Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Secret to a GREAT First Draft

All screenplays go through many, many . . .  MANY drafts.

Film scripts are more built than written as we refine, mold, shape and construct the best story we can.  Most drafts are designed to winnow down and refine the material that you put down in your first draft.

But so many of us try to form and structure the story from the very beginning.

This is a mistake.

Through my private practice with aspiring novelists and screenwriters and more than thirty years as a writer, I've learned that the first draft – the first time you put concentrated effort into realizing your vision - should be a special and powerful time. It should be fury and abandon. It should be the release of the flood waters. And it should be a time of imaginings and dreams, of staring into the abyss and then suddenly rushing back to the keyboard as the ideas pour out of you.

And you should write until you are empty.  Pages and pages of inspiration and talent and creation, all gathered there in one single place that you will later mold and shape into your best work yet.

And that’s as it should be.

But if you're concentrating in the first draft on Inciting Incidences and Midpoint Turns and Dark Night of the Soul moments, you immediately put restriction of your abilities and you will not do your best work.

The first draft is not a time for choosing -  it's a time for acquiring and gathering the best of you onto the page.

Your only responsibility at this point is to get out of your little brain all the ideas scenes, notions, images and moments that you have for your story. This draft is the straw and clay that you will use to build your screenplay.  Anything – ANYTHING - that takes away from this pure moment of creating  harms your story and severely limits your chances for success.

So . . . 

Put aside the screenwriting books, Guru DVDs, and course notes for a while.  Give Snyder, Fields, McKee and all the rest a break and concentrate on just you, just your visions, just your story.  Be in touch with the reason you are compelled to write this particular story.  Look into the deeper meaning of what you’re trying to say. Allow nothing to distract you and just write. 

Write hard. 

Go off on tangents.

Fill the pages.

Explore the small little corners of your characters and peek into the recesses and shadows of the world that you've created.

Then and only then – when you’re finished with this draft - should you give any thought to structure.


  1. I know my question below is a bit unrelated to the topic at hand, however, I was wondering if you can lend me some insight into this matter. Do you think that if is a story or a goal is talked about during it's conception and before it's creation that it will loose it's power and fizzle? i find that every time i get excited for a new project and i talk about it...I'm not as excited anymore as if it is not as precious to me. Thank you.

    1. Melineh:

      I think you're absolutely right!

      My theory is that the brain can't tell the difference from the pleasure you get from TELLING a good story from the pleasure of writing it. Unfortunately, writing is so much more work that it's easy for writers to fall into the trap of telling rather than writing it out and getting it done.

      To counter this, I tell my students that they can tell the story just five (5) times prior to starting the writing process. After that, they must commit to working through it alone, except for counsel from trusted friends/readers, or from ongoing critique groups.

      Hope that helps. Keep writing!