing it on screen. Sometimes we literally need to change the way we see our material in order to catch what’s not working.
Once you’ve gotten your feedback or have given yourself a critical read, it’s time to sort the priorities so that you can keep what works and fix what doesn’t. A layered rewriting approach starts from the core of the story and works outward: character, adventure, genre/world, craft.
We know that character choice and conflict drive the plot, so if the characters aren’t properly developed, there is a very high likelihood that the plot doesn’t work on some level either. That’s why, in a layered rewrite approach, you should prioritize notes concerning your main character, sidekick or “ally” characters, and your antagonist.
The first step in a character rewrite is to look at your first ten pages and ask yourself this question: have you set up your character’s ordinary world, needs, and desires in a way that is compelling? If you haven’t laid this groundwork properly, the character’s arc won’t be fully developed.
Spend some time studying the first ten pages/first ten minutes of your favorite movies. Observe how they establish the main character right from the start. As an example, the first ten pages of Joker break down into four scenes which create a crystal-clear picture of Arthur Fleck’s struggles, his desires, and his position within his ordinary world. Without this initial setup, we as the audience would not have what we need to go with this character on the rest of the journey.
In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri talks about understanding your character on the levels of physiology (characteristics), sociology (relation to others), and psychology (the inner workings of the character, informed by physiology and sociology). All three of these levels are present in Joker -- we can see how his neurological condition (physiology) and his environment (sociology) directly impact his psychology.
Syd Field takes a complementary approach to the construction of character. In Screenplay, he says there are four qualities that need to be present in your characters: a strong dramatic need, an individual point of view, an attitude, and transformation. If you audit your script, can you perceive these dimensions in your own characters? If not, go back to your character outlines and see if you need to do a bit more work there.
Once you’ve clarified your main character’s needs and desires, take a look at the antagonist. Does this character have his or her own set of motivations, needs, and desires? Do you as the writer know enough about where this character is coming from in order to make their opposition to the protagonist clear and compelling to the audience? There’s a saying that a story is only as good as its villain—which, in my mind, is another way of saying that the story is only as good as the forces of conflict that power it. Make sure your antagonist is designed to put maximum pressure on the protagonist.
Finally, check on your ally character(s). Do they support the protagonist in ways that challenge him or her to change? They’re not just passengers on this journey, remember. Sam Gamgee isn’t just tagging along with Frodo for fun. He’s there to help Frodo bear the burden of the Ring, and there comes a point in that journey where Frodo refuses to listen to Sam and their companionship is put into jeopardy.
The rupture in the relationship with the ally at the end of Act II is an essential part of your main character’s collapse in the All is Lost moment of the story. Not only is the antagonist stronger than she thought, but now she’s facing him alone. In order for the protagonist to succeed, this relationship with the ally will have to be restored in some way, and this will require the transformative change in the protagonist that we’ve been waiting for.
Now that you’ve done the hard work in making sure your characters are set up and interact in the most compelling ways possible, your work on the adventure layer of the script is that much easier. Check the feedback you received for notes pertaining to pacing, scenes that don’t seem to be working, and issues with reveals of information. This is what we’ll tackle next.
If you got a note that suggests the pacing is off, the first aspect of the adventure layer you’ll examine is where your major plot points occur. No matter which story structuralist you like best—Blake Snyder, Syd Field, the Hero’ Journey, John Truby, the Mini-Movie method—they all hit the same major plot points in the same key sections of the story. For a standard-length feature script, does your call to adventure happen right around page 10-12? Is the Break into Act II at roughly page 25? Is your Midpoint happening around page 50 or so? And is your Break into III (the "All is Lost" moment) hitting right around page 75? Do a similar check with adjusted page counts if you’re writing hour-long or half-hour TV scripts.
Why is this so important? Remember that you’re telling a story for an audience, and there’s a rhythm and a pacing to stories that work—a proportionality to the whole. If you’re not hitting these marks at roughly the right time, the story will either feel like it’s dragging or like it isn’t complete or fully developed.
This brings us to the second aspect of the adventure pass: the scenes themselves. Establishing those major story markers will help you to review whether the adventure is working on the scene level. If your acts are running long, your scenes are likely too long or you may have too many of them. In this case, do a scene audit using these questions:
Be ruthless here and really make sure everything that’s in your script needs to be there.
If your sections seem to be shorter than they should be, the danger is that you’re not giving the audience enough information to understand the characters and the plot. In this case, you’ll have to step back and figure out what information you need to reveal and when. (Hopefully, you did some of this mapping in your prewriting.) Then audit your scenes against this list and make sure everything’s in its proper place. If you need to write new scenes to bridge the gaps, use the four questions above to make sure they’re on target.
This information audit should also help you ensure that you’ve paced your reveals appropriately. This aspect of the adventure is also intimately connected to our third layer of story: genre.
You’ve done your best to make sure you’ve addressed your character notes and issues with pacing the plot. Now it’s time to make sure the story lives up to audience expectations.
When you choose a genre for your story, you also choose a set of conventions and scenes that the audience expects to be there: what Sean Coyne calls “the obligatory scenes”. If you’re writing a rom-com, for example, the audience expects a falling in love sequence, a kiss scene (or sex scene, depending on the audience), a break-up scene, and a happily-ever-after scene. These are the scenes that satisfy the audience, so you want to be sure your story has them. I highly recommend Sean Coyne’s The Story Grid (and the resources he has on the Story Grid website) for a detailed explanation of genres and obligatory scenes. And, of course, watch a lot of movies (and read a lot of scripts) in the genre you’ve chosen so that you know what the audience expects.
Genre and world are closely connected. This might be most obvious in sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction stories, perhaps, but it’s important to recognize just how fundamentally the world of the story impacts character, the choices they will need to make, and the potential obstacles they will face. You’ve chosen the setting of this story for a reason: this story couldn’t happen in this same way anywhere else. If you discover that your setting is having no measurable impact on your characters or what they’re facing, this is a sign that you’ll need to rework those scenes to better capture the world of the story.
You also want to make sure that you’ve clearly established the rules. The audience needs to understand what’s possible and what’s not within this framework that you’ve chosen. Again, perhaps this is most important in those types of stories where you’re creating the world and so creating the rules (like fantasy/sci-fi), but any kind of story that operates within a specialized arena has conventions. It’s your job to make sure that you’ve captured those properly.
You’ll also want to check that your scene descriptions do enough heavy lifting that you’ve created an immersive experience for the reader. Transport is, after all, one of the reasons why we love stories so much. And this is where we begin to bridge into the final rewrite layer: craft.
There is a strong temptation to try to start a rewrite with this layer of the story because it’s the most obvious, and it seems like the easiest to fix. The problem is that you may end up throwing out all those scenes you just tinkered with once you start addressing the script’s deeper issues. Ultimately, it’s a waste of time and effort to do this first.
The notes I give to writers on craft usually focus on three things: scene description, dialogue, and correctness. As you make a pass through the scene description, you’re looking for economy and precision. Is the scene description punchy or puffy? Are you writing in paragraphs rather than in snapshots? Is the language vivid or bland?
When it comes to dialogue, you’re checking to make sure that lines are to the point without being on the nose. You also want to ensure that your characters speak in distinct voices. Often this will get addressed to some degree in the Character Layer rewrite, so you’re just doing a final read-through in case there’s something you missed.
Finally, you want to make sure that it’s in finished form by spell checking and making a proofreading pass. Double-check that all your slug lines are consistent and that you’ve kept character names the same throughout. This is the step where you’re cleaning up the little things—the “rewrite residue” as I call it. Smooth it all out and make it look beautiful. And make sure the formatting is correct throughout.
This may be the last thing you do, but it’s the first thing a reader sees. Don’t give them a reason to reject your project because you’ve misspelled words and your grammar is sloppy. (Yes, that is the lit professor side of me coming out a bit.)
Let’s be honest. There is another way to do this. You start from page 1 and you rewrite each scene as you get to it. Toss those words and that line of dialogue. Tighten it up, or build it out. Move to the next one. Lather, rinse, repeat. But if you do it this way, what are the chances that you’ll be strategic in the choices you make?
In one sense, it’s more work to take a layered approach. It means you need to study your story and understand how it works and where it doesn’t. It means getting really clear on what you meant to do in the first place, so that what’s on the page fully reflects your vision.
It will save you time in the long run if you can take the notes and execute corrections effectively the first time around. And if that’s not enough, remember that you can get hired to rewrite someone else’s material based on a set of notes—so this is a skill well worth honing.
If you want a handy rewrite checklist that will help you keep track of your objectives, I have a free printable for you over at The Story Scene.
Shannon (S.K.) Valenzuela is a novelist, ghostwriter, and award-winning screenwriter. Her curiosity about pretty much everything means she loves writing research-based stories: grounded sci-fi and historical fiction are her particular playgrounds of choice at the moment, though she also loves a good science fantasy adventure.
When she’s not penning her own stories, she loves her work as a story coach and creative entrepreneur at The Story Scene. She specializes in helping new and emerging screenwriters and novelists, and she’s coached dozens of writers through their first drafts and rewrites.
She’s also the host of the Subject Matter Expert podcast, which is designed to inspire and inform sci-fi writers through interviews with scientists, thought leaders, and writers working in the genre.
In real life, she’s a university professor with a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, so you’ll also find her in the classroom exploring the poetry of Homer and Dante. She loves teaching stories almost as much as she loves writing them.
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