There is no such thing as a first draft, or an OK first draft, or a pretty good first draft. There are only Shitty First Drafts and Super Shitty First Drafts and the only way to graduate from Super Shitty to just Shitty is to write several Super Shitty First Drafts.
Every screenwriter, at least the ones that live in the reality of this planet (believe me, there are many who don’t and most reside in Los Angeles) knows that the first draft is not even good enough to show your mother. This is particularly hard to stomach if you are a beginner screenwriter and you think everything you write is super clever and compelling. Write a few scripts, show them to some people, and watch that six figure spec deal delusion crumble.
I’ve completed many Shitty First Drafts and the road to the rewrite is always excruciatingly painful because, after all that work, the thought of taking it apart and risk making it worse, is horrific to me. Last night I attended the Notes on Craft: Rewriting session at the WGA in an effort to come to terms with that fear. The impressive panel was moderated by Daniel Petrie, Jr. and was composed of John August, Jack Epps, Jr. and Scott Frank.
I can’t begin to tell you how helpful and inspiring the experience was. It wasn’t that I heard earth-shattering information although the advice and tips from the writers were great. No, what I discovered was that even established and wildly successful screenwriters have the same fears and tackle the same problems as hopefuls.
The three writers had three different processes and approaches to writing. Epps is organized, uses note cards and has to have a clear vision and outline before he begins. August needs to know the beginning and the end and then works towards the middle. Frank just writes and writes until he discovers the story and finds its heartbeat. He confessed this was an extremely arduous, agonizing and long, long, long method.
They agreed that the greatest rewrite fear comes from having to risk everything that works to fix what doesn’t. It’s tricky to navigate around what’s working. So how do you figure out what doesn’t work? You need to trust yourself and your instinct and remember why you wanted to write this story in the first place. You should also have a few trusted friends and colleagues that will read your script and give you helpful notes. Some trusted readers should be people who’d love the kind of movie you are writing and others who wouldn’t consider it their thing.
The Shitty First Draft exists to be torn apart, and almost always, the second draft process will be more difficult. A writer must find the inspiration to tackle the second draft with fresh eyes and the courage to be brutal and savage. You should perceive the task as a challenge and not a mechanical chore and you need to continue to locate yourself in the material so that it’s a living, breathing story.
These writers were telling me exactly what I instinctively knew and they confirmed why it was so difficult to tear that first draft apart.
Interestingly, Frank commented that the reason you start a script hardly ever winds up in the final draft.
The screenwriters spoke about their rewriting assignments and they agreed that the common denominator of bad scripts is the lack of good characters. They get called in to “fix the girl, make her sound human.” Too often, writers concentrate on plot and populate the story with “attitudes.” These “people” do not act like humans, the plot and where it’s going dictates what the characters do and say. Frank said that the only way you can have an artful script is to have great characters. Story is easy, great characters are not.
Because it’s so tough to discern what works or doesn’t, Epps urged us to formulate a plan of attack and concentrate on only one thing with each pass. He added that most of his rewriting consisted of figuring out character motivation and deepening relationships and subplots. He offered Tootsie as an example. Michael Dorsey’s story and arc are pretty clear, but each of his relationships is what drives the story and makes it compelling.
The single most valuable tip involved audience consideration. The writers pointed out the importance of the audience’s point of view: what do they want to see? August mentioned the evolution of Iron Man. The filmmakers were smart enough to realize that the audience wanted to see Robert Downey, Jr. creating his inventions, so they cut a lot of the action and plot from the final film and gave them more of what they wanted to see.
Other helpful tips/exercises:
• Give yourself the freedom to write off the page and get your characters talking.
• Imagine the story from each character’s point of view, change the dynamics of the scene, i.e. which character drives it and have fun writing it.
• Pay close attention to scene transitions and focus on them to improve pace. Frequently, if scene transitions are not effective, that means one of the scenes is unnecessary.
• Change up obligatory genre scenes, i.e. the “meet cute” in a romcom. Think of ways to change the formula and write it differently.
• Ask yourself: if the inciting incident didn’t happen, would I watch these characters anyway? If the answer is no, you have to go back to characterization.
• Burn down the house. Be horrible to your main character. Things can always get worse for her.
• Always be on the lookout for lack of conflict. It doesn’t matter how small a scene is, it should always have conflict.
• When it comes to polishing, be mindful of rhythm, flow and tone. Vary sentence structure or else the read will be very boring. Say a lot with the least amount of words possible and make every word count. They recommended Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” as the quintessential example of saying a lot with little.
• If you can tell what your script is about without getting long winded or digressing, then the draft is ready for other eyes.
Finally, Frank expressed that the best reason to write was to amuse yourself. But because writing is such agony, it must be an obsession. And yes, successful writers also move commas around and mess with the settings of their screenwriting program to cheat page count and call it rewriting.
I’m still afraid, but it’s comforting to know that there are others out there who are with me in my suffering. I think I’m ready to face the imaginary paper shredder. And anyway, what choice do I have? This is an obsession.