Theme & Scene: The Magic of Nuts & Bolts Week Ten “(Rewriting is) a whole other art form; it's about craftsmanship.” -- Sam Shepard We are heading towards the finish line of nuts and bolts. In everyone’s work I have seen the nuts and bolts turn a score of scenes into magic! If you leave this class with a strong sense of scene structure coupled with advanced scene skills, then you have accomplished what many writers take a year or two to accomplish. If you can write a strong scene, you can write a full-length. Conversely, if your scene skills are weak, you can spend years spinning your wheels on full-lengths that never see the light of day. Congratulate yourselves on the amazing amount of work that has been generated in this class!
Lecture Ten: The Rewrite Writing is rewriting. Expect to do multiple drafts of your work—e.g., play, screenplay or television pilot. Expect difficulties. As my colleague, Bill Taub, would say, “Cherish your difficulties.” Sometimes workarounds or a bit of wallowing in the swamp yields the most profound and original writing. Try not to “fix” your script in a panic. If you get script notes, don’t immediately react to them by changing what you’ve done (often to suit someone else’s agenda). Take a few days and let the notes seep in. See if they still make sense after a wait-period. Do you need feedback from more than one source? More often than not, your original vision and your original instincts are probably on target. If you launch into a rewrite, do it in a deliberate and structured way. The industry talks about taking a “pass” at the material. A pass is simply a rewrite. Usually, each time you take a pass at the material, you focus on particular problem in the material, shaping and improving the story one step at a time. Above all, be clear as to what you hope to accomplish when you rewrite before you put fingers on keyboard. I. II. III. IV. V.
Tone Pass Structure Pass Character Pass Dialogue Pass The Polish
“…don't rewrite unless you know what you're trying to do.” -- Craig Lucas Below is only one way to rewrite material in stages—i.e., a series of passes. As you grow more experienced, you will discover your own method of honing multiple drafts.
I. Tone Pass Did you take your script in the right direction? Is the tone working or not? Size High budget (big) vs. Indie budget (small-med)—what category does your film fall into? Does your narrative reflect the scope of the story? If it’s a low budget, then you may have to adjust the number of locations and characters. If it’s a studio tentpole, is the vision and story big enough? If it’s a play, you need to consider that most theatres in the U.S. are operating on spare budgets. Can you limit your cast size? Double characters? Plays with casts of more than six have a much harder time getting produced. One person shows and two character plays abound. Genre After determining genre, does your material live up to the expectations of the genre? Are you writing a hybrid genre or mixed genre? Does your script break the rules of the genre and succeed? Or does it fail? As well, glean over scene endings and make sure they follow suit with your chosen genre. Genre Comedy Drama (character-driven) Thriller Action
Scene Endings Strong verbal / physical punch lines Spoken / silent question Verbal / Physical cues to the unfolding action Physical cliffhangers
Show, Don’t Tell Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize. Comb your script for instances where you are illustrating rather than dramatizing the story. Are the circumstances well set up? Are the characters active? For dramatic tales, make sure your characters have enough space to breath—private moments, reaction shots, etc. In comedy, tighten the action so that characters are forced to think, act and improvise on their feet. Review Composition Pace, tempo, variation. The three critical variables in scene composition. Are your scenes varied in length? Too many long scenes slow down the pace. Too many short scenes and the characters and actions may not be fleshed out enough. How much is going on per scene? Too many scenes with too much activity will overwhelm the audience. Too many scenes with nothing going on and the audience will walk out. Review Transitions Look over the transitions that you use between scenes. Are they smooth or jagged? Do they offer pointcounterpoint or point-to-point glue between the beats? Remember Karl Iglesias’ piece on transitions. Are you maximizing the use of transitions to keep the reader (and the audience) in a state of suspense, wanting to know: What happens next?
II. Structure Pass The structure pass is probably the most crucial pass. Scripts problems are usually rooted in faulty structure. More often than not, the problem lies in the set-up. We had numerous discussions in class about THE DEPARTED. After watching that movie, why did everyone leave the theatre feeling empty or disgruntled? Tracking You may need to track the progression of your script on three levels:
The Quest or the external plot track.
The Character Spine or the internal track.
Subplots threading through the story.
Check for missing beats (jumping conflict) or repeat beats (static conflict) in each progression. If you’re writing a three-act film, check to see if the external and internal story tracks are lining up. Set-ups / Pay-offs Match the set-up scenes at the beginning of the script with the pay-off scenes at the end. If there are set-up scenes without a pay-off, either cut the scenes entirely or stitch in the pay-offs. Activate the “Cute Meet” If you’re writing a romantic comedy or any scene in which strangers meet for the first time, activate the meet with an interesting activity. Try and avoid verbal introductions. Play with Composition Rearrange major scenes or sequences (if you writing sequences) to explore the story:
Put the end at the beginning Cut the opening (or opening sequence) Start the story just before your first major reversal
If you’re using index cards, you may want to rearrange entire sequences to open up the story. Rewrite Revelations Often scenes turn on revelations. How does the main character discover the information? Is it active? Or does the character simply remember? Rewrite revelation scenes so that memories are triggered by an activity or a confrontation with another character. Extreme Complications For the major complications in the story, ask yourself: What is the best or worst thing that could happen instead? Test your complications by replacing them with best/worst case scenarios. Example: KRAMER VS. KRAMER Set-up: Kramer’s wife leaves him. Intention: Kramer wants to take care of his son. Action: Kramer prepares him breakfast. Complication: Kramer makes a mess of breakfast. (Famous French toast scene) Worst case complication: Kramer fatally injures his son by turning up the gas too high on the stove. Best case complication: Kramer prepares the best breakfast the kid’s ever had so that the kid forgets he ever had a mother. Alter Resolution Explore the story ending by trying out scenes in which:
Ensemble scene in which every character is present There is no physical contact There is no dialogue
Reverse Tracking In order to discover new scenes in your script or replace scenes that don’t meet the mark, you can reverse engineer the story. Start with the resolution and figure out what path led to the ending. Begin with the final reveal:
What does the character discover that is most painful, shocking or delightful?
What circumstances or clue led the Protagonist to that discovery? What was said? What was done? What was overheard? What was witnessed?
What event precipitated the final reveal—that is, the lead-in scene?
Ask yourself the hard questions re the major scenes as you tread backwards:
What was the dramatic situation in the scene that led to that particular event? Can the stakes be boosted? Is the scene urgent enough? Do you need to heighten the PQ?
What objective did the Protagonist have or strategy did he/she employ that caused him/her to behave (make choices) in such a way as to provoke yet more complications?
Is the antagonist wily enough? Strong enough? Powerful enough?
III. Character Pass Often we do passes of material to deepen one character (a character pass) or modify character. Exposition Try writing scenes in which you put your main characters in hot water—losing a job or loved one, trying to rescue a traffic accident victim, negotiating a brutal fight--but the scenes have nothing to do with the story. Imagine your characters at a younger or older age. Who were they? Who might they become? Intention / Action Comb through scenes and clarify the intentions and choices that the main character makes in key scenes. Can the agenda or strategy be changed to achieve more interesting behaviour or results? Look for situations that can be adjusted to provoke choices that have never been seen on screen before—i.e., behaviour that is fresh, original, surprising. Character Switching If a scene feels flat or unmotivated, try switching the characters. Reverse the dynamic. Trade lines. You can also try switching genders or the characters’ activities in the scene. Character Rules Established early in the story, character rules provide parameters re what the character will or will not do, powers, skills, talents, etc. Try breaking the rules. Insert a new rule. Get rid of an old rule.
Subtext Do physical activities and behaviour convey the subtext in a scene? Can these aspects of the scene be sharpened or modified to either align with subtext or provide an ironic counterpoint?
IV. Dialogue Pass Possibly the least important rewrite and the one that most writers dwell on is the dialogue pass. Too many times a rewrite consists of tinkering with dialogue when there are faulty cracks in the structure. A good recommendation is to leave the dialogue alone until the story structure is sound and then turn to language. Motivate Lines Comb your script for dead language—that is, language that doesn’t have an agenda. Sharpen verbal exchanges by asking yourself how your characters are maneuvering to get what they want in the scene. Cut introductions, greetings, small talk. Shift Point of Attack Remember: think “cool people at a party.” Arrive late, leave early. Shift your point of attack to later in the scene. Trim the beginnings and tails of scenes. Pare-Down Focus on the “truthful moment” in each line. If there is a chunk of dialogue crowding the key phrase that reveals intention, pare it down. Sometimes an entire speech can be replaced with a simple action. Switch between “Cryptic” and “Spot On” There are times when intention is best buried in subtext and other times when subtext rears its head. Cryptic to Spot-on: Instead of saying: Well jesus, I see that you’re packed and the movers are here. Linen closet is empty. Bank account’s been cleaned out. Say: You’re leaving me? Spot-on to Cryptic: Instead of saying: I’m free of this pathetic husband because you’re going to kill him. Say: Oh, wow, I love this song! Then have the character jump out of the car and dance in the car’s headlights, leaving her teenage hit-man more enthralled than ever. (Ex. Nicole Kidman in TO DIE FOR.) Challenge Character Rules What if a brute shows an act of tenderness? A clumsy person does a perfect tango? What if a mute breaks silence? An outburst can be a plot point. (Ex. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. The son, who has vowed silence, erupts when he realizes he can’t be a pilot due to color blindness.) Phone Calls Possibly the only writer who can get away with launching a play with a phone call is David Mamet in Oleanna. If you can figure out a way for two people to be talking in person, avoid phone calls, answering machines, text messages, etc. As well, ask yourself is the scene necessary? Often you can have people meet after the phone call/set-up and weave in the exposition into a later exchange. Punch Scene Endings End your scenes with spicy verbal cues or punchlines (sometimes known as buttons). A fellow diner comments on Sally’s (WHEN HARRY MET SALLY) famous dinner orgasm: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
VI. The Polish As you head towards the finish line with your material, do a final polish. Formatting/Proofreading Don’t rely on spell-check programs. Often the punctuation is wrong, but slides by these types of error checkers. If possible, give your draft to a friend for a thorough proofing. Nothing is more disconcerting to script readers than grammatical errors, typos and poor formatting. It signals an amateur. Story Logic Are the progressions flowing smoothly? Does the story make sense? Are there any holes that need to be addressed? Are there any inconsistencies in logic that need to be ironed out? Continuity Pour over the slug lines in your story. Do times, dates and places line up? Are you “time traveling” or “globe trotting?” Are characters popping up in places where they can’t possibly be present? Consistent Rules Once you’ve established the rules for your world or your characters, check to see if there are any scenes where the rules are arbitrarily broken. Ex. Does an honest character suddenly shoplift? Truthfulness Grab a glass of wine or a pint of ice cream and read through your script in its entirety. Does the material move you, delight you? Does its truth resonate on the page? Is it a page-turner? Have you realized your vision? Check major plot points for impact. Professional Opinion Once you feel that you’ve done the best work possible, give your script to 2-3 professionals (another writer, director, agent, script analyst/reader) in the industry. I would also suggest handing the script to a layperson (a friend who isn’t in the industry). Note the feedback where comments appear consistent and well thought out. If there are repeated concerns with parts of the script, you may need to do yet another rewrite. Note: Avoid producers until you’re sure you’ve got a final product. Don’t waste opportunities. Emerging writers make the mistake of showing work too early. Once that material is read, it’s rare that a producer will return to it. That’s months, if not years, of work that goes down the drain. Reward Yourself Take time out for yourself! Do something that has nothing to do with writing or the material at hand. Reward yourself for a laborious process and refuel the gas tank in your head and heart.
Week Ten Assignments ASSIGNMENT A:
Point-Counterpoint Scene Write a scene whereby two scenes occur simultaneously on stage. The juxtaposed scenes should offer counter viewpoints. As well, lines in each scene should cue off of each other to provide resonance.
5-7 page â€“ DS, PQ, need 2-3 characters in each scene (max: 6 people on stage/screen) Stage or screen format
ASSIGNMENT B: Continue working on outlines and drafts of your one-act or longer piece!
NOTE: Since we are not all using the same hardware or software, please make sure to post your submissions in Rich Text File or PDF.
Good luck! Dakota