My first script has been stagnating in the Hollywood ether for the past 18 months as director after director has turned it down. In the meantime, I’ve had success with several other scripts, and have now decided (along with my producer, who’s one of the top in the business), to try to re-tool the original, using everything I’ve learned in the past year — which is a lot.
Looking back, I now know why this script isn’t great — and, I also know that I can make it great. That said, when approaching a rewrite of your own work after some time away from it, would you just start with a blank page, and then do some merging of the versions if necessary; or, would you work with the original draft, cutting, adding scenes, adjusting dialogue, etc.? I’m tempted to start fresh, but I know the original script has some great stuff in it, and using it as a roadmap might be helpful. I just don’t want to limit my vision.
I’m reminded of Guillermo Arriaga who says that when he’s done writing a script he throws it out and then rewrites it, assuming that whatever was worthy in the first draft will certainly make its way into the second.
The danger of writing a new draft on top of an existing draft is that you won’t change enough. You’ll scroll through, tweaking things and moving a few commas. You’ll be more of a reader than a writer.
Don’t let yourself off easy.
For minor work, I recommend starting on paper. Print out the script, then go through with a colored pen. Scratch out the scenes you’re cutting, scribble notes on what goes where. When you go back to your computer, Save As… with a new file name. Before you start rewriting, make your cuts and changes from your paper draft. You’ll end up with a bunch of little holes to fill, but that’s some of the easiest, most enjoyable work.
For a major overhaul, you’re better off starting from a blank page. If you’re a carder, make cards. If you’re an outliner, write one. Try to ignore everything you’ve written — focus on what you’d like to have at the end.
Once you know what you’re trying to do, start writing the new script.
Write the new scenes and sequences first. When you get to a section where you plan keeping a version of what you wrote before, open the old file and copy out just that stuff. You may find that you like the new way you’re writing the script so much that you don’t even want to use what you had before. That’s okay.
I’m not fully on board with Guillermo Arriaga’s throw-it-all-out philosophy.1 My first drafts are pretty great, and I never want to lose that initial instinct. Some scenes turn on a certain line of dialogue that only occurs to you once. Letting that slip away seems foolish.
A final piece of advice: Rewriting that first script rarely pans out. It’s probably great. It’s gotten you a lot of work. But it may never get made. In talking with screenwriter friends, very few of them had their first scripts produced, and they’re all working steadily today. Always remember that screenwriting is a career of writing many scripts, not just the one.
- If that’s really his practice; I’m taking your word on it. ↩