Student Services Blog
& Featured Stories

Screenplay 101

The Power of a Sh_tty First Draft

The thing that holds most writers back is fear of failure. Such a fear can imprison people, keeping them creatively paralyzed so that ultimately they don’t make anything at all—good or bad. On this front, being a person who aspires to do quality work can actually work against you: you don’t want to produce anything bad and you know just how bad bad can be! Instead you wait for genius to strike. You bemoan that one thing that’s been eluding you for months, telling yourself once you’ve got that worked out you’ll be ready to let loose and those genius ideas of yours will stream down from brain to fingertips as you feverishly write that masterpiece showing the world the genius you are.

Put any such idea to rest. No writer is amazing 100% of the time and probably not even 20% of the time, that’s just not the nature of writing. So if you really and truly want to produce great work, embrace writing that sh_tty first draft.

Oftentimes the only way to push things forward is to get it all written down in crappy first draft you wouldn’t show a soul (and don’t!). What you’ll most likely end up with once you’ve hunkered down and finished it in screenplay format, simply proceeding scene to scene without much or any editing or fixing, won’t be pretty. Along with nondescript characters and wooden dialogue you’ll find a line that rings true —and bam! your main character breathes himself to life— you’ll get a better sense of the period you’re writing in, and you’ll probably work out a few problems or gray areas you had prior to writing the draft. In short, you’ll be on your way AND you will have triumphed over those would-be-geniuses who’ll never make it because they simply don’t have the courage to get to “The End.” For a great many writers, cranking out that bad first draft is the best way to produce something worthwhile. For those of us who need to stoke the fires of inspiration and prove something to ourselves, it’s oftentimes the only place to start.

What prevents so many would-be-brilliant writers from ever going pro is one three letter word: ego. Rather than fight or quash the ego, make it work for you, not against you. Instead of insisting on genius from yourself (which sets the ego up for failure and triggers a fear response), simply focus on getting the story down on paper. Enroll your ego in the process by patting yourself on the back for your abilty to crank out the words. As long as you have a hero and a goal people will care about, a conflict, and preferably, a clear-cut antagonist, you’ve got enough to start. If you don’t have that, get started on it now and once it tracks, start writing asap.

Don’t expect the writing process to be fun. Chances are that clunking it out will feel inspired 15-20% of the time and just a shade better than data entry during the rest of it but that’s A-OK. And here’s a little secret: that’s the way it actually feels to get that first draft out for almost every writer, even the bigwigs. Let your friends imagine you float on clouds as you write, only we writers know the truth. Those who succeed aren’t flying high on inspiration, and no, they aren’t pounding out the pages at 100 mph (as so often depicted in movies). They’re just keeping their rear in the chair, doggedly doing the work, especially when it isn’t fun or super inspiring. During these extended stretches of patient transposing from mind to page, see how often your mind might want to distract you, suggesting you go online, do dishes, make phone calls, or do anything but write! Staying in the chair is the best way to show your writer self you mean business. So resist. Believe in your abilities and remain steadfast. Over time, doing so will make you an Olympian!

Once you’ve got that crappy first draft done, you’ll have the well-earned confidence boost that comes with knowing you’re capable of reaching the finish line. You’ll also have something to poke holes in, refine, and elevate. Think of it this way, if you were a famous artist comissioned to paint a mural, would you go straight to ink? Of course not! You’d do a few construction lines and some basic foundational work before jumping into the fray. Writing works in much the same way. Release yourself from demanding only the best from yourself. That’s too much for 99% of us to bear. They’ll be a time to insist on greatness, but now is not that time. For now, just focus on writing that crappy first draft and getting all that stuff that’s been clogging up your brain down on the page. It’ll feel like a load’s been lifted, I promise.

Once that’s done you can love that weird little screenplay for what it is and for all the potential it has. Then, seeing where things don’t track, where acts are too long or too short, or where characters seem lifeless, will give you the stuff you need to work on next. Chances are, now that you’ve done the heavy lifting of getting it down, fresh ideas will start to bubble up to the surface and you’ll see a big leap forward in the quality, clarity, and impact of your writing as you complete Draft Two. And, you’ll know that even when genius and great writing doesn’t spark on the page in a fit of inspiration, it’s still there waiting to be revealed to those who keep their rears in the chair and go after it, word after word.


Achieving Flow in Writing

The Muse and The Mentor

Success 101: Being Pragmatic

Formula 101: Formulaic Scenes That Actually Work