Refining the Screenplay

There are many quotations from famous writers about how the real business of writing for the moving image is rewriting, but the basic message bears incessant repeating: good writing is rewriting, and the best screenplays have scenes that have been pared to their emotional essence.

There can be many factors that draw a producer to a script or piece of underlying material: the “cool factor,” a hero to identify with or cheer for, the tangible goals of the protagonist(s), the escalating conflict, and the emotions all these elements provoke in the characters.

Whatever the elements that attract the producer, almost all screenplays will improve with careful, focused attention to narrative (story and plot), character (who the principal characters are and why they do what they do) and action (what the characters do to accomplish their goals, both physically and psychologically).
The best way to communicate constructive analysis is through written story notes that can also be summarized and delivered verbally. The notes process begins well before a film has even a hope of going into production. The acceptance of a submitted screenplay by any established producer or agency will result in that script being read, synopsized, analyzed and evaluated by an in-house or freelance script reader, usually in the story department of aforesaid company.

Reader’s Coverage

The resulting document, called “reader’s coverage,” will be permanently stored in the company or agency’s database under both the script title and the author’s name (so don’t assume that changing the name of a screenplay or screenwriter will escape the dogged pursuit of coverage from the moment of first submission onward.)

coverage can sometimes be perceptive and incisive, and every reader dreams of finding the perfect screenplay and having an experience akin to what John Sutter must have felt that day he found some shiny gold stuff in his water mill. It happens just as rarely, and most coverage is depressingly discouraging about the work under consideration. The most common box checked out of the available choices of Recommend, Consider Further or Pass, is obviously Pass.

It doesn’t help that the majority of coverage is written by would-be screenwriters as a means of supporting their career aspirations, and hell hath no fury like a reviewer scorned for their own original work. It’s easy for a reader to take out career frustrations on the hapless applicant, and studio and agency coverage can have a decidedly nasty tone.

First impressions are lasting impressions in the film and TV businesses, so care should be taken before formal submissions are made. Any screenplay can be rewritten ad infinitum – someone will always have a clever thought, different shading, or a new plot twist. A version that represents everyone’s best efforts has to be settled upon, and the plunge undertaken at some point in time.
Story Notes

Before then, focused and specific notes should be written for each submitted draft. These preferably should be compiled by the producer or producer’s assistant, and should reflect the input of all interested parties, including the director (if already attached), the financiers (if already putting up money) and key creative personnel, such as the cinematographer, production designer and editor, and those responsible for digital effects/CGI animation (if already hired).

It’s imperative that story notes reflect a consensus opinion of the creative team, because the pursuit of individual agendas undermines the collaboration necessary for successful filmmaking. Drafts should be circulated among the creative participants before being presented to the writer, and an acknowledged consensus should be arrived at prior to an in-person, telephonic or real-time Internet conversation with the writer(s).

The notes presented to the writer should be specific in addressing story points such as narrative, plot events, character arc and development, and three-act structure, as well as specific dialogue and action sequences. This document should not rewrite the screenplay, but instead carefully and concisely analyze the script’s deficiencies and, if possible, suggest specific remedies for fixing the problems.

Story notes cannot be so dictatorial as to leave the writer(s) no room for invention. Often perceptive story notes can trigger a writer to find a more creative and effective solution to a problem than the one the story notes suggested – which is why, after all, the writer was hired in the first place.

Unlike the other professional writing crafts, the screenwriter does not possess the freedom to write whatever he or she prefers, but instead must conform ultimately to the wishes of the creative team. A writer who ignores story notes from a producer, director or studio does so at his or her own peril, and should be prepared to accept the consequences of being fired from the production or losing credit for the work rendered.

The best scenario is the happy one, in which the screenwriter(s), director, producer and studio/network/financier successfully collaborate in shaping and melding their opinions into the strongest story and characters possible. When these optimal collaborations take place, the writer is often invited to the set and becomes an active participant in the creation of the moving images. The advantages to being a writer-director or a writer-producer are obvious.

Writers cannot be expected to do endless rewrites at the whim of producers and directors, and even actors. The Guild has a rigid system of what must be paid as a minimum for each rewrite and polish, and how long writers have to accomplish the work for which they’ve been contracted.

There are different rules for various kinds of television production, from dramatic to reality to situation comedy shows, too numerous and complex to explore here. The essential dynamic between writer and producer (the all-encompassing Other) is pretty much the same.

At the same time, most writers understand the exigencies of production, and the need to sometimes tailor a line to a particular performer or location. Any writer would prefer to be available to rewrite dialog on the set rather than suffer the director or actors improvisation on the spot, a far more frequent practice than imagined.

The Bottom Line

The stringent analysis of story elements and character behavior can only lead to greater success in developing a potent and commercial screenplay. This analysis should be professional, never personal (it will still hurt plenty to the writer), should be personally presented and explained to the writer with constructive examples of how the problems can be addressed, and should be specific in what is being agreed to be changed.

If all these elements are clearly spelled out, and writers are given the freedom to move within carefully defined boundaries, then screenplays should progressively improve, given the skill of the writer in executing the notes, and the skill of the individuals who composed the notes.

Many a screenplay has been developed to death, or some catchy variation of the moment, such as “development hell.” Getting a screenplay through the system intact with some surviving sense of personal vision is its own journey through that development hell, and one of the major creative challenge.