A few years ago, as part of my screenwriting masters at VCA, I decided to adapt my play Reunion into a feature screenplay. At the time it seemed a no-brainer; Reunion had only recently been performed for the first time, I knew the characters and the themes intimately, and it was a very personal story. As the kind of thing that I could spend a year working on and not get sick of, it made perfect sense.
The problem was that the VCA screenwriting course is a pretty vicious test of a story and your tolerance for it. Your script is subjected to almost weekly feedback sessions, mostly from difference voices all telling you why it doesn’t work and how to make it better. It can be hard to see anything beyond two obvious options; either ignore them all or take everything on board. Neither is helpful.
Reunion was a simple, sentimental little story about four estranged high school friends getting together for a drink and quickly, in each others’ company, regressing into the petulant teenagers they thought they’d grown beyond. It was based on myself and the friends group I desperately missed at the time, and as such certainly felt very close to home. Of course, a big lesson to learn in any form of writing is that just because something matters to you doesn’t mean it will to anyone else, and very quickly every tutor wanted to know what the hook was. Was it a serious drama? If so, the stakes needed to be raised. Was it a goofy comedy? Then it had to be broader, funnier and more action packed. I tried pushing in both directions and very quickly the script stopped looking like the story I wanted to tell. Eventually I ended up with something that technically was probably a stronger film, but lacked the soul that made Reunion mean anything to me. By the end of the first year I washed my hands of Reunion and moved on to something else.
There are two worst cast scenarios that can happen when faced with the prospect of redrafting. The first is that we remain too attached to the former version and therefore fail to make any tangible changes. We make excuses for the things that don’t gell and avoid any major overhauls that might create more work for us. We treat ‘redrafting’ as making a couple of tweaks, adding or removing a scene or two and maybe doing a final spruce up of the dialogue. That was essentially how I treated the first attempt to take Reunion from stage to screen. It’s what tends to happen when you’re still too close to the previous version; the prospect of re-writing from scratch can be both daunting and demoralising. We’re unwilling or unable to see the extent of the flaws and so we make excuses and brush off feedback. I’ve done this with plenty of projects, from Reunion to Below Babylon to various versions of Windmills. I wasn’t right in any of those cases.
The second worst case scenario is the exact opposite; that we take everyone else’s ideas of what our story could or should be on board and end up re-shaping it into something that no longer resembles what we originally fell in love with. This is also an unhealthy reaction to feedback; we become so demoralised and hate our work so much that we figure the only solution is to burn it all down and start again. A few years ago I wrote a novel called Phoenix, about a gang of teenagers surviving in a house after a nuclear war. Phoenix was slow and clunky but I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it wasn’t coming together properly. Eventually I can up with a drastically different version of the story, in which the protagonist wakes up after the bomb with amnesia in a house surrounded by strangers who all seem to despise him. In some ways that’s probably a better story with a more inherently interesting hook, but it wasn’t Phoenix. It turned a survival thriller into a mystery and drastically altered the themes and characters. Needless to say, I didn’t persist with it.
Stories develop over time, as we think about them more and figure out new solutions to old problems. The great and exciting thing about redrafting is the way in which a story reveals itself to you slowly, giving you a new understanding and a deeper love for what you’re trying to say. But it’s imperative, at every step of the process, to remember why you wanted to tell this story. What was it that you loved about it to begin with? That’s not to say you won’t find other things you love, but rather that the value of what initially drew you to the story can never be overstated. Because nine times out of ten, what first drew you to the story will form the crux of what makes it special. Whether it’s a character, a theme, a moment or an emotion, treat the first germ of the idea as an anchor, even if it doesn’t ultimately make it into the story. If you remember why you wanted to tell this story, you’re far less likely to get lost in insecurities.
Like almost everything about writing, re-drafting is a balancing act, one that requires you to be open to new ideas but to hold on to what you loved about the old ones. The body of a story always changes in the telling, but the soul almost never does. Almost.
Remember; no matter how much a story seems to be eluding you, nobody will ever know your own ideas with the same intimacy as you.
Writing words about writing words.