It’s a glorious day! You’ve just finished your very first draft of your very first script… Years ago, it was just a dream. And now, here you are—holding it in your hands. Nothing can take away from the excitement, pride, and earned happiness of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. The completion of one’s first screenplay draft IS a glorious moment—but guess what?
You ain’t done yet.
There is no such thing as a great screenplay that hasn’t been rewritten over and over again. You may THINK your first draft is the final stop on the road, but actually it’s just the beginning. The Paul Abbot quote that “writing is rewriting” is not just the truth—it’s the law. And if you think you’ve nailed it in one draft—you’re wrong.
Most screenwriters will complete 15-20 drafts of a script before it’s really done—and for larger movies, numerous OTHER writers will also have a go at rewriting the same script. With each draft, the characters, plot, dialogue subtleties and scene structure will improve—sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in huge. These rewrites are an essential part of the process—and one that writers need to try to relish rather than to loathe.
At present, I’m on my eighth rewrite of a period thriller set in the 1980s, and trust me—I REALLY hope I don’t need to rewrite it again. Every time I rewrite this thing, I HOPE and PRAY that I’ve got it right. Sometimes rewriting can feel like torture. But I gotta say—with every draft I’ve finished, the script has improved. And these improvements have given me the strength to turn around and do other rewrites in the future.
Once you’ve set your career on its feet, rewrites will become a normal part of life. When you get notes back from a producer, it’s time for a rewrite. When an actor wants their role to seem bolder or smarter, it’s time for a rewrite. And when the budget runs dry halfway through filming, and the producers can’t afford your helicopter chase scene—you got it—it’s time for a rewrite.
A working writer must rarely embark upon a rewrite all on his or her own. You will get notes, and there will be discussions in which you are able to hash through problems and find clever solutions. If you don’t see eye-to-eye with other people on a project, the process can become frustrating, but it’s also nice to know that you have a team of people who share the responsibility of making the script as good as it can be. Ultimately, it will be you—the writer—who must make other people’s notes work, or abandon them in place of better solutions, but if the process is working, a smart writer will utilize the help and input of producers, directors, and actors rather than fight it off.
New writers, on the other hand, often spend months or years on the first draft of their script in an effort to get it ABSOLUTELY PERFECT on the very first go. This is a process that may work for some, but serves as an impediment for most. Honestly—the best thing I ever did was to learn to ACCEPT the rewrite process. It allowed me to stop worrying about getting everything right on the first pass of a script, and to MOVE QUICKLY toward a completed first draft. After that—I had something. A finished script that I could read over, edit, delete, rearrange—whatever. A finished (albeit imperfect) first draft gives a writer the freedom to explore his script without worrying about a page count. And from this exploration will come changes, adjustments, and additions—all of which will add up to a better film.
So—embrace it! You WILL be rewriting, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There will time to make your script perfect—but it does not need to happen RIGHT NOW.
By giving yourself the freedom to screw up, and you’ll ultimately end up with a better project.