Notes on Craft – (Part 6 of 6): Rewriting & Polishing

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun, George of the Jungle, Shall We Dance)

– “When I write, I rewrite as I go.”

– “The more pain I put my main character through the better it is.”

– “I never let a studio read a working draft.”

– “I don’t outline (confessed not enjoying the writing process).”

– “I always write backwards.  I have to know the ending first.  Then I write the scenes in order of interest, no matter where they are in the story.”

– “When writers go for tone the story always suffers.”

– “Characters are what they do.  You can’t have story unless you have characters who would make those decisions.”

– “For beginning writers, write something low-budget and direct it yourself.  Don’t wait for Hollywood to fulfill your dreams.”

– “Don’t protect your work.  Show it to people.  Get feedback.”

– “If you’re stuck in a rewrite with a 2-person scene, for instance, try writing a 3rd person into the scene; anything to shake it up.”

– “Whenever you’re stuck, brainstorm 10 ideas before deciding.  Then another 10 if you’re still unsure.”

Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air, X-Men:First Class, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning)

– “I edit as I go along, starting from the beginning.”

– “Write a first draft when you’re feeling manic.  Edit when you’re feeling depressed.”

– “I always fill up two legal pads before I start writing the script.”

– “Studios are usually good at out the problems but not articulating the solution.”

– “I come up with dumb questions for studio execs that they can answer so they feel like they came up with something.”

– “Just write.  Don’t underline certain things you love.  Stupid people won’t get them.  Smart people will hate you for pointing them out.”

– “I wrote 12 scripts before showing one to anyone.”

Wesley Strick (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Cape Fear, Arachnophobia)

– “I just try to finish the first draft as fast as possible.  Like climbing up a mountain, I want to get to the top as fast as possible.”

– “Set a deadline.  6 weeks for the first draft.  Make sure after each week you’re hitting your mark.”

– “Often younger writers can’t define what they’re writing about.”

– “I’m driven by plot.  Twists, turns, turning expectation.”

– “When I get notes in email form I write responses to each one, whether I’m acknowledging what the studio suggests or defending why I think something is valid.  (That way you can keep everyone on the same page).”

– “They say you have to write 10 scripts before you’ll sell your first one.”

Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty)

– “I rewrite constantly; often rewriting several times as I go.  OCD-like.  Then later on I have less rewrites to do.”

– “My first drafts usually run about 140-160 pages.”

– “I write draft 1 in scene order, but do rewrites out of order.”

– “Newer writers don’t know how to write characters.”

– “I always work deeply in character bios: what are they afraid of, their histories, etc.”

– “Listen- if you want to have a great writing career, write great characters!”

– “It takes me…

  • 10 weeks before I ever write the title page.
  • 4 months to write an outline.
  • 1 year for a first draft”

– “Ignore studio criticism in notes but decipher what they’re trying to say.”

– “When receiving notes from the studio, I just sit there writing- not always what they’re telling me- but something, in over to take my mind off of it.  Try to be the dumbest person in the room.”

– “Be clear about why you’re writing.  I would rather read a script that a writer spent 8 years working on than a writer who had 1 of 8 scripts to choose from.”

– “90% of the rewrites I do are because of character flaws.”

– “Every scene you write think about what is interesting about it.”


– What style of writer outlines vs one who doesn’t?   What do you do?

– After you write a first draft of your script are you disciplined enough to go back and outline before trying again?

– When you receive notes are you able to remain cool and hear what they’re trying to tell you?

Notes on Craft – (Part 5 of 6): Dialogue & Scene

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen, Salt, Equilibirum)

– “Once your scene states what it’s about you should be out.  It helps punctuate the next scene as well.”

– “The way to affect an audience who’s seen everything is give them dialogue they don’t expect.  They feel like like it’s real all of a sudden because they didn’t see it coming.”

– “Try to make your scenes simpler so you don’t get trapped by exposition.  Simple story; provocative emotion.”

– “To draw in the audience create a compelling character and give him a big question to be answered.  Movies are answering a series of questions.”

– “The more your characters disagree and have opposite POVs the more the scenes write themselves.”

– “There’s a fine line with mystery where just enough keeps the audience on board vs too much which alienates and tires them.”

– “Don’t talk in speeches.”

– “Test yourself.  If you have a 3 page scene, try to communicate the same information in 1 page.  You’d be surprised how much it will work.”

– “If you write the 1st act correctly the rest will write itself.”

Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex, Marley & Me, Bounce)

– “In life, people usually hide their feelings.  They don’t usually say how they feel unless they’re mad.”

– “When deciding how to write a scene, think ‘What is Character A afraid Character B will find out about him?’ and ‘What does Character A want Character B to think about him?'”

– “I establish one main character (ideally) and make the audience connect with him right away so they’re on board with the story.”

– “Characters need two things.

  1. Secrets
  2. Objectives.”

– “Don’t tell us everything about your main character right away.”

– “To get the audience to like your hero give them a scene where a group of people leaves the room and your hero is left alone.  Imagine a close up where he sighs.  For some reason, the audience empathizes with this feeling of how difficult it is to operate in society.”

– “Subtext comes from what the character wants and what they’re afraid to say.”

– “You must know the ‘moment before’ whatever scene you’re writing.”

George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Adjustment Bureau, Ocean’s Twelve)

– “Movies are about having one large question to be answered… and riddled with a series of smaller questions along the way… and conflict.”

– “The best way to handle exposition is visually.”

– “Not every scene has a 3-act structure.”

– “Come in to a scene as late as possible so the previous part is inferred.  A good tactic is to have characters arguing about something we don’t know about until it’s slowly revealed within the scene.”

– “To surprise the audience you have to lull them into something they expect- and then alter it.”

– “The best thing you can do with dialogue is eliminate it.”

– “Too much subtext and characters not saying what they want and the audience won’t understand what’s happening.”


– Do you tend to overwrite your scenes?

– How does dialogue function with two vastly different movies like Drive (by Hossein Amini) and Moneyball (by Aaron Sorkin)?

– Do you think about writing scenes with a 3-act structure?

Notes on Craft – (Part 4 of 6): The First 20 Pages

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

BILLY RAY (Shattered Glass, State of Play, The Hunger Games)

– “Think about the end and then reverse-engineer to create the best setup for that climax.  I’m looking for things to drop in that will pay off later.”

– “Don’t try to sell your script w/page 1.  Just try to get them to read page 2.  Establish a voice.  Hook em.”

– “Whenever I’m writing a script I always ask myself ‘What is the simple, emotional journey‘ and then I write it on a note at the top of my computer.  For Shattered Glass it was ‘What if the least popular guy in class took on the most popular guy in class?'”

– “One mistake I made in writing Shattered Glass was that the first 6 scenes were ‘Start-Stop’.  (They were six independent scenes that had a beginning, middle, and end introducing each character) and it really slowed down the pace of the story when we saw the rough-cut.  We had to play around in editing to make it flow right.”

– “Using visuals relating to your theme help symbolize the entire film.”

– “The purpose of the camera is to reveal subtext of what the character is hiding.  Use the action to contrast the dialogue.  Liars are easy to write.”

– “Make a check mark next to every bit of dialogue that each character says that he actually means.  If you have too many then you need to rewrite.”

– “Robert Towne thinks of every lie a character says as a pull on the quiver of the eventual release of the emotional arrow.”

– “Dialogue should be spare (fragmented) because that’s how people talk.”

– “When prepping for writing I always pick a soundtrack to fit my story- I use The Thin Red Line a lot.  Then I write a makeshift treatment putting every single idea I can think of.  Don’t edit!  After you build your granite block you then chip away the info that is irrelevant until yo have your story.”

– “Don’t think of writing as art.  Think of it as work.  (Be practical about approaching writing without all the “artsy angst” people attach to it).  When studios rewrite you they look for what’s not working. So think of writing as work- and hopefully the art will come.”

– “I write from 9Am-1PM.  Then 1:30-5PM.  Nights and weekends are for my kids.”

– “If you have a long treatment it’s impossible not to write the script fast.  And there’s an energy to that.”

– “For every single scene you write, ask yourself…

  1. Am I deepening the character?
  2. Am I setting tone?
  3. Am I advancing the story?
  4. (depending on genre) Is it funny, or exciting, or scary?”

– “Try to disguise your story beats behind emotional (character) beats.  This is advancing the ball in more than one way.”

– “When getting notes from studios… Listen to the problem; ignore the solution… They usually are good at pinpointing what is wrong with the script but don’t know how to articulate it.  Sometimes they’re dealing with so many movies that they’ll try to fix your problem with the exact same solution they used on another project.  (So here what they’re saying but use your own instinct on remedying it.)”

– “I organize my notes by

  • Thematic Ideas
  • Character Ideas
  • Act 1 Ideas
  • Act 2 Ideas
  • Act 3 Ideas”

– “There are 4 quadrants to make a film about.  If you make a movie that satisfies all 4, it applies to no one.”

Nick Stoller (Fun With Dick and Jane, Get Him to the Greek, Yes Man)

– “I rewrite Act 1 all the time.”

– “When directing, it is only essential to shoot as much as you can in the first 20 pages; to make sure you cover every possible set-up the movie can go that can be arranged through editing.”

– “I always make sure I know what POV the story is being told from.”

– “Mike Nichols starts every movie with a visual metaphor that defines the movie thematically as a whole.”

– “Tension and comedy come from your lead character thinking he knows who he is when he doesn’t.”

– “I hate ‘cute-meets’ in romantic comedies.  I prefer two people who don’t know they’re in love.  When it seems like they’re in love it seems like the movie should be over.”

– “I write outlines.  And rewrite them.  Then write a “vomit pass” of a script as fast as possible.  Then go back and re-outline, etc… until I finally get it.”

– “Cut into the middle of the scene!”

– “Disguise story beats with a joke.”

– “I write the script as if that’s exactly what we’re shooting.  But if I’m directing there will be 40% of improv that is created after we’ve captured what is on the page.”

Jon & Erich Hoeber (Red, Whiteout, Battleship)

– (JH) “The first 20 pages are all about Tone and Character.

  • TONE: Laying down the rules of the story.
  • CHARACTER: Establish a relationship with your lead that’s special.”

– (EH) “You have a few minutes at the beginning of your story- a grace period- where audiences will stay tuned.  Don’t rush it.”

– (JH) “I always overwrite the 1st Act.  I need to go back and cut once I realize what’s needed.”

– (JH) “Before writing, we know where the story is going to go.  We also know each character’s emotional arc.  Then we look for those little moments to define the shift.”

– (JH) “Gather your notes/research.  Sit with it.  Then start writing & don’t stop yourself.  ‘Perfectionism is the enemy of execution.’  Get it down.  Go back later and edit once the gist of it is on the page.”

– (JH) “When writing the vomit pass, do it as fast as possible.  14-25 days for a feature.  Every professional I know does it.  Go back and re-outline.  But you’ll use the first draft as the bones to discover dialogue that repeats.”

– (JH) “When re-writing action or dialogue, ask yourself ‘Can I cut it?’  If you can, then DO IT!”

– (EH) “Every word in a script either makes it better– or makes it worse.”

– (JH) “When getting notes from studios, determine what they mean by the note.  Like if they say: “The ending sucks”… ask yourself ‘Is that really true?  Or was it not properly set up?’

– (JH) “I write with a computer.. and a notepad.  Sometimes it makes more sense to write certain notes by hand.”


– Are you outlining as much as these professionals say they are?

– Do you think the prices of writing is different if you’re planning to direct the piece?

– Do you think Act 1 is the most important of the three?

Notes on Craft – (Part 3 of 6): Character

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

WALLY WOLODARSKY (Monsters vs Aliens, The Rocker, Seeing Other People)

– “I get character from my friends.”

– “The best films are when the stories are simple and the characters are complex.”

– “If I at least know what the character wants I can write the scene.”

– “The best is when you write dialogue that shows what they want w/out telling exactly what it is.”

– “I like to put ‘wish-fulfillment’ into my characters.  Things from my life.”

– (re: time-management) “I keep a clock by my desk and click it every time I go to the bathroom, or lunch, etc, to monitor how distracted I get.”

– “When I sit down to write, I turn off all electronic devices and keep up the webster’s site.”

– (quoting Mamet) “Research is the writer’s crutch.”

ALINE BROSH McKENNA (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Laws of Attraction)

– “Character comes from action.”

– “In film, it’s important to take a character that is relentlessly ‘evil’ and give them a scene that explains why they’re that way.”

– “If you can’t put yourself in the driver’s seat of a character you shouldn’t write them.”

– “Your characters should talk on their own. If they don’t there’s something wrong with the character or the story.”

– “Back-story is great, but if it’s not in the script it’s useless.”

– “You only speak when you want something.”

– “I write scenes with specific actors in mind.”

– “If you write scenes and nothing funny happens then something’s wrong.  But they won’t be funny unless grounded in some sort of universal reality, making the audience go: ‘That’s so true!'”

– “Movies are an ’emotional delivery system’.  If a scene doesn’t evoke emotion it’s failing.”

– “I try to get myself in a state where I can literally laugh or cry as I’m writing.”

– “It’s best to write to a deadline of sorts.”

– “William Goldman describes his characters well: ‘The kind of guy who always drops their ice cream.'”

– “Characters changing is more about them not knowing what they want at the beginning and by the end they do know and finally take up the mantle.”

– “Tone is the whole ball game for a director.”

NANCY OLIVER (Lars and the Real Girl, Six Feet Under)

– You can change character’s voices through rhythm, vocabulary, etc. Do they finish sentences?


– What do you think either character or story is more important than the other?  Or are they apart of the same beast?

– How do you craft your characters?

– Who are some of the best characters in film/TV?

Notes on Craft – (Part 2 of 6): Structure

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

CRAIG MAZIN (Scary Movie 3, 4; The Hangover Part II)

– “‘Story’ and ‘Screenplay’ are two different things; you need to know the story before you write the screenplay.”

– “Most important when trying to figure out what stories to tell is to ask: ‘Is it pertinent to the human condition?'”

– “I try to look at structure as the character’s relation to theme.”

– “A character starts the story believing one thing and finishes believing the opposite.  Pixar movies do this well- check out Little Nemo… also Up, which are both the exact same movie.”

– “When you’re writing with someone else you have to be incredibly specific.  When you’re on your own you have to wonder a bit because you don’t have anyone to tell you if it’s good.”

– “When writing set pieces, make sure they’re also advancing the story.”

– “The midpoint is the first time your hero sees himself in a new way.”

– “We admire characters, not for what they can do, but for what they can endure.”

BEN GARANT & THOMAS LENNON (Night at the Museum, Reno 911, Herbie Fully Loaded… also co-authors of How to Write for Fun & Profit)

– (BG) “When you’re writing you need to check in with your story so you know where it’s going.  It’s like Jazz; it’s improvised but you know where it’s going.”

– (TL) “If you’re not sure whether you should use structure then look at Purple Rain.”

– (TL) “Structure is simple. You get a likable guy thrown up in a tree, toss rocks at him, then you get him down.”

– (BG) “In comedy, the ‘rocks’ you throw at your hero in Act 2 are ‘sketches.'”

– (BG) The midpoint is the worst obstacle you can throw at your hero.  In The Matrix, Neo is told by the Oracle he’s not The One.”

– (TL) “You need to have conflict so that your characters want to kill one another.”

– (TL) “You’re first script should be shocking in some way. Fresh, original- so you stand out.”

ROBIN SWICORD (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Memoirs of a Geisha, Matilda)

– “My husband (Nicholas Kazan), needs just enough story to get started writing so that he can progress while keeping his creative juices alive.”

– “I will follow a character if I know what she wants.  A great desire can propel a story.  A strong desire should meet an impossible obstacle.  Then at the end they’ll have achieved something.”

– “Theme is what drives each story.  Once you know what your theme is you should disguise it within the writing.”

– “At the end of Act 2 the Gods flick your character.”

– “At midpoint, the story gets a whole lot ‘deeper’.  In Little Miss Sunshine her grandfather dies.”

– “Writing a script won’t change your life.  Making a film will.  Go make your movie.”


– How important do you think adhering to a structure is for your script?

– Do you outline and/or write a treatment before you start writing the script?

– Do you think all the best movies have a formula?

Notes on Craft – (Part 1 of 6): Premise and Concept

I just finished a 6-part series of screenwriting seminars, called Notes on Craft, through the Writer’s Guild Foundation.  Here is a paraphrased list of gleaned gems from the pros themselves.  I will post a new category every day for the rest of this week.

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

DAN FOGELMAN (Cars; Tangled; Crazy, Stupid, Love)

– “People over think too much.  When I receive a script with a 4-page cover letter of why it’s worth reading, I know it’s got problems.”

– “My writing always begins with figuring out where my character starts and where he ends up.”

– (Re: when thinking about how to pitch an idea) “Here’s the premise, here’s the character, and here re 5 big things that happen in the movie.”

-“I know the beginning and end and kinda vomit the middle and let other people sort it out.”

– “Structuring is easy.  By page 30 the audience should know the premise of your movie; by mid-point, there should be a negative turn; by page 80, there should be sad music and you should be heading for the end.”

– “If you have the beginning and end then that should inform the middle.  Wherever you decide your character is at the end of the movie, put him at the beginning in the opposite spot.”

– “Notting Hill was a great script to read. Very efficient story-telling.”

– “If I’m trying to write 10 pages of my script and I get lost I’ll put up a Word document and write out 10 pages of beats instead.”

– “Live-Action is solitary and tough.  Animation is a group process; animators drawing your ideas as you’re developing them.”

ANNIE MUMOLO (Bridesmaids)

– “If, when reading my own script, I can fly through the pages then I know it’s worth pursuing.”

– “When creating an idea I start with a key scene and work around that.”

JAMES VANDERBILT (Zodiac, The Losers, The Rundown)

– “I always plan. I never regret over-planning. And when I start writing I go as fast as I can.”

– “I need to know where it ends (emotionally) before I can start writing.”

– “The best scripts are always well-structured but are invisible in it’s execution.”

JOHN REQUA (Bad Santa; I Love You Phillip Morris; Cats & Dogs)

– “I always figure out the ending first- where the character must be emotionally.”

– “Ideas are easy.  CHaracters are hard.  Story is easy when you have character.”


– Who’s your favorite screenwriter above?

– Anything you disagrees with above?

– What you would add to Premise and Concept?