The End Is Often The Beginning. Thoughts On Writing Your First Draft 

See the entire playlist of ‘First Draft’ videos on Youtube here

Have you completed the first draft of your screenplay yet? First off, congratulations are in order. Many writers don’t get this far

Now what? Reread it? Put it away in the much talked about drawer collecting dust for a month, only reviewing it later with fresh eyes? Show it to a friend? Convince yourself it’s terrible? Never work on it again?

Here are a few thoughts on writing the first draft from our Film Courage guests. Here are more thoughts on just starting out in the business.

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: When you finish a screenplay, what are the next steps you take after it’s done?

Elaine Zicree, screenwriter:  The thing is to figure out when it is done.

Marc Scott Zicree, author and screenwriter: Yes!

Elaine Zicree: And after you’ve finished the first draft it’s very sad when you’re new to the job and you’ve finished the first draft and you think it’s done and of course the first draft you’re not even close to being done.

Marc Scott Zicree: The end is often the beginning.

Elaine Zicree: It is. But the first thing that you do is you put it aside for a little bit. And then you reread it. And I tend to give it…I reread it several times. For one I read it through to see does the plot have drive (‘m just focusing on the plot). Are there any big holes? Does the piping go together? 

The next thing I’ll do it read it through each character and say “Am I following the journey of this character? Oh my gosh! How did she find that out? Why is she reacting to something she was never told?” You know things like that, you find those things. Or suddenly…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Danny Strong, screenwriter, producer and actor: And then there’s a phase when you have to edit it and go through it and that is a more critical part of your brain. But I do my best not to beat myself up about it. And if I don’t like something I just change it and I just keep working on it and working on it and not turn it into some big melodramatic, artist’s struggle. I don’t view it that way at all. 

I will say one thing that I think could be very interesting to people that are writers is what I do is I outline a script very meticulously and my outlines are about 25 pages to 30 pages long. And then when I go to write the actual first draft, I will not reread one word of what I’ve written until I’ve written the whole script. 

So for my first pass on a screenplay, I start from the beginning and then I just go…and I go all the way through until I’m done without having read one word of it and it takes about three weeks…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Let’s say I finish my first draft…what am I doing? Who am I showing it to? What am I thinking?

Vicki Peterson, co-author: Well the very first thing you should do when you finish a first draft is go out and celebrate, truly.  There are so many people who start a draft and never finish. And by just finishing a draft you’ve probably put yourself in the top ten percent of all screenwriters just by doing that one thing. And seeing something to completion, seeing a first draft come to life that’s a really huge accomplishment, especially for a first-time writer. So we really encourage people to take note of that, to celebrate. And then I would say after that take a little break from writing so that you can be fresh so that you can come back to it with new eyes. 

Now the first draft is just the very, very, very beginning of a very long journey towards being produced or being a professional screenwriter. And so after you’ve had a chance to take a break it’s really important to go back to that draft and look at it through the eyes of an editor to really look at it objectively so that you can rewrite it. And in our book [Notes to Screenwriters: Advancing Your Story, Screenplay, and Career With Whatever Hollywood Throws at You] we have a whole chapter on rewriting and things that you can do to get your script ready.

When it’s ready to be seen by eyes other than your own we generally recommend that this is where you would send it to your writer’s group, this is where you would get professional feedback where you really need mentorship, where you really need somebody who can guide you through the rewrite process. And once that happens, once you have a working draft that you can send out, that’s when you start contacting producers, that’s when you can start sending it out to festivals and contests and things like that…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Do you think a screenwriter should write their first draft as quickly as possible, just regurgitate it out of themselves and then revise from there?

Pilar Alessandra, author, podcast host and instructor: Ahh! You’re talking about the vomit draft aren’t you, right? We have such nice expressions for it. Yes, I do. And I urge my students not to look back. That’s where the perfections start to come in and they stop up their writing process and they have these beautiful first acts and then they never go any further. So yes, by all means, write to the end. And then you can go back in and you can start honing in or chiseling away at it, fattening it up, making it better. But write to the end. 

Film Courage: So if they plan to do a 90-page script, don’t stop in the middle and make sure that it’s okay. They’ve got to just get it all out.

Pilar Alessandra: Right, barrel forward. I think so many people make the mistake of going back and rereading what they wrote the day before and polishing up with what they wrote and only moving this much further. We don’t have enough time, you know? We only set so much writing time a day. You’ve got to make as much use of that as you can and press forward…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: How often would you say a screenwriter’s first draft is their final draft?

John Truby, author and instructor: Never. But it brings up I think an important point which is that the tendency for many writers is to think that because writing is rewriting (the classic phrase that everybody says), they take the approach that go ahead and write the first draft, make mistakes, feel free to make mistakes, because you can fix it later. This is a very dangerous approach. And one that seems to be a good idea at the time but is actually the makings of a disaster.

And the reason for that is that it means the writer is not doing their structural work up front, their preparation. In any craft before you actually execute that art form, you need to do the prep work up front. 

In story, it is figuring out the structure. This is why when I was talking about on a television staff you don’t get to write the first draft of the script until every story beat is figured out in minute detail and the show runner signs off on that. That’s because they know on television from experience working under tremendous time pressure that a lot of times (most of the time) it doesn’t get fixed in rewrite. Whatever big structural mistakes you make in the opening draft are then much more difficult to fix…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Tamika Lamison, screenwriter:  I think when I first started writing scripts it was. Once I learned that lesson from my brother I really understood that the characters are more interesting and people can relate to them more and they are more relatable when they do have faults because we all do. And when we show those faults it balances everything out because there is something that people can relate to, any character that has faults.

I think we do it more these days then we did before. Like you might have a villain who has some really nice qualities. Or you have the protagonist who has some really just awful qualities. We still route for him and we still like him and we’re like “Well you know? Everybody has their stuff, even this person.

Film Courage: That’s a good point. I think more in the 80’s…like I’m thinking of PRETTY IN PINK, this character where there wasn’t anything that she did that was awful. We wanted her to win but she didn’t have a dark side.

Tamika Lamison: Not really…we still liked her though. We wanted her to get the guy…and Ducky…I mean hey, you know?…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: How much weight do you actually give it or obsess over it…you know they call it the vomit draft…

Phyllis Nagy, screenwriter: Yeah, I’m not a vomiter. And mostly I think that when scripts are not right fundamentally in their first drafts, they never will be, hence four, five, six writers being called on to something in service that wasn’t right to begin with. So you should get a new take rather than try to put a bandaid on something that doesn’t work. I wish more weight and more time were given to first drafts because they are often the draft that’s closest to something electric whether you’re writing a thriller or a quiet little movie or a comedy and subsequent drafts and however long someone works on something in the end and it always ends up going back to an earlier state when you’ve got the right people working on something. It’s always (in my experience) goes back to its first fundamental state with improvements.

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: E.K. should a writer share their first, second, even third of their manuscript with family and friends?

E.K. Prescott, P.h.D., author and professor: That is a really interesting question. Yes and no. I shared mine with family, but not all family are writers and can give you the kind of feedback you want. But what I did was, I share it after it was done because I found telling the story wasn’t that effective, they had to see it done. Or reading a chapter here and there wasn’t effective. They really didn’t know what I was trying to do. Unless you want somebody to edit it, now that’s different. But if you want feedback on the story, they couldn’t get it into their…they are not educators (educators tend to…especially English teachers can look at it and kind of give you some feedback).

So when it was done, yes I got some feedback. And everybody liked it but…”Yeah, it’s good? But will it sell? Will it get a publisher?” And things like that. But not much more than that, I just did a little.

So to recommend it, you’re not going to get what you want but you’re going to get enough to give you some hope or ideas of what you need to do...(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

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