6 Takeaways From Rewriting “The Seventh”

I can’t believe it, but I’ve worked on two different screenwriting assignments this year, all while taking care of my little toddler, who just turned two in May. It hasn’t been exactly easy, but it’s been incredibly inspiring. There’s nothing quite like working on a screenplay with a deadline to shift one’s motivation into high gear. ;)

I recently shared that I’d overhauled my character profile template in the course of working on this latest assignment. Now I want to share some of the other things I learned through the process of working on this gig. This was a rewrite project, so it was almost like being hired as a script doctor, but since I’m also sharing writing credit for the project it’s a little different than being a true script doctor, which is often uncredited work. The project is called The Seventh, and it turned out to be incredibly fun to rewrite someone else’s work (not at all like rewriting my own!).

Here are six unexpected takeaways I gained from working on this project:

  1. Reverse-outlining pays off. Before I dove into the actual rewrite, I reverse outlined the entire script. I exported it from Final Draft into Scrivener and then into Numbers (the Mac version of Excel) so I could have a spreadsheet I could easily study all in one place. I like the Navigator in Final Draft and the outline view in Scrivener, but for this, I wanted something I could easily see in one place and control in ways that I wanted.

    Once I had the scene headings from Final Draft imported into Numbers, I went through each scene and summarized what happened in a few short sentences. Then I made notes about issues I noticed as I worked through. I also numbered the scenes. The beauty of doing this work is that it highlighted story issues, pointed out plot holes, and helped me get clear on the natural story breaks and sequences, and how well they were working, or not. Since I like to work in mini-movies (approximately 15 minute sequences) it helped me to see how well the script was working with that pattern and showed me where I needed to tweak it.

    What made this so fun was that it was like being a sleuth, digging in, finding what was working and what wasn’t. Very satisfying!

  2. Backstory matters. I knew this before. But now I KNOW it. Working on someone else’s project gave me more courage to dig deep into the how’s and why’s of everything. I couldn’t write it unless I understood it. With my own projects, I’ve been more cavalier about understanding where everyone comes from and why they’re doing what they’re doing, thinking I’d figure it out along the way (and of course I learned more about these characters even as I worked with them).

    But there was something about delving into all the details and leaving no stone unturned when it came to even the slightest motivation or plot hole to get our story strong and straight. This is, of course, particularly important with a complex sci-fi world such as the one in The Seventh, but as I’ve watched and read other stories lately it’s gotten crystal clear — the characters exist before they come onto the scene in our stories. They have histories. Issues. Relationships. And all those come to bear on the decisions they make and the motivations they bring to the scenes they’re in.

    We went through several different iterations of the backstory, and the feeling of finally getting a lock on it was thrilling, particularly because we didn’t give up on it until it truly worked.

  3. Having a rewrite plan helps, but it’s not set in stone. We went into the rewrite knowing we had a certain number of days to accomplish it (40 days). And we calculated approximately how many days I could spend rewriting each 15-page section of the script to hit our deadline. But as we went into it, we found ourselves spending more time on the backstory and world building than we’d anticipated. QUITE a bit more. Which meant that I had to compress my timeline.

    The other unexpected variable was that the script got longer, due to a variety of factors. So my calculation of a number of pages per day didn’t exactly match what I actually had to write. So again, I adapted.

    A third monkey wrench was what one of the writers in my program calls a “black hole” section, where the whole thing just takes a lot longer than expected to sort out. Not all 15 page sections are created equal, after all!

  4. Tracking progress helps keep the ship on course. Despite the shifts in the winds of rewriting, because I carefully tracked my progress, I was able to see where I was, and where I needed to end up. In the graphic below, you can see my revision plan in the upper table, essentially starting on June 3rd. We’d intended to start much earlier, but as I mentioned, the backstory and world building work ended up taking 14 days. In the lower table, you can see the number of pages I worked on each day or block of days.

    This is one of those things I geek out about — watching my progress build, seeing how I’m staying on track (or not) helps make it exciting and fun and keeps me from getting lost in the “I’ll never make it” doldrums my inner critic likes to dish out. And I could easily tell my writing partner how close I was to being on schedule at any given point.
    The Seventh Rewrite Process

  5. Having a great writing partner is huge. I was thrilled to work with my co-writer on the rewrite, the original author of this script. I did all the rewriting work, but we worked closely together throughout the process. It was a huge source of fun and delight for me to have someone to bounce ideas off, run problems by, and generally dig deep into the story together. My co-writer was particularly good at keeping his ego out of the way and working hard with me on making sure the story improved. It was inspiring and impressive. Plus it turns out it’s just wicked fun to help make someone else’s writing that much better.
  6. Screenwriting every day for 40 days was empowering. Since having my second kiddo, I’ve been interspersing stretches of screenwriting with other writing (blogging, course writing, product writing, etc.) and while that’s been easier for me to manage, it’s been a little disorienting. I loved the feeling of ending each day feeling like I’d really USED my brain for my truest deepest calling — writing fiction. That expression “die empty” felt very apropos. Each evening, as I went to bed, I felt complete in way I don’t feel when I’m not writing fiction. It was amazing.

Interestingly, when I was first offered this writing gig, I turned it down, based on my level of busyness as a mom, as a writer of my own projects, and as an entrepreneur. But in the end, it was a delightful experience all around and one I’m truly grateful to have been asked to be involved in. I can’t wait to see what happens with The Seventh as it continues to evolve!

 

Comments

  1. Hi Jenna, this topic caught my eye. Really great to read how you broke this all down in such an organized way. After reading this I definitely want to sign up for one of your screen writing classes. I’ve taken some before, but like your method here!

    • Jenna says:

      I’m glad it caught your eye, Giulietta! Yes, I find that the organization work helps keep me motivated and on point. I’d love to have you take a screenwriting class with me! Stay tuned. :)

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