Rearranging the Deckchairs on the Titanic and other Bad Rewriting Habits

At the beginning of this week, I started the rewrite of one of my favourite “dead projects.” I’m reworking a film script that came within a cat’s whisker of production. I’m rebooting it as a sitcom. In the UK, where I currently live and work, the BBC has two annual “open-call’ script submissions called the Writer’s Room. One open call is for Drama. I missed the deadline for that this year. This one is for comedy. I have a history with these open calls. Two years ago, one of my scripts made it into the final twenty. It was shortlisted from over 3000 scripts entered. I was pretty pleased with that result.

Last time I did this, I had two days notice, so I approached the rewrite based on the time I had. Luck was on my side. My original script had a strong act-two ending. I made a decision to see the act break as an ideal end-of-episode cliffhanger. That cut got me down to seventy pages. In a coffee-fuelled writing frenzy, all I needed to do was lose ten pages. There was a lot of breathing room in it. By cutting a few redundant scenes and pairing back the dialogue I got it down to a tight fifty-nine pages. After a couple of quick passes to check spelling and formatting, I threw it in with all the other hopefuls. And, for whatever reason, it did pretty well. However, in my opinion, that was more by luck than by any good judgement I showed in the editing of my script. Good rewrites have absolutely no resemblance to my hurried cut-and-paste hatchet job. 

Most of the writers I know approach rewrites by starting with the original script. They amend or rewrite that document. In my opinion, that’s a mistake. The more time I devote to writing, the more convinced I am that the fastest and most effective way to rewrite is to start from a blank page. The reasons for a blank-page rewrite aren’t complicated. Stories are told through a series of revelations, actions and character inter-reactions. Even a simple story is like a house of cards. Each part of the story is dependent on the cards that support it. Rewriting is about removing some elements, changing some pieces and adding some new bits. If you imagine that process of removal, addition and change to building a house of cards it would collapse after the first couple of changes. The catastrophic failure of a house of cards is immediate and obvious. Scripts are much more complicated beasts. Once a writer starts moving and altering a story the complications and implications of each alteration can soon become overwhelming.

For my latest rewrite, I am going to approach it the same way I would a new script.  I’m going back to my character development work to update it. Then I’m going to hammer out a beat sheet and restructure as if it was a completely new piece. Only then will I crack open a new, blank script template and I’ll start writing.  Even though some of the scenes from the original script will be transposed over into the new script, I’ll rewrite them. It’s important to do this because it’s natural for us to understand stories in a linear fashion. This is the reason that first drafts are often the most coherent, even if they are flawed in other ways. 

I have no idea whether this new rewrite will be as lucky as my last entry to the BBC Writers Room. Comedy is a different discipline from drama. Competence in one doesn’t translate into competence in another.  Last time I entered it was with the spirit of a person buying a lottery ticket. I had nothing to lose. The same is true this time. Rewriting is its own reward. Nothing teaches discipline and an understanding of story faster than rewriting.