I remember my first feature-length screenplay. I got lost somewhere in the barren wasteland of ACT 2 and felt like I would never reach the end. Now, thirty-five screenplays later with fourteen produced films from nineteen paid assignments and one spec sale, 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 this fact. Early on in my journey, I thought it would be screenwriting would be an easy experience, and I was humbled every time by the enormity of the craft.
Do not fool yourself into thinking your first draft has to be shit or you should just, ‘Get it down on paper.” 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 underneath the story. My advice is to make your first draft your best possible work at the time. When writing it, act as if you’ll never get another chance to touch the screenplay.
You should use your specs as training to turn out a superb first draft to prepare you for the day when you’re hired for a screenplay assignment. This pays off in many ways, most importantly when you’re working for a producer and your solid first draft helps reduce the development process and can secure the interest of investors, a director, and actors. A solid, kick-ass first draft will also keep you on the screenplay assignment and not get you replaced by another screenwriter.
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 development hell. 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 of time. The script can end up unrecognizable after the multiple drafts and ultimately the writer can be blamed for the producer’s decisions to change the story.
I’m not suggesting that you agonize over every word, but treat your first draft with the seriousness it deserves. A solid first draft will help with faster rewrites because you’re not reinventing story lines, but you’re doing a “clean up” job. You want to avoid situations where your first draft is shit and you have to do a page one rewrite instead of a clean up. 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 treatment. Anything less will endanger your chances of getting a chance at draft two and staying on the project through production.
Avoid a “vomit” draft because you can use that precious time to work it into something excellent. Why not? A sold first draft also helps lessen massive rewrites on the successive drafts.
And continuing of the subject of first drafts the question always arises, “How long should a first draft take?” If you’ve been screenwriting for a while, you’ll be able to estimate how fast you can write a first draft of a screenplay. That’s important because when you start working professionally, you will need to work under a contracted deadline and deliver the goods on time at the top of your game. Time is our greatest asset or worst enemy—it depends on how you respect and use it. This is why I recommend that beginning screenwriters to always set their own realistic writing schedules when writing their specs so they’ll be training for the day when a professional opportunity arrives.
You may labor over your spec for six months or longer because there is no deadline and your life keeps getting in the way. Once screenwriting becomes your job, and it is a job, you’ll need to have the stamina and focus to write six or more hours per day to meet a deadline. If you haven’t already, you need to set up a regular, uninterrupted writing schedule and protect it at all costs. If the forces of interruption get in the way, you’re productivity and success will be severely hampered. An important element in writing is consistency and if you skip one day, and then two, you’ll find yourself losing the vital focus to keep your script on track. As you’ve probably found out already, there is always something else to do then write. It’s important to finish out a day writing, no matter the page count, and get right back to it the next day while it’s fresh in your mind. This builds consistency and a regular schedule.
If you’re working under a WGA union contract, the minimum time for a first draft is usually twelve weeks. You can guarantee the producer or executive will start calling your agent or manager in about four weeks, sniffing around to see how you are progressing. In my contract for my recent screenwriting assignment that I completed a few months ago, I agreed to a four-week schedule to turn in my first draft. I completed the script in 25 days and turned in my 105 page script a few days early after going over it a few times myself. It wasn’t impossible because I was working from a solid story treatment that I crafted and it was authorized by the producer and production company. I’ve also worked under a contract that allowed four weeks for a first draft. When you’re working on assignment jobs, producers will not allow you to start the script until the story treatment or step outline is completely fleshed out. This way your screenwriting will be a breeze as you have a solid road map to follow. It’s such a creative high when you complete a solid day of writing and leave it where you can’t wait to get up the next morning and start again.
My fastest time for writing a first draft was twenty days. That was five pages a day, every day to get the job done. When I finish early, I go over the script again by myself for a polish before I turn it in to the producer. I believe too much time can harm the process because every project has a deadline, otherwise nothing would get into development or be produced. You should work on your spec story treatment for a longer time, because about seventy-five percent of the work should go into the story development of the script. The script itself? I think two months would be a huge amount of time. If you’re working six to eight hours a day, you should be able to write five or more pages on a normal day. You also have to remain fluid because you never know how the experience will develop and every time out it’s different. I once had to write 26 pages in 24 hours because the German investors were coming into town! I never want to experience that frenzy again, but it’s nice to know my abilities under pressure.
If you want to eventually work professionally, as I’m sure is your goal, you will need to work efficiently under a deadline, and at the best of your ability. It’s basically working quickly at the best of your creativity on a schedule and under a deadline. The only way to get to this place is to always set your own deadlines and meet them every time with your spec screenplays. If you’re not practicing this writing schedule now, I’d suggest starting it on your next project. Respect that first draft, protect it, and you’ll end up with a solid foundation that will lessen the rewrites.
Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Sanderson on My Blank Page blog.
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“Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized.”—Rod Serling.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible adventures.”—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”—Joseph Campbell
“Screenwriting is such a very special branch of literature. In some ways, it’s closer to the poetic form than it is to the dramatic. A lot of writers think that they write down to an audience if they do a motion-picture script.”—John Huston
“When I first meet with the scriptwriter, I ask him what is the story about—what do you see—what was your intention?”—Sidney Lumet
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” — Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.”—Rudyard Kipling, “If