I was having drinks last week with a charming screenwriter, who told me an anecdote that blew my mind. I simply haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Now any anecdote told poolside, with a nice cocktail, by a professional storyteller, has a high probability of being entertaining, but this story would be captivating under any circumstances.
And that is what really set my mind spinning.
In this case, the charming screenwriter was also a serious professor, teaching both screenwriting and fiction. Here’s the tale he told:
On the first day of freshman writing class, he has his students get out their notebooks filled with story ideas, choose one, and start writing. For the next hour and fifty minutes, the professor sits silently and watches as his students eagerly pour their stories out, filling up handwritten page after page with youthful enthusiasm.
Just before the end of class, he handpicks ten students to turn in their work.
Beaming, they bring their pages to the front of the room and place them in his hands.
Then, from under the desk, he produces a large shredding machine, and runs each and every story through it.
In mere moments, their precious work is destroyed.
Right before their eyes.
Shocking, I'm sure.
Motorized metal teeth loudly grind away, ruthlessly mincing their cherished words into teeny tiny pieces, suitable only for confetti.
What the professor sought to convey through simple, yet eloquent shock value, was that the students’ ideas could not be destroyed. He understood that they were inevitably infatuated with this initial version, but it was just the first expression of the story that was lost. The idea was still there. It belonged to them. It lived in their imagination. And by rewriting it, they would develop an even better version of the story.
This dramatic exercise was sure to be a long-lasting reminder that “The first draft of anything,” according to Ernest Hemingway, known for his penchant for rewriting, “is shit.”
What a profound lesson.
In the film business, there are many versions of The Shredder:
Executives who want to make your story into their story,
Studios who will twist and distort your idea to fit their agenda.
And times when, in order to succeed, you must tear your own story apart.
Can you master rewriting so that you and your idea survive The Shredder?
The Disposable Draft
My professor friend hopes to teach his students a lesson about “shitty first drafts.” Writers may be in love with them but truthfully, they’re dreck. Hemingway also said, "The only kind of writing is rewriting." This from a man who admitted, "I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied."
As a screenwriting teacher and consultant, I have some pretty strong feelings about first drafts. I’ve heard many writers talk about the “Vomit Draft.” They feel compelled to let their imagination lead the way and inspiration determine their path. Frankly, I don’t care for the phrase. And I vehemently disagree with the concept.
I always say that, as an artist, your most precious commodities are your time and your creative juice. That’s it. Why fritter them away?
Some writers insist that they adore the freedom of spewing out dialogue, details and scenes onto the page. They are unfettered. They are artistes. They are explorers in unknown terrain.
Perhaps some good moments come from this method – a flash of inspiration here or there. But, what cannot be created in this manner is strong storytelling. Film is a highly structured medium – one that writers devote years to mastering. In my mind, any script written without an outline is a Vomit Draft.
Would you build your dream house without a blueprint? Take a road trip through a foreign country without a map? Create an elaborate meal you’ve never cooked before without a recipe? Sure, you can be a free spirit and give any of these a try. But I guarantee that it will take you a great deal more time and energy, and be fraught with trial and error, dead ends, and ultimately lead to a screenplay that falls short on many counts.
You will have to run much of it through The Shredder and start over, rewriting virtually from scratch.
Here’s my question when it comes to Vomit Drafts: Is it worth it?
Are you chasing a few inspired moments and reveling in the sensation of the wind in your hair – only to find yourself having to scrap most of the draft then reconstruct your screenplay from the ground up? Because that’s how movies are built. On the solid steel beams of a structural foundation that supports the entire story.
My focus as a teacher and consultant is to enable my students to take that journey on a couple of pieces of paper rather than a hundred plus pages that have to be discarded. I insist that they understand the fundamentals of their story before they begin – tone, logline, hero, conflict, arc, and theme. I teach them how to use that knowledge to place the big beats of structure first, then add in the significant beats in between.
It may be fun to decide that the heroine owns a cat with green and topaz eyes, that the couple’s pizza is topped with pepperoni and mushrooms, or that the bad guy drives a Lamborghini Aventador (a car sexy enough to literally star in its own movie), but these are the small details that come later. The icing on the cake. It may be delicious, but it’s indulging yourself before you’ve put in the hard work. And it may mean that you are not ready, willing and able to do the hard work.
My method – or any one of dozens of outlining systems created by structure gurus will actually give you the freedom to create and explore. In fact, structure is freeing! Imagine making a major story change with a single cut and paste. Click, click, done. Instantly see that the change works. Or discover that it doesn’t work, click “undo,” and then come up with something better.
Cut and paste or unravel and shred? I’ll vote for the fully outlined first draft over the discardable first draft every time.
Why have a first draft that’s largely destined for The Shredder when you can have one that is well thought out and ready to polish and hone?
Pre-writing beats rewriting every time.
The Development Hell Shredder
It’s odd that, while everyone is trying to get there, once you’ve reached this destination it is not the happiest place on Earth.
I’m talking about “Development.” As in, “My script is in development at Warners!” “I’m developing this project with ‘A-List Director.’ He’s got a whole new view of the story.” “‘A-List Actor” is interested in starring, and I’m working with his development people to tailor the role to him.”
It sounds so good. So desirable. So where you want to be.
Except those of us who have been there call it “Development Hell.” This is where stories are put through The Shredder and will literally live or die based on their rewrites.
One of the best chances you have to move your project forward is by partnering with a producer, director, or actor. But remember, absolutely everyone in Hollywood wants to make their mark. Whether they’re just (excuse the expression) “peeing” on your idea to make it their own, or they’re trying to force your project to fit into their vision – like Cinderella’s stepsisters and the glass slipper – we want to leave our imprint on your story. Expect to get input from your new partners. The bright side is that it’s a sign that we feel attached and involved with the project.
If you do gain industry interest, it’s hard not to leap at the opportunity – after all, this is what you’ve been waiting for. But don’t be in a rush to jump into bed with anyone. Ask about what drew them to the project, what they love about the story, what concerns them about the story, and how they envision moving it forward. Then shut up and listen! It’s essential to hear what someone is actually saying. It’s all too easy to hear only what you want to hear.
I once knew a writer who met with a noted and respected producer. The producer stepped around from behind their desk to greet the writer, holding his script in their hands. “This,” said the producer, “THIS is a movie.” The writer was on Cloud Nine. The glorious phrase echoed in his mind endlessly. He never heard another word until well into the rewrite process, when he found that the producer’s version of the story was totally out of sync with his. It eventually sunk the project.
Another producer was infamous for injecting their own personal issue into every project. No matter who the hero of the film was, the producer suggested that perhaps the problem they needed to overcome was… why the exact same relatively minor issue that the producer struggled with! These sort of things belong on the therapist’s couch, not in your script meeting. When they do crop up, handle with extreme care. “Mmm, that does sound like a challenge. Interesting.”
The travails of working with a production company are minor compared to studio development. Studio notes are a complex amalgamation of many individuals’ point of view, as well as the larger agenda of the studio. You may be trying to make the hero’s arc work; they may be worried about a hole in their slate for Christmas 2016. They are concerned with deals they have with stars and directors, budget and marketing. No matter how many people are actually in the room with you, they represent a slew of other folks at the studio who they must answer to.
In all fairness, it is a business, and they are making a product.
When I was teaching in the UCLA Producers Program, one of my all time favorite studio execs, Chip Diggins, who had worked at two major studios, agreed to be on the panel for the session on Studio Executives. He described what happens to stories in the studio development process so vividly and succinctly that I’ve never forgotten it.
Chip gave the class an example. “Say a group of us go out for dinner. Afterward, we’re going to have dessert. We’re going to have ice cream. But everyone has to agree on the flavor. Do you think we’ll be having Rocky Road or vanilla?”
He didn’t need to say anything else. The more people in the room, the less distinctive the outcome.
Perhaps the unkindest cut in Development Hell is the one you barely feel as the blades dig in. Disney in particular was famous for its notes back in the heyday of the Development Era when spec scripts sold like proverbial hotcakes. They would begin with accolades – as all notes in fact should – if we don’t tell you what we like about your script you might change the good stuff. And of course, your estimation of the note giver’s intelligence and perception will immediately rise if they begin with praise for your work. Simple human nature.
After that nice-nice opening paragraph or two, Disney notes went on for pages and pages and pages – longer than anyone else in town – detailing changes that needed to be made in rewriting the script they had just lauded.
But at Disney, the many, many changes the studio wanted were couched in the kindest, gentlest, most delicate terms imaginable. “Perhaps we should consider discussing” is my all time favorite. Translation: “BRRRHRRR…”
To be fair, all story notes do this to some extent. We want to point out flaws and concerns with the script, but we don’t want to offend. We want specific changes made, but we don’t want to tell you what to do. You’re an artist, and you can probably come up with a better, more creative solution than we can. We certainly hope you can. Rewriting is where your job as a writer is interpret notes to decipher what really needs to work more effectively in the script and then to meet and even exceed our expectations for the new draft. You have to be part storyteller and part cheerleader, so that the team's enthusiasm for the project never wavers.
Of course, we want you to do what we want in a rewrite, but without making you feel pushed. “Perhaps we should” works as polite suggestion. “Let’s consider” gets the issue out there. “Why don’t we discuss” opens the door for hashing out a problem. All three together leaves me laughing.
It’s very much a case of “The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.” Often the daintiest of rewriting suggestions is actually an iron fisted directive.
Be especially careful with this powerful Shredder. Studios are the ones holding the purse strings. You need to be a tightrope walker. Respectful and deferential on one hand, “Hmm, interesting, I’ll have to think about that.” And on the other, you need to grasp the heart of your story with utter clarity and hold on to it for dear life. Never, ever lose sight of it during rewriting, or you’re sunk.
The proof is in the pudding. Very often, the original writer is fired off after a few drafts. Somehow the project is just not coming together the way everyone had hoped. A new and probably far more expensive writer is brought on, in the hope that he or she will make it scarier, funnier or somehow better. The first thing this new writer does, is ask to read every single draft of the script. It’s more than anecdotal that often the hired gun will suggest that the studio go back to the original draft or that they use that draft as the jumping off point. It’s as if Development Hell rewriting process caused the team to lose sight of what they were excited enough about to buy in the first place. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that flame burning. Sure, you may still get canned, but at least you will have done your best to stay true to your vision and keep everyone on course.
To cast a little ray of sunshine on the Development Hell Shredder, I once heard of a writer who sold his script, worked on several drafts with the studio and was ultimately – no surprise – fired and replaced by a million dollar Script Doctor. All the studio asked was that the Script Doctor's rewrite make the project 10% scarier. They were convinced that then it would be ready to go into production. When he didn’t deliver – and the high price tag is by no means a guarantee – heads rolled. In the end, astonishingly saner minds prevailed, and the original writer was brought back to rewrite his own project.
I’ve only ever heard of this one incident where they went back to the original writer for a rewrite. There could possibly be more. But I doubt it.
The Art of Self-Shredding
There will be times when you need to feed your own material to The Shredder. It’s hard to say for certain, but this may be the most painful Shredder experience. You’ve sunk your heart and soul, your blood and guts, your time and energy into a script – and it’s an epic fail.
You may have gotten unenthusiastic feedback from peers, washed out in contests, or paid to hear the painful truth from a consultant. You may have managed to step back from your own material, taken a fresh look, and realized that it wasn’t working.
Perhaps you started with an idea that couldn’t work. Or somewhere along the way you might have taken a wrong turn. Maybe in the course of working on the project you lost sight of what drew you to the idea in the first place. Often, the story is much clearer in a writer’s head than it is on the page.
Here’s where it hurts. When you’re in deep trouble, the truth is you need a Page One rewrite. There’s no tweaking this, tightening that, honing the other thing. Trying to go in and “make it better” is never the solution.
Put it all in the Shredder. Start with a new outline. Hone that outline time and time again, working out all the kinks, exploring until you solve all the problems with the best possible solutions. Only then should you consider opening up a new document and typing “Fade In.”
Burning down the house may seem like a radical approach to rewriting, but it’s the only viable path to a cure. And, as painful as it may seem, it’s not nearly as bad as spending years rewriting draft after draft after draft of a script that’s never going to work. In fact, once you’re underway it’s easier and, in the long run, it’s faster too.
For those of you who have been working on the same idea for a long time and feel that you may have lost sight of what you first fell in love with, check out what my gal pal, Dr. Paige Turner, has to say about the rewriting malady she calls, “Too Much Tinsel On Your Tree.”
The Best Time And Place For A Shredder
When it comes to Shredding, the sooner the better is my motto. The single most important decision a writer will ever make is choosing what to write next. Concept is king. Start with one that doesn’t grab our interest and neither high quality execution nor endless rewrites can turn a clunker into a winner.
Selecting what to write next without giving thought to the marketplace, the audience, and seeking the reaction of others – after all, when it comes to movies, we're all experts – is the most frequent and the biggest mistake aspiring writers make. The often-heard reasoning, “Because I just have to write this!” is a poor excuse for making a choice that is not well thought out. Stories selected in this manner are unlikely to become the script that breaks you into the industry.
I’ve defended a lot of the industry Shredders here by reminding you that this is a business. Now I have to remind you that this is a business and should be approached as such. I don’t advocate for writing strictly for the marketplace, but failing to take that into consideration when you decide on what to write next – your product – that sledgehammer you are hoping will break you into the business – is unwise, uninformed and unprofessional.
In the Big Ideas Weekend Screenwriting Intensive, my students receive two comprehensive Advance Assignments. One of them is to come up with ten new ideas and write them up in a paragraph or two. During the weekend, I give the students all kinds of ways to evaluate their own ideas based on the marketplace, their passions and their strengths as a writer, because I believe that it the most powerful and effective combination for creating a script that can catapult them into the heart of the industry.
With these new tools and litmus tests, the writers cut down their ten ideas to three, four or, at most, five ideas that they believe meet as many of the criteria we’ve been discussing as possible. Then they hand a clean copy of their ideas to the person on their right and get some eye-opening outside feedback that may or may not jibe with their thinking. Finally, I step in with my “quick like a band-aid” input on their ideas. What they labored over before the seminar and have spent a few hours in class struggling to evaluate now goes through my Shredder.
They hear exactly what I think of their ideas. No sugarcoating.
It’s fast. It’s brutally honest. It’s nearly bloodless.
Sometimes they’ve discarded an idea that I think has potential. Other times I suggest they salvage an idea by switching the genre. That drama could make a great comedy! Often the idea they are in love with needs to become confetti.
The good news about Shredding at the outset is that these ideas aren’t dead and buried. In time you might come up with a new perspective, a different take, a fresh spin that makes it all work.
Until then, it’s a lot easier to toss one page into The Shredder than it is to rip apart a one hundred and ten-page script.
The film business itself is The Ultimate Shredder. It may be fun and festive to be showered with confetti, but there’s no pleasure in being shredded and tossed. BRRRHRRR!
From the moment you solidify your concept, every step of the way until your film is in theatres, you’re liable to get ripped limb from limb.
You had better be tough as nails to survive the gaping maw of the rewriting machine.
- More articles by Barri Evins
- Script Angel: The Script Development Process
- FREE Rewrite Checklist Download
Paul Chitlik offers amazing advice in his book,
Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthening Structure, Characters, and Drama