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Writing is Rewriting

The revision process can be truly grueling for me at times. It’s like surgery. Maybe not quite surgery, but you get it. But I love writing. Scratch that. I love writing when I’m actually doing it. The truth about the writing process, at least for me, is that I spend a whole shit ton more time staring at a blank screen than the actual writing itself. That’s annoying. But for the most part, I love writing. I love the process of creating a story, coming up with (hopefully) interesting characters and outlandish situations that they have to maneuver through. Anything that requires such extensive use of the human imagination is bound to make you feel like a kid again. I suppose that’s what it does for me, which allows me to really open up my mind. Writing is when I’m the most open, I imagine. Because you literally start with a blank page. Kind of like how I’m doing right now.

So writing - I love. Great. Now come the revisions. Fucking shoot me. Some writers love the revision process. I’m not one of them. It’s hard for me to go back over something I’ve already laid out and dissect it. Although I can be very analytical in life in general, the truth is that my brain just doesn’t work that way. I’m much more of a free-flowing kind of thinker. So when I suddenly have parameters that I have to work within, I kind of freak out a little inside. I don’t know where to start, for example.

Revising is crucial. Development is crucial. If you want to have a tight story with no (or at least few) loose ends, then you owe it to yourself to toil away. Because I’m not good at this process, I tend to lean on structure. In other words, I’m a notecards kind of guy. You should see my office wall. It’s covered in notecards right now. In fact, I’ll post a pic. (See below.)

I’ve read a number of screenplay books. All of the ones you’re supposed to read. They all ultimately rely on Aristotle’s story structure. I follow this method. It keeps me from absolutely losing my mind in the revision process. I understand there are certain beats that need to be hit, and so I see these as goal posts. I can focus on those. For someone, like say, David Lynch, I imagine structure is just a limitation. For the record, I happen to love David Lynch. I’m especially a fan of Lost Highway, which is interesting because it’s arguably his most linear film. Anyway, my point is that you don’t need structure to be a great storyteller, in my opinion. Stories come in all shapes, sizes, and different forms of delivery. But for me, I need structure when really shaping the story.

When I start writing, I usually don’t use structure. I just spit the story out. At first, I force myself to write out a simple logline of the story. Just one line that encapsulates the basic premise of the movie, who’s involved and what the conflict is. Then I take this single sentence and turn it into a mess. I regurgitate it, mostly in just basic scenes. What happens, etc. Whatever and however it comes out is what it is. I try to rely mostly on my storytelling instincts and intuition. But once it’s time to start actually putting words and dialogue to paper, I generally spread the story out in beats and ideally lay the story down from rising to falling action. 

Then I break out the notecards. I put each scene on an index card and break down the scene: what happens, the conflict, and whether it goes from positive to negative or vice versa. It’s basic stuff but it’s tedious. The good thing is it’s a great way to engage in what I like to call productive procrastination. You still get to put off the inevitable, but you’re still getting something important done! This is when I start actually writing shit down from FADE IN: to FADE OUT: and also when I throw everything out the window and just WRITE.

Like any artistic process, I do believe that the craft of that art is important. However, that being said, there really is no right or wrong way to write. For me, when it comes to revisions, I probably spend a lot more time thinking than I do rewriting. I think about what if, I think about why, I think about what am I really trying say, and on and on until I can’t even stand myself. But eventually, it gets me somewhere. Either something floats to the surface, or sometimes it even comes to me in a dream like it did with Devil’s Path

It’s probably different for everyone. For me, the notecards that I used earlier to procrastinate with generally start to help me right about now. They have specific information about each scene and I can start to analyze the story to see if I’m actually hitting certain crucial beats or not. Also, I can move scenes around and see what it looks like, or I can replace scenes altogether with a new notecard and see what that looks like. It’s kind of like playing Tetris with your story beats. I guess it makes the whole process a little less daunting for me. 

Once I’ve done enough thinking, I have my husband read my first draft before I start revising so I can get his notes. He’s the only one I let read my first draft. No one else. And not just because he’s my husband, although that’s a bonus. It’s mostly because he happens to be great with story and structure. So I value his opinion and thoughts and really listen when something doesn’t make sense to him. I think it’s important to have someone like this be able to read your stuff. Even your first draft. And no, it can’t be your agent. Well, I guess it can be whoever. It really should be someone close to you whom you trust and whose insight you value when it comes to story. That’s what tends to work for me. (It might be that you’re better off making some revisions before getting any initial notes. Whatever works.)

At the same time, I go through the script again and again myself and make extensive notes on things that need to change or that don’t make sense. Then I write all of the notes together in list form and start going through them one by one. I work through them and see if they are easy fixes or more complicated fixes. The more complicated ones, I set aside, especially if it means a major rewrite - like a plot change or killing off a character.

This note taking process I feel like I do for way longer than I should. Then I start focusing my revisions on specific things: dialogue, a certain character, the action, etc. But slowly I open up my circle of who I have read the material as the drafts get more polished. Eventually (or theoretically) I get the story to a place where it’s really come down to revising nuances here and there or filling in any gaps. Just to be clear, Stephen Twardokus (my co-writer) and I were revising Devil’s Path on the set of production. So a part of me feels like the revising process sometimes doesn’t end until you’re shooting. But eventually, the revising is over and you have your story.

I feel like the revision process is a lot like life. You lay some kind of framework down to accomplish something. Then you have to go in actually build it, or make it happen. You also have to adapt. I guess revising for me is a lot like adapting. You adapt the ins and outs of the story to fit what you’re trying to tell. But ultimately, I do feel you need to follow your instincts and intuition when it comes to storytelling. At the end of the day, you know what the story is that you’re trying to deliver. If you trust that, then you can just let the story come out however it comes out. Structure can always come later. I say embrace revisions. They are, after all, a means to an end.

Links:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-best-screenwriting-books-for-screenwriters_us_5a20455de4b0dff40be03785
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Highway_(film)
http://www.devilspathmovie.com/

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Matthew MontgomeryComment