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Ask Yourself: Are You Really Rewriting?

By Anthony Faust · December 12, 2016

Writing is rewriting. Screenwriters have heard this phrase so many times it’s like a permanent Post-It note taped inside the walls of their eyelids, serving as a constant reminder to them as they type up their masterpiece. But what about what writing is not?

Does it not benefit us to know the things we should not be doing, as well as the ones we should? I’ll use the screenplay for my upcoming film, Small Packages (2017) as an example to crystallize a revelation I had during its development. First, a summary of the film.

Small Packages is a classic damsel in distress story with a unique twist. It’s about a man named Porter who receives a ransom note. His girlfriend, Olivia, has been kidnapped and money is being demanded for her safe return. It is up to Porter to save the day. At the end of the story, Porter shows up with a duffel bag to meet Blaine, the kidnapper, who has brought Olivia with him. Hiding inside Porter’s bag is Sweeney, a dwarf, armed with a hand gun. Porter distracts Blaine long enough for Sweeney to poke his head out from the bag and shoot Blaine dead.

After completing the screenplay last summer. I amended it many times. After a few months, I felt a problem that continued to persist. Something wasn’t right. I knew I needed to change something.

After thinking about what I had done hitherto, I realized that I wasn’t rewriting. I was editing. And in doing so, I wasn’t forcing myself to reimagine the story in a way that would make the problem, simmering underneath the surface of my story, bubble up and make itself conspicuous. So here’s what I became aware of.

Editing is not rewriting. Editing is…well, editing. Fixing typos, changing the word “yank” to “pull”, and so on, is NOT rewriting your screenplay. You’re taking what was already there, which may have been a momentary burst of creativity that you jotted down in your notebook in the middle of the night, and polishing it for readability purposes. The original idea, no matter how great it was, nevertheless mustn’t be preserved and kept untouched because you have some irrational fear of that idea losing its shine through multiple rewrites (not edits, rewrites!).

Your vision must be torn down, and rebuilt again, so as to understand it better. If it really is genius, don’t worry. That genius will find its way back like a trusty boomerang into your screenplay after you’ve rewritten it so many times that you don’t remember where you began. That is how you get to where you need to be.

When you rewrite your screenplay, you must force yourself to explore all options. Yes, this is so you can understand your screenplay, but it is also to understand what it is not. So I asked myself: What if Porter doesn’t have a human being smuggled inside the duffel bag he carries with him to confront Blaine?

How does he resolve that situation? What if the scene takes place in a library? Outside a police station? In a crowded antique store?

By forcing myself to reimagine the story in this manner, I figured out what was bothering me. Porter resolves the central dramatic situation of the story (he receives a ransom note saying his girlfriend is kidnapped) in a passive, not active way. Sweeney has shot Blaine while Porter, who played a role in distracting Blaine, nevertheless remains a bystander, not an active participant in the resolution of the conflict. The solution became clear. Write a short epilogue to the story to correct Porter’s passive behavior.

So this is what I wrote: After the end credits have finished rolling, Porter walks over to Sweeney and demands the gun. Blaine lies on the ground, writhing in pain. Porter walks over and shoots Blaine in the head. The last frame of the film (before a cut to black) is literally a gun shot that finishes off the monster who dared to interrupt Porter’s otherwise happy life with this criminal scheme. This addition to the story strengthens the character because it gives him the chance to extinguish his problem, instead of delegating that task to another character.

Writers must be honest about interpreting the world they live in when they build their stories. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth”. Buried underneath the fictional constructs of a screenplay are eternal truths about human nature. This is the joy of writing. We get to tell the truth. So it follows that writers must also be honest with themselves. When rewriting your story, ask yourself, “am I really rewriting?”