Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay

Rewrite cover

Once an aspiring writer commits pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – there comes a point when s/he starts to believe that every word, every phrase, every idea that results from such effort is the stuff of perfection and, thus, exempt from editorial criticism. Was there ever a more dreaded word in the English vocabulary than “rewrite”? It can be anything from a simple request for clarification, a suggestion about rearranging chapters for a more cohesive flow, or maybe even changing the heroine’s name from Ethel to Juliet, but to the ears of the author who has tirelessly brought the project to life, it all sounds the same: “Are you an idiot or what? This is terrible. You didn’t get it right the first time. Do it again.”

It’s not that the editor hates you or hates your story, nor is the editor telling you anything with the dark intention of making your project worse. The goal, first and foremost, is to make it the best it can be and, accordingly, make you an even better writer than you might ever have thought possible. Paul Chitlik, author of Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay (Michael Wiese Productions) shares his insights on what you can learn from going back to the drawing board.

 Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Q: “The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E.B. White. For a lot of aspiring authors, however, any suggestion that their original prose might even remotely contain flaws or inconsistencies causes them to instantly put up defenses and arguments to the contrary. Why, in your opinion, are they so averse to taking their material back to the drawing board?

A:  First, writing is hard.  Writers naturally only want to write as little as they can get away with.  While this works in journalism, and sometimes even fiction, it doesn’t work at all in film or television (and I’ve worked in all of them). 

Sometimes, too, they want to do it “their way.”  They feel restricted by the format, which many call the formula.  While some good films are made outside of the format (very few Hollywood films, to be sure), most fail that don’t follow the traditional format, which developed for 2500 years in playwriting and then 100 years in screenwriting.  We know what works.  Why try to re-invent the wheel.

Speaking of wheels, think of writing within the format as manufacturing an automobile.  You wouldn’t have square tires just because you liked squares or you wanted to be different.  You need round tires, an engine, a transmission, a steering wheel, and brakes.  But even though you are restricted to four wheels (and sometimes, three, but rarely, though one of my favorite roadsters is the three wheel Morgan), you have a wide range of designs in which to show your originality.  A Jetta is very different from a Ferrari, yet they are both automobiles.  And if you want to be original, you certainly can:  You can make a DeLorean or a Honda Fit or a Nissan Cube with a wrap around back window.  But if you decide that you feel restricted by four wheels and want to add a fifth, well, you might find that the old format worked better.  But working off of four, you might go to six and find some success.  Try the four first, though, and have good reason to add the other two, if that’s what you want.

Creating art is a very personal thing, and new writers are not used to the collaborative process that is film and television making.  Unless you’re going to write it, cast it, act in it, shoot it, cut it, and distribute it yourself, you’re going to have to collaborate.  Get used to it.

Q: Which is the more efficient practice (and why): (1) to rewrite after you’re completely done or (2) to rewrite as you’re composing?

A:  I rewrite the previous day’s original pages before I start a new scene.  But I don’t usually go back farther than that unless I need to set up something that I’m paying off in a scene that comes to me outside of the beat sheet.  But it’s best to plough through the first draft to keep your focus and then let it rest for a few days or even weeks before tackling the rewrite with a fresh perspective. 

Q: Okay, let’s be honest, how many rewrites did you do for Rewrite?

A:  Not including the in-process second edition, I did about five rewrites before I submitted it to the publisher and another two after.  Then we both decided it was done.

Q: How did this particular book come about and who do you see as its target demographic?

A:  One of my students in a UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting class in rewriting sent me the outline he had done of the course and suggested I write a book on rewriting.  I thought that was a very good idea since there were no how-to rewrite books.

Its target is new writers who don’t have a support system like a professional writer does.  A professional can go to his manager or agent, his development executive, his director, even his writer friends for feedback.  Someone in Sioux Falls can’t.  Also, some professionals feel they need to do a few drafts on their own before going back to the studio, but don’t want to share their work for whatever reason.  So they refer to my book.  More than one has told me s/he has done this.

Q: Tell us about your academic and professional background that prepared you for the challenges inherent in penning a book.

A:  Academically, I studied comparative literature in college, meaning I read mostly novels and plays in Spanish, English, and Italian.  Hundreds (literally) of them.  I moved to Europe after grad school and worked as a translator and journalist.  Back in the US after five years, I worked as an English as a Second Language instructor and then a college administrator.  One day I said to myself, “This is not the plan.” 

I soon got back into writing, starting with a job as an executive story editor on a syndicated show where I supervised upwards of 140 scripts.  They were mostly crap (even my own), and I supervised the rewriting of every one of them.  Since then, I have written hundreds of television scripts and been commissioned to write over a dozen films (five of which have been made, some under a pseudonym for various reasons).  In classes at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University as well as private workshops over the last twelve years, I have supervised the writing and rewriting of something over 1800 scripts!  I know what works and what doesn’t.  I know the process.  The challenge was boiling down everything into less than 200 pages. 

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

A:  When I started the book or started my career?  If it’s the career, I would have started fresh out of school instead of wasted so many years doing other things. 

If it’s about the book, well, I wish I would have known (but no one did), what the true profit margins are in e-books.  I know now and my publisher and I have come to a new agreement.

Q: Do you ever go back and read some of the things you wrote earlier in your career? If so, in what ways has your style or focus evolved with age?

A:  I sometimes go back and read old stuff when I’m looking for something specific that has nothing to do with writing and I find my old work.  Some stuff is really bad – no form, no story, just clever wording.  Some is just raw emotion.  My focus is more on story than on self now.  I tend to write about people struggling with an issue instead of me struggling with an issue.

Q: If you hadn’t heard the siren call of television in the 1980’s, might you have gravitated to a career as a playwright? (Hey, directing your first play when you were only 11 seems like an auspiciously theatrical start.)

A:  I did write a couple of plays when I decided to go back into writing in the 1980s.  They’re not too bad.  What I should have done then, and what I’m doing with a project now, is to shoot the play as a play and get it circulated.  It would have shortened the time I spent out in the cold.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the importance of structure in a screenplay. So many writers simply jump in and start tossing elements about without any preconceived game plan about how to make them coexist and move the story forward. Why is structure a critical factor and what are some examples of movies where structure was clearly nonexistent?

A:  Structure doesn’t restrict, it frees you to explore.  It’s a road map.  Nobody says you have to follow it, but it will be hard to get to your destination without it.  Still, you can go down dirt roads if you want to, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably not going to get there, wherever there is.  With a structure, you always have the option to take a diversion.  Without structure, all you have is wandering.

Look at Tree of Life or Cloud Atlas or Melancholia.  But only if you have to, because I’m still trying to get back those lost hours.  They make little or no sense.  Yes, they’re beautiful films, from an aesthetic point of view, but there’s a reason millions didn’t flock to see them, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen all three, but you have my sympathy if you have.

Q: Is too much focus put on crafting the hero and, thus, neglecting the attributes and motivations of the antagonist that opposes him?

A:  A good film has a balance.  The antagonist must be 110% as smart, as strong, as handsome as the protagonist.  The more interesting he or she is, the more challenging, and, yes, the more human, the more we care about the challenges s/he presents to the protagonist.  The better the antagonist, the better the film.  The protagonist must have barriers that are real.  If they’re not, if they’re not difficult, then we lose interest.

Q: What role do you believe the central emotional relationship plays?

A:  The central emotional relationship (the love object, the person with whom the protagonist must either create or mend a relationship) serves to humanize the protagonist, to give the audience someone else to cheer for, and to give the audience an emotional reason to root for the protagonist.  In a romance or romantic comedy, even in a buddy film, this is the only reason to see the film in the first place. 

Q: Screenwriting is both an art and a science in which storytellers strive to deliver a compelling visual while, at the same time, adhering to the rules and protocols of formatting, time constraints and available resources (including budgets). If you want to break the rules – or make brand new ones that others will want to follow – how do you go about accomplishing that?

A:  First you must know and be able to employ the current rules.  Then you can break them for effect, especially in formatting and editing.  But even if you do something different, such as the found footage film I did for UPN in the 90s, Alien Abduction, which was the precursor for Blair Witch and Paranormal and its imitators, you still need to tell a story.  That is, there’s a person, he has a goal (wants something), but there’s a rock between him and the goal so he has to go over, under, around, or through the rock to get to the goal.  That’s the only rule you can’t break.  All the rest are up for grabs, so long as you tell a good story.  Even the order in which you tell it doesn’t matter (See Memento, which has one story going backwards and another going forwards – both following, in their way, traditional structure.).

Q: What are some movies that were either successful or mind-numbing failures insofar as coloring outside the lines?

A:  See above examples of films I wish I hadn’t seen.  Films outside of the usual are Moonlight Kingdom, Amour (though I would argue it does follow traditional structure in some ways), Groundhog Day (though, again, I would argue it’s right on course).  Can’t remember any more off the top of my head, but will probably think of one just after the interview comes out.

Q: Legend has it that – amongst the plethora of diverse jobs you’ve held – you once joined a circus sans skills but just because you wanted to write about it. What did learning how to put up and take down the tent for a three-ring circus teach you about yourself, about life, and about Hollywood?

A:  Whoa!  Big question.  First, it taught me to be bold.  They had to hire the people that the Employment Development Department had sent over, so I wasn’t picked.  But I told the foreman, on the sly, that I’d work for free.  It told me to be bolder when I could.  It had rained the day before and we were literally up to our ankles in mud.  Many quit.  I did not.  I persisted.  When the foreman asked if I would stay on, I said, “Yes, if you pay me.”  He agreed to pay from that moment on.  “No, from the first minute this morning.”  He agreed, and I ended up setting up and striking the tent several times in the course of the next few weeks.  The next summer, when I showed up, this time with leather gloves because I knew how to prepare myself, he took me on.  That time I just did it for fun. 

I learned I could do just about anything I wanted, and if I did it well, people would pay me for it.  I learned that it’s better to do something hard that’s fun than something easy that isn’t.  After all, I worked alongside elephants that helped put up the tent.  I gained some self confidence.  Once I had to climb to the top of the tent from the outside to repair a seam problem.  If I could do that, I certainly could work with a studio executive or a cranky actress.  

Q: What personal or professional accomplishment are you the most proud of and why?

A:  Still most proud of some of the episodes I worked on for The New Twilight Zone.  We had the freedom to do what we wanted with very little interference.  As a result, my writing partner and I were nominated for a WGA Award.  I would dream of something at night, come in the next morning, and we would write it.  What’s better than that?

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A:  I’ve written a three-part, goes-against-traditional-structure, script that I plan to shoot using a four camera set-up on a sound stage, much like a television play from the Golden Age.  Something shot like Marty or Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Script’s done.  Date’s set.  I’m now raising the money and getting the crew and cast together.  I’ll direct this time, so I’ll have no one to blame if it goes wrong.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A:  I’d like them to know how tough it is, that screenwriting is not for the faint of heart nor the thin-skinned.  Not only do you need to be talented, you need to be persistent and patient.  And it helps if you’re independently wealthy and not worried about money.  But if you have talent, practice, drive, and confidence you may be able to make a living at it.  And maybe change the world a little bit.   

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