Your First Draft: The Easiest Hardest Draft You’ll Ever Write
by Jill Remensnyder
Okay, now what? You’ve been thinking nonstop about your story for months. You’re ready to write the first draft. How do you approach such a huge task? Writing 90-120 pages is daunting compared to the 140 character tweets and Facebook posts we’ve become accustomed to. The answer is simple; approach writing your first draft one step at a time. Easy, right?!
Some writers are blessed with the ability to sit and write without direction; nothing but an idea, inspiration, and dedication to seeing their idea come to life. The majority of people I meet who set out blindly like this usually end up discouraged or driven to madness when their story hits a brick wall.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. The first draft should be the easiest draft you write. No joke. The hardest part (next to those rewrites we’ll talk about later) will be writing your treatment and organizing the outline you’ll use as your blueprint.
Avoid setting yourself up for failure by taking preparations that will set you up for success in starting and finishing the first draft of your script.
Preparation is Key
As a director would you show up for the first day of filming without any sort of production meeting? As a DP would you show up on set without a shot list? Of course not. You know that organization and preparation is critical to making your project run smoother. The same rules apply to screenwriting.
Take the same care and preparation with your screenplay as you would your shot list or logging your footage before editing. Below I discuss a few ways you can organize your story by writing a treatment, an outline, or applying your story events to a beat sheet.
Treatment – For the purpose of your first draft, think of a treatment as a glorified book report covering the major events in your story. This shortened version of your script introduces all the characters and what the story is about. Do not use your treatment to go into detail about your preferred shooting format or how you’re going to incorporate a killer dolly shot. Stick to writing the beginning, middle, and end of your story. You don’t need to include all the details, just focus on the larger brush strokes you need to effectively tell your story. When your treatment is complete you should be able to give it to someone else to read and, genre preferences aside, it should make sense.
Step Outline – Ah, but, you say, the devil is in the details. This is where your detailed step outline comes in handy. At this point you still don’t have to worry about outlining every scene, but it’s time to flesh out the main events that make up your story. Go ahead and make note of all the moments you want to fit into your script – all those extra little things that tie together the brush strokes of your treatment. The key is to keep them short, with just enough detail to assist you with writing. Make sure to jot down some of that dialogue you’ve been hearing in your head. Again, don’t worry about working out the whole scene. Keep it short, sweet, and to the point.
Beat Sheet – A beat sheet is similar to an outline except you’re focusing on the major plot points that make up your script. Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat beat sheet is a great reference. He breaks story structure down beyond the 3 Act structure into 15 smaller pieces that cover the pivotal moments in a screenplay. He also gives corresponding page numbers to when certain events need to take place. I’ve heard some writers refer to it as a “cheat sheet” to make sure their script is falling into place.
I am an advocate of using 3×5 cards. You can move ideas around, add additional cards as needed, and see the whole flow of your story. Once you start filling in the blanks you might make some discoveries along the way you didn’t think of earlier.
Don’t rush this stage of the writing process. Keep refining your notes until you feel your story is rock-solid. Feel good about what you’ve got? Take a deep breath. It’s time to start writing…
Making Time to Write
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that 98% of life is just showing up. The same goes with writing. The biggest obstacle you’re going to face is showing up at your computer, sitting down, and filling those blank pages with brilliance.
Whether it means carving out an extra hour or two in the morning before heading out the door or pushing your bedtime a little later than normal, make time to write. If it means going out of town, secluding yourself in a Motel 6, turning off your phone, locking the door, and living off cold pizza; do it. The point is to hunker down and write. Once you start writing, you’ll be amazed at how your ideas will flow.
For those of you not into marathon writing sessions I suggest setting milestones. Set a daily page number goal or a goal to complete critical scenes or focus on a specific plot point. Approach the first draft in steps.
I often find that even though I try to pace myself I’ll get into a groove and will want to sneak in a couple extra scenes. Or maybe I’ve reached a point where one of my characters is about to make a discovery that needs to be explored and I don’t want to stop. Get all your raw ideas down on that paper. You’ll have plenty of time to sort out what works and doesn’t when you rewrite. This is the time to pour out your heart and feelings. Do not edit as you go.
In a perfect world writing your first draft should be easy. You’ve done all the legwork with your treatment and outline. Now you just need to set aside some time to write. All you’re doing is fleshing out your rock-solid story in script format, right? Yet, things happen. Are those awesome scenes playing out on paper the same way you visualized them during your morning commute? Does your snappy dialogue and those witty one-liners sound as great as when you rehearsed it in front of the mirror?
Your first draft will not be your best writing, but it will be better than anything you don’t write! Your first draft should embody the passion and ideas that originally inspired you and compelled you to share your story with an audience. There will be some terrible stuff in there. I’m willing to bet you’ll find scenes that make no sense and dialogue that will make you cringe. But, there will also be some really fantastic stuff in there that you can keep and improve upon.
Writing a screenplay is a process. The point is to sit down and do it. With a little blood, sweat, and tears you’ll be typing FADE OUT in no time. Just remember, this is the first of many drafts you’ll be writing.
Read more from Jill…
11 Invaluable Screenwriting Tips Worth Repeating
Putting Your Best Script Forward
How to Write Compelling Characters
How to Get Script Feedback That is Actually Helpful
How to Write Dialogue
Writers + Directors: A Working Relationship
Writers + Directors, Part 2: Working With a Director
Writing What You Know (when you know nothing at all)