Screenwriting Tip #100: The Three Acts of Writing a First Draft

Screenwriting Tip #100: The point of a first draft is just to exist. Nobody should ever spend more than three months on a first draft unless they’re hand-chiseling it on a stone tablet.

The psychological process of writing the first draft follows a predictable arc.

At first it feels like love in the springtime – your concept’s strong, your characters are speaking to you, Act 1 is rocketing along; look at you – you’re a screenwriter, and it feels great! Then Act 2 arrives, and things get dark. You’ve lost track of your subplots; your protagonist is bouncing around aimlessly from plot point to plot point; and who are all these people in your script, and what do they want? By the time you finally arrive at “FADE OUT,” you’ve forgotten why you thought this was a good idea in the first place.

Photo by Dyanna

This struggle is demoralizing and draining. It’s bad for your mental health, but most important, it makes it that much harder to face the rewrite process. This is what leads so many young writers to throw up their hands and send out their first draft (perhaps after a bare minimum of rewriting) while crossing their fingers and hoping against hope that somebody will notice their “hidden potential.” This rarely works because, well, screenwriting is rewriting. And insufficient rewriting is the number-one cause of shitty scripts.

Here’s my suggestion: burn through that first draft as fast as you can. Just get it done. The faster you finish it, the faster you can get on with the real work – rewriting. So how do you finish the first draft as quickly as possible?

Well, you could pretend you’re possessed by the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson, go on a crazed coke- and meth-fueled bender and knock out your entire first draft in seventy-two hours. Sadly, for legal reasons, I can’t recommend that you do that. But these tips might be the next best thing.

Write the easiest version of every scene.

Subtext is hard. Like, really hard. Trying to deal with unconscious or unarticulated desires on top of more overt character motivations is just confusing as hell. Yet teachers and screenwriting advice book authors are always telling us that our scenes should be built upon layers of subtext – that they must contain “inner goals” and “reversals of expectation” – or else they’ll wither on the page. Who do those people think they are?

Okay, so they may have a point. All that stuff makes for better scenes. But sometimes, let’s be honest, we don’t know the characters and their motivations well enough to be layering those subtleties into the first draft. If we sat there trying to come up with the fanciest, most intricate and interesting version of each scene, we’d become totally paralyzed and write nothing.

Instead: write the easiest version of the scene. The scene still has to contain conflict, but make it the simplest version of that conflict. Can’t think of a clever way for the protagonist to escape the villain’s death-trap? Have him escape the dumb way. You’ll have plenty of time to make it brilliant during the rewrite.

Dialog first, then action.

I don’t know about you – perhaps I’m a little dimmer than most – but I find switching gears between action lines and dialog to be quite mentally taxing. Constantly jumping between terse descriptive prose and, say, a Southern vernacular speech pattern is hard on the brain (it’s even worse if you have multiple characters in a scene who all speak in a different style). It wears you down over time, and it slows the pace of your writing. The solution? When you come to a new scene, write the scene heading, and then write all the dialog first. Don’t write in any action at all – go full Shakespeare on its ass. Then, when you’ve got the dialog hashed out for the entire scene, go back and fill in the blanks with action. Not only does this method eliminate brain strain from switching between writing styles, but it also allows you to clearly map out the arc and pacing of the scene.

This tip doesn’t work for all genres. You’ll find it’s of limited use when scripting, say, an action film or a thriller. But for comedies, dramas, and other talky scripts, it’s a godsend.

Strip your action lines down to the bone.

Adverbs and adjectives. Who needs them? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our Anglo-Saxon linguistic forbears left us some really strong, powerful, all-round excellent verbs and nouns. They’re so good, in fact, that we wielders of English can easily build elegant, multilayered sentences without resorting to elaborate clauses or two-dollar words. Take that, French.

But maybe you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Maybe you like to labor over your action lines. In that case, my advice to you is: don’t do it on the first draft. Just write the simplest form of every sentence. Remember, the heart of your story isn’t your sentence structure; it’s your protagonist’s actions.

Go back and add the foreshadowing later. We’ve all been there. You start writing that pivotal, emotional scene in Act 3, and you realize: this would have a much bigger emotional impact if these two characters had talked to each other about their past. Or if they’d been lovers. Or if their mentor had left them a postcard warning them about the situation, or what have you.

When you realize this – that you could enrich the scene you’re currently writing by setting it up earlier in the script – your first instinct will be to dive back to an earlier act and start tinkering. Don’t. Resist the urge. Instead, write the current scene as if that early foreshadowing is already in place. Then go back and add it in the rewrite.

If it helps, think of this trick as being a bit like the time travel in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – Bill and Ted need the keys to the police station, so they trust that their future selves will remember to go back in time and leave the keys for them. And voilà – there they are! You can do this, too. Just make sure you don’t forget to remember to go back in time … if you follow me.

But! Don’t skimp on the emotional arc.

This is important. You can rush the first draft. You can write it as barebones as you like and trust that all the meaty stuff will come later in the rewrites. But the one thing your first draft must always contain is a strong arc for the protagonist. That’s your guiding light – the backbone of your entire story. Without that, you’re just typing sweet nothings into Final Draft.

Follow this advice and you’ll have a finished first draft in no time. Congratulations! Now the real work begins.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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