I recently finished a fifth draft of my romantic comedy feature, and I think I'm really getting close to something final. But in addition to a script I'm proud of, I think I've acquired some really useful knowledge and insight. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but the more you write, the better you get! This shit starts to make sense! Yay.
Now, I do owe a lot of this to the amazing writer/director/producer/mentor/badass I've been working with. She's helped me realize a lot of things about features and the writing and rewriting process. I'm sure some of this works for TV too.
1. You really have to know your characters. But it's more than just who they are, what has happened to them and what they want. You need to track how feelings throughout every scene, and really think about how they react to situations. You need to show how they change and what they learn. And we need to believe it. We need to buy the decisions they make. We need to understand WHY they do what they do - even if their logic is flawed or misguided. In comedy, you also have to restrain yourself from writing the first joke that pops in your head. Even if it's a funny line, is it a line your character would say? It's important to differentiate your characters with dialogue, action, attitudes, etc. Don't let two characters experience the same arc and journey; that's boring - and their scenes will feel repetitive. They should have their own unique problems and arcs.
2. You need to provide fun performances for actors. Don't let your characters take the easy way out. Thrust them into awkward, terrifying situations and make them try to get out. The more that goes wrong, the more the actor has to work with.
3. There's more than one way to tell a story. Try stuff out. See what works. If something is too long or too much or too expositional, you can always throw it out. It's usually easier to write everything you think of and cut later instead of staring at an 80-page screenplay and trying to figure out what you're missing.
4. But you DO need to cut stuff. It's sad, but you may have to cut your funniest joke. If it makes you feel better, copy it into a new document and tell yourself you may be able to use it later (you probably won't). If you find yourself dreaming up entire plots to sustain a joke, that's a problem. Just let go. I always tell myself: if you wrote funny stuff before, you'll write funny stuff again.
5. Make the second half of act two intense. I am a big fan of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat (at right), but I've always had trouble with the section "Bad Guys Close In." Because in some romantic comedies and comedies, there isn't really a bad guy. In my script, it's the protagonist's job that's the enemy. I found it much more helpful to think of the phrase "World Closes In." Basically, everything that can go wrong should go wrong. Relationship, work, friends, whatever. Everything that was so fun in the beginning of the second act and maybe at the midpoint is coming back to bite her in the ass. Because she hasn't really confronted her the issues that have set this entire movie into motion. She's making bad decisions, and they're backfiring.
6. Add your own voice to common moments. You won't always be shockingly original. Sometimes you need to show a breakup, a fistfight, a first date, a sex scene, or a shootout...something we've seen in hundreds of movies. Make yours unique by making your characters unique, making your description specific and perhaps tossing in an unexpected surprise, setting or joke. Not all characters would respond to a conflict in the same way...and even a serious moment can have a moment of lightness.
7. Use transitions deliberately. Do you need to show that time is passing or that we're moving to another part of town? Should we see the outside of the building? Would it be jarring to jump from a very serious confrontation to a happier moment? Think about your script visually and show your voice in quick establishing descriptions.
8. Tackle one issue at a time. You may have a big heap of notes, but I find it most effective to focus on one problem in each pass. If you're having trouble differentiating characters, go through the entire script and make sure that person's voice is clear in every scene. Then do it again for another character. You might do a separate joke pass. Then maybe a separate visual description pass. I think this makes you focus and really be critical of yourself...and also prevent you from feeling too overwhelmed. If I get stuck, I like to highlight things to do in yellow and move on. Rewriting something is always better than rewriting nothing.
9. It's all about the arc. What does your character learn? What happens to make her change? How does she apply this knowledge to her life? What's your theme? How is it present in subplots? How can you show us these things and not insult our intelligence or be too obvious?
10. Think big. Can you add a ticking clock? Raise the stakes? Make your set pieces more exciting? Your jokes funnier? It's a movie, you know? Have some fun.
What have you guys learned?