The Dark Night of the Rewrite

Sure, we’ve all heard it time and time again…

“Writing is rewriting.”

Or, as Ernest Hemingway so clearly stated it…

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

This is not a “tips and tricks” or a how-to article.  Rather, I just wanted to share a quote that helps me every time I get frustrated with having to rewrite something for what seems like the umpteen-millionth time…

One of my all-time favorite films is M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Sixth Sense.  I find it to be a fantastic and well-executed idea and  also love the storytelling pace of this film and his equally awesome Unbreakable.  Both of these films were strong inspirations for my script Sawbuck.

Some  years ago, I stumbled upon an article from ScriptWriter that included the following quote from the writer/director about writing The Sixth Sense.  The highlighted portion is the line I often think of while rewriting:

“The first draft was bad, so I threw it out and started again on page one. Second draft, the same thing. I threw it out, page one again. It started out as a movie about a serial killer with Malcolm as a crime photographer. Then I realized it was me doing The Silence of the Lambs [screenplay by Ted Tally based on the novel by Thomas Harris]. It wasn’t until about the fifth draft that I really began to figure it out. It was then that I realized that at the end he realizes he’s dead. It took me five more drafts to execute it right.

(click here for the full article — an excellent read!)

Wow.  My assumption (and maybe that of others) was that the now-famous story structure/twist of The Sixth Sense was the driving force behind the story from the beginning.  Finding out that wasn’t the case, and hearing that even great creative minds struggle, not only makes my process easier, but also reminds me that I’m not fixing mistakes when rewriting, but actually discovering the story.

It’s also a good reminder that all the effort I put into story beats and note cards is not meant to create the final “structure,” but rather to create a vehicle to set out and discover the story I was driven to tell in the first place.

3 responses to “The Dark Night of the Rewrite

  • Terry

    Great post! This insight from MNS – as well as Hemingway’s pithy comment – give us permission to “craft” a screenplay or book as much as “draft” it. Stories have a life of their own. This may sound woo-woo but it isn’t: We know when the real story shows up. The pre-work (prelim drafts)is invaluable.

    • Mark Strauss

      Thanks for the comment, Terry!

      While I was writing the article, I couldn’t help but think about how in his book On Writing, Stephen King likens writing to archeology. Thought you might appreciate that analogy. :)

  • Matt

    Enjoyed the interview excerpt. Took me awhile to learn, but now I’ve learned to let go more of earlier ideas as they develop into something else.

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