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From First Draft To Shooting Script: The 6 Stages Of Re-Writing A Feature Length Screenplay

I just finished a shooting draft for my upcoming feature film SHELL SHOCK, and thought it would be helpful to share some background on my process now that I am nearing the finish line.

Typically when I write a screenplay, I have a set workflow that I like to use.

I usually start with what many call the “vomit draft” – the most rudimentary version of the concept laid out in screenplay format.

With that in place, I’ll begin to re-write the material using an individual pass for each of the following criteria:

  • Story
  • Theme
  • Character
  • Dialogue
  • Scene direction

I then repeat this cycle for as many drafts as needed until the script starts to feel really solid. It’s a simple method, but it works really well… At least most of the time.

On my most recent screenplay however, I had to take an entirely different approach.

The concept evolved so drastically throughout the writing process, that simply refining what was already there simply wouldn’t be enough. I had to re-invent my approach to the re-write phase, and come up with an entirely new paradigm.

Below is a breakdown of this new approach.

Obviously every film is different and has its own unique needs, but I hope there’s something embedded in my experience that will help you navigate through your next set of re-writes too.

DRAFT 1: The Vomit Draft

The SHELL SHOCK screenplay started out very much like all my previous scripts. I first developed a concept rooted in a theme/genre I was excited about, then considered hundreds of ideas and ultimately landed on a story concept I was excited about. This concept was designed to tell a great story while also remaining “produce-able” within my micro-budget scope.

After countless brainstorming sessions, outlines, beat sheets, character bios, and other treatments, I wrote the very first draft of the script: The vomit draft.

In many ways, this stage mirrored my process writing my last feature film Psychosynthesis. The first draft of that script was written in just 5 days.

This time around, it took me a little longer longer (about 12 days), as I wasn’t working at such an intense pace.

That said, my strategy with this draft was the same as always: Write out every scene in sequential order, and never go back to edit previously completed material. I like to do this to ensure I maintain momentum and avoid getting lost in minor details.

In total, I had about 40 scenes to write. On most days I would write 3-4 scenes and then leave it there until the next session. Some days I could have knocked off more scenes if I wanted to, but I was trying to pace myself and leave room for creative inspiration and new ideas.

After about two weeks of writing on and off, I reached the end of the first draft and was ready to move on.

DRAFT 2: Refining The Mess

I always like to take at least a few days away from a script before reading it to make notes for the re-write. For SHELL SHOCK, I took about a week off and then read the previous draft with fresh eyes.

As expected, it very much read like a first draft. While there were some great moments hidden throughout, the concept was still in its infancy and there was a lot of work to be done.

So I went through my usual 5 step process to refine the story, theme, characters, dialogue, and scene direction. Essentially I was taking what was already there and just making it better. It wasn’t about integrating new ideas, but rather optimizing the current version to the point where it was presentable for feedback.

Draft 2 took several weeks to complete, but by the end I had a script that I felt was worthy of sharing with some trusted friends/colleagues. It wasn’t perfect by any means… And I knew it would still go through some major changes, but I wanted more eyes on the project before going any further myself.

In the past I have waited until I’ve been further along in the writing process to send it out for feedback, but that’s often cause missed opportunities. The goal this time around was to be more open minded to new ideas at an early stage, which I felt would better clarify the vision moving forward.

So with draft 2 complete, the screenplay was sent out for feedback and I began collecting responses that would ultimately re-shape the story.

DRAFT 3: Blowing Up The Story

After taking in all the new feedback, one thing was clear: I was missing out on a huge creative opportunity.

In my first two drafts, there were a series of brief flashback scenes. These were written somewhat haphazardly, as I wasn’t sure they would even be needed in the final version. I thought they would help me connect the creative dots while writing, but planned to remove them at some point on a future draft.

To my surprise though, these little throwaway flashbacks were getting a great response from the readers. Some people said they were their favorite moments in the whole script.

My goal with draft 3 then became to expand upon these flashbacks and bring them to the forefront of the story. I was so set on this idea, that I decided to make the new flashback scenes account for at least 50% of the final screenplay.

To get there, I came up with a separate beat sheet and story breakdown, just for the new flashback scenes. It was like I was writing an entirely new film.

I wrote out these new flashbacks in their own document without ever looking at the present day scenes. My goal was to make the flashbacks so strong that they could stand on their own and tell a story even without any other context.

Once these scenes were written (which took about 2 weeks), I went through the previous draft and marked out the most natural spots to inject the new scenes.

From there, I simply copied over all the new flashbacks to the old script, removing any redundant material along the way. In the end, the new flashback scenes accounted for exactly 50% of the total page count, which was the goal.

This represented the greatest fundamental shift in the screenplay. The flashbacks were no longer really flashbacks, as they began to play an equal part.

Now, the story simply took place in two distinctly different time periods.

DRAFT 4: Strengthening The New Vision

By this point, the script was getting into decent shape. The basic foundation was pretty solid, but at the same time there was still a lot of heavy lifting ahead.

In order to make room for the new flashback scenes, I had to delete some present day material. Overall this made the story better, but it also left a lot of gaps in the story.

For instance, there were important backstory elements/exposition embedded in some of the now deleted present-day scenes. While the film was better as a whole without those scenes, some of these missing elements had to be re-integrated into the next draft to make it whole again.

So I went through every single deleted scene from the previous draft, and listed out all critical ideas, dialogue, etc. that should be re-integrated into the next draft.

When it came time to actually sit down and do the re-write, I had to approach the present day and past scenes completely differently. For the most part, the present day scenes were already pretty dialed in, so my focus with them was simply to strengthen them overall and ensure they complimented the new material well.

The scenes set in the past needed a lot more work, however. This of course is because they were brand new, and had never gone through any re-writes or refinement. So in addition to integrating old, lost ideas into these new scenes, I was also reworking the scenes themselves quite substantially to make them stronger.

Once this process was done, the finished draft felt much more well balanced. The new material was polished enough to sit toe to toe with the older material, and all the important story/thematic elements were right back in place.

DRAFT 5: Quality Control

Before beginning the fifth draft, I sent the script out for feedback again. This time, I had several additional people read it, so a lot of great notes flooded in.

Thankfully, none of the notes required any fundamental changes to the story. The basics were all working, and the new additions had definitely moved the story in a better direction overall.

There was of course still lots of room for improvement, but thankfully now it was more about refining what was there, as opposed to trying completely new ideas.

Because the feedback came in from a variety of sources – collaborators on the project, actors, outside 3rd parties, etc. – I got a wide spectrum of notes that were super helpful.

It took a few weeks, but I was able to distill down all the feedback down to the most essential items, and integrate those ideas into draft 5 of the script.

To me, this is when the script started to take on a life of its own. Problem areas were shrinking away and new creative opportunities were opening up all over the place.

It wasn’t done yet – no script ever really is done – but it was close enough to move to the next critical phase.

DRAFT 6: Shooting Draft

Right around the same time draft 5 was complete, we booked our main location for the feature – a rural mountain ranch in LA county.

This was great news for the production of course, but it created a new set of challenges in the script.

For starters, the geography of our main location (a ranch home) was completely different than what was written in the script.

The location didn’t have a basement, so those scenes had to be re-written to take place elsewhere. The house itself was smaller inside than anticipated, but much larger outside… So scenes were re-worked to take better advantage of the physical space. These type of changes were very much the focus of this re-write.

Additionally, the location we booked gave us fewer shooting days than we initially planned for. That meant scenes had to be re-worked, consolidated, or in some cases eliminated in order to make production feasible.

All of this was reflected in this final major set of re-writes, and will continue to be reflected as additional final touches are made.

While there is technically a shooting draft in place now, the script will keep evolving all the way up to production. In fact, it will likely keep changing even while we’re on set.

But at the very least, I’m thrilled to have such a great starting point to jump off from. This script has been workshopped more extensively and with more collaboration than ever before, and I hope it shows in the final product.

Hopefully this breakdown was helpful for some of you going through the re-write process too.

What’s your typical workflow for re-writing a feature? Leave a comment below!

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

1 Comment

  • Mark Winn
    October 25, 2021 at 12:07 am

    Noam- Noam Noam- You’re killin’ me with – and I venture to call it this; ” Your very brainy approach to feature film writing! So I question u; “Must feature film writing be approached in such a ” brainy way”? Perhaps in todays’ day and age of social media- digital platforms- and high techism- shall I say?.Maybe? But in retrospect- back in the day- And I mean- Way way way back- and esp during the Old Hollywood studio system- when films were in essence churned out nearly weekly- and ad infininatum’ – I dare say- there wasn’t “the time” to be so brainy!!
    And in conclusion- I would veture also to say- that – I feel that intuition – ones’ intuition- with the writing process- cld turn out a quality film script! As produceable- as shootable- as workable as by being overly brainy in ones’ approach.
    Sincerely Mark A.Winn

    Reply

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