I remember writing my first feature-length screenplay back in film school. I had a vague idea of the structure and got lost somewhere in the barren wasteland of ACT 2 and felt like I would never reach the end. Now, after writing a huge stack of screenplays, I have a better grasp on the process, but it’s always a new and different experience every time you type FADE IN. I respect the process more now as a working screenwriter and the romantic notions of “waiting for inspiration” have given way to the reality that screenwriting is a job with many of the same responsibilities that any job requires. Early on, I thought screenwriting would be an easy experience, just sit down and write, and I was humbled every time by the enormity of the craft. I’m still learning, even after having sixteen films produced, writing thirty-nine feature length screenplays, and nine TV pilots.
Do not fool yourself into thinking your first draft has to be shit. It’s just the opposite—your first draft is extremely important because the DNA of your story and characters lives in this precious first pass. I love this quote from six time Academy Award nominee screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf?):
“Good screenwriting is about carpentry. It’s a juggling of beginnings, middles and endings so they all inevitably seem to be moving correctly together. Your first draft is dangerously important. Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, ‘It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.’ Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve gone in another direction.”—Ernest Lehman.
It’s true. I know from experience that it’s difficult to totally rewrite a first draft from page one into something new. Sadly, too many times it ends up becoming a jumbled mess as the foundation of the story is being altered after it’s been built. My advice is to make your first draft your best possible work at the time you write it. Act as if you’ll never get another chance to touch the screenplay. That’s not to put extra pressure on you, but to train yourself now to turn out a superb first draft—not something you just vomit out. This will prepare you for the day when you’re hired professionally on assignment and have to deliver the goods with every draft. This pays off in many ways, most importantly when you’re working for a producer, and your solid first draft secures your job and makes for a smooth development process—not development hell. A solid draft also moves the project forward by attracting the interest of investors, a director, and actors.
Make sure your screenplay suffers the fewest amount of changes during the development process. Trust me, you don’t want your script to get bogged down in endless rewrites that could change your script into something completely different. It’s hard to climb out of that pit and too many times projects die a tragic death from too many drafts over a long period.
I’m not suggesting that you agonize over every word, but treat your first draft with the seriousness and respect it deserves. A solid first draft will help with faster rewrites because you’re not reinventing story lines but doing more of a “clean up” job. You want to avoid situations where your first draft is shit, and you have to do a page one rewrite and throw out seventy-five percent of the work. This will throw off your writing schedule for sure. When you start working on paid screenwriting assignments, you will not have the luxury of turning in a crappy first draft. The producer or executive will expect the best possible draft that matches the accepted story outline. Anything less will endanger your chances of getting a chance at writing the second draft and staying on the project through production.
As I mentioned, avoid writing a “vomit” draft because you can use that precious time to actually work on a solid outline and write a faster and more effective first draft. Most of your vomiting stream of consciousness won’t probably keep and you’ll have a massive rewrite anyway. So, why not spend that important time on a solid outline before you start any pages? A sold first draft also helps lessen massive rewrites on the successive drafts. Good luck and keep screenwriting.
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Sanderson. All Rights Reserved. My Blank Page blog at http://www.scriptcat.wordress.com
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