Make Your Movie: Screenwriting – The First Draft

It all starts with the script.

Whether you are a director, producer, gaffer or cinematographer, we all know that the start of any collaborative effort starts with the all important script.  Changes will always be made and though (unfortunate as it may be) the script is never the end all say all to a film, short or feature, there is much to be said about the process of coming up with something that a producer and/or director will give the green light on.

The following is taken from a now defunct blog I wrote about my process when first developing an idea for the screen and writing the first draft.  I share it with you through this series in hopes that it will help those of you who are “hyphen filmmakers”. (Writer-director-producer-editor, etc.)

There are plenty of blogs out there with advice on screenwriting and the writing process.  Below is simply my take on a very broad subject.  Enjoy!

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I take my phone everywhere.  On that phone is this nifty little app called Inkpad Notepad.  I love it!  You can jot down notes from anywhere and they sync with your online Google account.  When I get home I just copy and paste to a word document and that’s the first step of my concept for a new film.

Usually it’s a scenario: what if this happens to this person but…

Now, I sit with my laptop on… well… my lap (duh!) and I get to work.  A one or two page synopsis is usually what follows.  Just the gist of what happens in the story.  Beginning, middle and end; usually.

At this point, I let it simmer.  For a few weeks I keep this idea in my head.  Developing it but not trying too hard.  I think about characters.  If there are about a handful, I can usually keep track of these in my head for the most part.  More than 5-6 I open up another document.  Depending on where I am this is, again, either via Inkpad or  a Word document.  I don’t even get into names yet, in fact, I make it a point to avoid this altogether.  But I will call them something like “Female Lead”, “Best Friend”, etc.  I get to know them and their goals by character mapping, but that’s a whole other post.

Once I’ve had a bit of time to think about the story I’m working on, I sit down and write more about the events that happen in the film.  I’ll work out the details about my original idea with a step outline or “beat sheet”.  This is where I work out where the events take place and how the character arcs will develop.  I try to imagine exactly how I want the film to look once it’s done, but I only use this as a blueprint.  I jot down each scene as a bullet point of the outline.  For me this is the most important step in the process of developing a film.  Second only to the rewrite.  However, I try not to spend too much time over working the outline because if there is anything that needs tweaking I’ll do that in the rewrite.

Writing the first draft of your script can be daunting.  However, if you’ve taken all the necessary protocols it’s just a matter of sitting down and getting it done.  I’ve heard lots of advice when it comes to the development phase of a film.  Here’s my take on the first draft process:

  1. OUTLINE, OUTLINE, OUTLINE!  I can’t emphasize this enough.  An outline serves two purposes:  It keeps you on track when writing your first draft and, more importantly, it maintains your original idea’s integrity.  You might not think it but your original concept/story idea will change and shift in your head as time passes.  To the point where, by the time you get down to writing it, it’s an altogether different story than when you began.  Your outline puts that initial thought process in a time capsule you can easily access when you are ready to write your first draft.
  2. Get it over and done with FAST.  You don’t want to spend too much time on your first draft.  Why?  Your first draft will be crappy.  The more time you dedicate to the rewrite, the better your script will be, so don’t waste all that creativity on your first draft.  With your outline as your guide, jot down the general idea of each scene as quickly as possible.  Try as hard as you can to ignore the editor in your head.  Allow yourself to make as many spelling mistakes, grammar and diction sins and forget you know any rules of punctuation at all.
  3. Announce a deadline.  This will help you achieve step 2.  Everyone knows goals are a good thing to have, but if you keep it to yourself it does you no good whatsoever.  Tell your fellow writers (or non-writers if you need to) when your deadline is.  If you know there is someone else out there to hold you accountable you are more likely to meet your deadline.  Otherwise you might fall into the bad habit of granting yourself too many extensions.

There’s a lot more to it than just these three steps but it’s a good start.  Now hurry up and finish that first draft!

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