It may seem obvious, gnomic even, but it is a piece of advice so often overlooked when in the process of rewriting: When revising work, focus on one thing at a time…
Revising and redrafting a script can be a chaotic and ramshackle activity. After finally stumbling through to the end of an early draft, hopefully realising what the play is actually about (which may not be what we thought it was about when we set out…) it’s time to revisit and refine.
So often in my early experience and more recently, with those I dramaturg or mentor, revising can end up resembling the carnage of a kitten caught up in a ball of wool. It is not cute, or pleasant, or the stuff of chocolate box covers, despite its many cliches. In actuality the combination of tender inexpert claws and fragmenting strands of wool is brutal and choking and potentially deadly. Likewise for the enthusiastic or inexperienced playwright, whose imagined elegant and ordered combing through of the various strands of a script can result instead in a cat’s cradle of knots, unintentional dread-heads and confused despair.
I have done this so often myself in the past. I begin reading a first draft and see some improvements I could make in the flow of dialogue between the characters, so mid-read I begin the revision, only to get distracted by the layout, which surely should be indented and double-spaced? (yes please). So I start doing that, but wait, surely that’s a saggy bit there in the middle and the stakes aren’t nearly high enough? So if I just reintroduce the character I cut halfway through the first draft and have her explain – but no, wouldn’t that just make her a cipher? And that’d be telling, not showing – which seems to be what’s happening in that section there – so maybe, maybe if I changed his motivation in that beat and therefore introduced rising action there, I could…. and there I am, hopelessly lost and demented, script dismantled about me, trussed up in my narrative threads like a turkey on Christmas morning.
The necessity of being ordered in the redrafting process came up recently during an intensive workshop at Ty Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre of Wales. I’ve been leading a six month mentoring scheme with nine talented playwrights, and last weekend was our final session, reflecting on process and any final feedback on the scripts.
‘Try and work through the full draft, focusing on only one thing at a time’ I instructed, preparing them for the next draft. ‘One read-through you may be looking at the journey of each individual character – and don’t try to do several in one reading to save time, as you won’t. Focus and comb through that strand, separating it from other considerations, and really pay attention. Then another read-through may be taking the dramatic temperature of the whole – the presence of tension or pace or rising action. Another read may be looking at effective dialogue – and so on.’
It seems simple and obvious advice, yet somehow most of us manage not to absorb it. We try to be economical with time, but end up instead squandering it, giving ourselves headaches and small crises of confidence.
In redrafting, be specific and focus on only one thing at a time.
Be patient and calm.
Above all else, enjoy.
Your inner kitten will thank you for it.