Hooray For The First Draft

A while back, I wrote the first draft of Blood Red Sky (that's the kick-ass horror film which will be directed by Dan Turner in 2009, info-fiends) in a fairly short space of time. It's my fourth completed feature script (although obviously further drafts of BRS will follow the second draft, which I've since delivered). I know some people find first drafts problematic or even traumatic, hitting all kinds of walls which sometimes lead to the script being abandoned - and God knows, we've all been there, generally due to a lack of pre-planning which inevitably scuppers you, five pages into Act Two. But I absolutely love the first draft. Here are my thoughts on why it's nothing to be afraid of, and how to ensure you reach the end in one piece.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
Unless you're insane and can't prevent yourself from thrusting every single thing you write into people's faces, you're the only person who will ever read this very first exploratory draft. In fact, when writing those pages for the very first time, I prefer to think of it as a rough draft, which will be then be edited into a presentable first draft. Nobody else will ever read this fiery first salvo, so free your mind: write what you want, but just get it written. Finding a scene tough? Sparkling dialogue not springing to mind? Write any old nonsense, then come back to it later. Worst case scenario - leave dialogue blank. Fill it in later, but don't let a lack of inspiration halt your forward momentum. Do anything to keep moving. Because...

IGNORE THE REAR VIEW MIRROR
You are a steamroller. A shark. You keep rampaging ahead with this rough first draft, and you never look back. The main objective here is to reach the finishing line. Obviously, you want to inject as much quality as possible along the way. But I try not to obsess over that. At most, when you start a new day of writing, you're allowed to look back a page or two, in order to get yourself back into the flow and rhythm. But resist any urge to go back and re-write. Never look back, because that way madness, and potential derailment, lie. If you realise that you've written something which will later screw up continuity, then rewind and fix it if you really must, but you can always do it later. And of course, such inconsistencies will be very rare, because you wrote a fairly lengthy, detailed treatment, right? 'Course you did. Because you're not insane. (See comments section for my admission that this is perhaps a bit harsh).

PASS THE BATON TO YOURSELF
In case you didn't catch a prime piece of advice from my Julian Fellowes coverage at the Screenwriters' Festival 2008, it's a great idea to end each writing day at a point where you can easily resume the following day. In other words, when you collapse on your keyboard, bleeding from the eyes and fingertips at the end of each writing session, try and time that ugly decline just before a scene which you're either really confident about writing, are really dying to write, or hopefully a beautiful combination of both. Then, the following day, it'll be significantly easier to grab that baton and run with it.

FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Revel in the joy of the rough first draft's unpredictability. Sure, you have a rock-solid structure and you know your characters. But there'll be neck-prickly moments when something happens that you really didn't expect. Even if you're not sure if it works, write it anyway. Before you hand it over to whoever you're handing it to, you can re-evaluate and decide whether it really was such a fantastic, maverick notion, or simply the result of an unfortunate rush of blood to the head.

JOURNEY'S END
Nothing much beats the joy of typing FADE OUT on that last page. You've just ventured into the unknown, and come out smelling of consistency, delivery and triumph. You rock. Subsequent drafts will involve smaller ventures into the unknown as you fix and sometimes entirely reinvent certain scenes and ideas, but nothing beats the first draft for the sheer scale of the construction which you're achieving with your brain, fingers and computerised device. Look at you, eh? Forging an entire brave new world, populated by characters who never existed before you spawned them! Most importantly, by reaching the end you've managed to do what legions of screenwriters fail to do: walk the talk and reach the golden finish-line. You're no longer sitting in a pub, quacking on about how you really should set aside some time to get this screenplay written (let's be honest - as pub chat goes, that's about as substantial and fascinating as waxing lyrical about that dream you had the other night). You've gone and rolled your sleeves up, producing something which you can now start to sculpt to perception in the coming days, weeks and months. Not to be underestimated.

So hooray for that initial, rough draft - chock-full of brilliance, stupidity and all that stuff in between. The final draft may be the one which merits champagne, but as a thrilling voyage of discovery, nothing beats your first time.

11 comments:

Piers said...

Hell, have champagne for the first draft too.

Screenwriting's a precarious bloody career at the best of time. You might as well celebrate every chance you get the opportunity,

Jennifer said...

I've always gone with the theory of having 2 first drafts. The actual first one, and the one that you're willing to let other people read. It also helps my ego when I read someone elses brilliant first draft to remember all the minus-figure drafts that no doubt went before.

Helen Smith said...

Hooray xx

Michelle Goode said...

Well done!

I find that writing a first episode of a serial I've conceived in as quick a manner as possible - churning it all out in one afternoon, say - helps me "meet" my characters and "get to know them".

I'm not one for planning in great detail. It's a skill I must learn, I know, but at the moment I like to outline a few characters, their ages, their personalities, their relationships to one another, a few plot ideas etc... And then I just go for it.

It's what I did with the first episode of a teen drama serial I was writing. I came out of it feeling like I knew the cast better than I ever could have done when "planning". Personalities, personal problems, relationships to the other characters and characters' histories came to me as I wrote.

Now I feel so much more in control of the whole concept and all the elements within it. It's how I went so confidently into writing a second draft. Granted, it's being totally re-worked. But now I have ideas to last a whole series.

I'll stop rambling on... Just thought I'd share my success story using the "quick-write" method you described :) It's thumbs up from me and I recommend it to anyone as a warm-up exercise!

Jason Arnopp said...

When I suggested that anyone who launched into a first draft without writing a 200-page treatment was insane, I was of course being overly dogmatic. There are no absolutes - it's just that I've found the treatment to be increasingly useful. Funny thing is, while writing Blood Red Sky, I referenced the treatment quite rarely - it had just helped to cement the characters and plot in my noggin.

Michelle Goode said...

I think I'm just too impatient. I find it hard to plan everything out and detail my characters' lives on the offset when I hardly "know" them... Plus, my brain works in explosive, impulsive ways... So, for me, I find it fascinating to improvise and jump straight in, discovering my characters and their problems along the way. Of course, I'll have to learn how to write treatments at some point... But, for now, as a beginner, I think I'll stick with my method. At least it gets me writing. If I procrastinated any more than I do already I don't think I'd ever actually write any scripts! He he! I'll raise a glass of champagne to the learning process... :D

Jason Arnopp said...

Yeah, the main thing is definitely to write. Whatever it takes, and whatever feels right for you. Danny Stack's just written a splendid post on this kind of malarkey!

Tom Murphy said...

I'm with Piers - completing the first draft definitely warrants champers. However much blood oozes out of my forehead while I'm rewriting, I always feel that 90% of the donkey work has been done by the time the first draft is finished (though I follow a fairly laborious outlining process).

In addition, you can't underestimate the psychological benefit of being able to print it off and riffle through the lovely pages of your COMPLETE screenplay.

The Moviequill said...

awesome post and one to follow... that baton trick was used by Ernest himself I think too

Rob said...

This is dynamite Jase, you've cheered me right up.

Jon Peacey said...

Good reason for detailed treatment? So, by the middle of Act 3 you know who the miscreant is; how they did it; what the trail to their unmasking is… and generally how the thing may turn out. Oh, and tends to stop the taut 90 minute thriller turning into a slightly less-taut 240 minute thriller.

Good reason for not referring to the detailed treatment while writing for first draft? You’ve expended so much energy on it that you know the important bits by heart…

Well that’s my thoughts on the matter, for what they’re worth…

As for “You're no longer sitting in a pub, quacking on about how you really should set aside some time to get this screenplay written”… I know at least three people who’ve told me repeatedly over the last decade (or so) that they’re going to write their screenplay/ novel… so every 6 months or so I ask to read the first draft and every 6 months or so I get the same reply… ‘I haven’t had a chance to write it yet…’ Bizarrely, they always find time to search the internet, go the cinema, watch complete series of Buffy, 24, etc.