First Drafts

The first draft of anything is shit – Ernest Hemmingway.

One fact of scriptwriting life I come face to face with many times is the beauty/travesty of the first draft.

When studying at university my lecturer hammered it home to us –  “your first draft is the crap draft, but you have to get to the end to call it crap”. He was right. There is no point writing and then re-writing the first ten pages until they’re golden because I can guarantee they will not fit the rest of the story after the multiple re-writes you will inevitably do. You have to get to the end of your story, any story, in order to look back and see your vision come to life and feel where the weak spots are.

This was a hard pill to swallow at first. I didn’t like the idea of pursuing  something I’m not totally happy with, it’s like leaving the house with half a shirt tucked in or a trouser tucked into a sock, it’s weird and ugly and you definitely don’t want anyone else to see it. But this worked in my favour, its unkempt look is what surged me on to the finishing line. I knew if I could just get to the end I could fix the cracks and holes like hot tarmac on a disused road.

….And, pushing through until the end rewards you with a huge bonus that people tend to forget about – it feels good, really bloody good! Typing the notorious FADE TO BLACK is a real high, forget the plot holes or the clunky dialogue, you have a story. Start to finish. Not many people can say that. The only way from here is improvement, you would be doing something quite wrong to make your first draft worse, I’ll wager it’s nigh on impossible so long as you study your script and don’t pass it over to Adam Sandler for notes.

I’ve touched on this before but personally, a lot of ideas for scenes, especially regarding the emotional dynamics and nuances in behaviour will be semi-improvisational when writing. There may be an idea for how a scene may run but it will only become real when typing begins and more often than not I will follow a spontaneous tangent because it feels organic in the moment. My experience writing first drafts is that this plot/scene/story improvisation happens countless times as I begin bringing the story to life meaning the end result is usually quite different from the scene chart or whatever I have used to plan the plot and structure. This may not be the case for everyone of course but I thought I would emphasise that if this sounds familiar then completing a first draft is crucial in understanding where you story is heading and why. The end result may not be what you envisioned and that’s okay. Try and treat the first draft simply as a means of translating your plan into movement, behaviour and speech and don’t be afraid to go crazy. Don’t sweat the big stuff, your testing to see what gels and what doesn’t, the meta picture will come later.

Of course my points are all very personal, based solely on my experience. I know of writers who have a different take on things and that’s fine because everyone’s writing journey is different. However, I believe the principle dichotomy with first drafts is ubiquitous and therefore important to realise and overcome: first drafts are shite, but you MUST finish them. You will only truly understand why once you do, and then afterward you can have a go at writing a blog post about your experience and risk alienating the internet forever.

Writing a first draft is like trying to restore an old car except you don’t really know what it’s supposed to look like, you must persevere!


Author: benjaminwilliamdavies

Scriptwriter. Learning by living.

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