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Preparing for writing your first draft

Watch Michael Lengsfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Been and Christabelle Dilks discuss getting ready to write the first draft.
[Michael] Okay, so let’s take a quick look at how we get the first draft together. What do we have to do to successfully complete a draft of this - we’ve worked out a story. We want to take a shot at writing a whole script - what do we do? How do we prep the story? [Christabelle] And we’ve written our treatment? [Michael] Okay. That’s a good place to do it. After we’ve figured this out, where do we start? [Christabelle] Well, I think it’s useful having a prose telling of the story in my own kind of words, which helps me feel the dramatic feel of it.
In other words, it’s not so schematic that it’s just bam, bam, bam onto the beat sheet or the step outline but which still retains something of the storytelling feel that you might have, whether over four or ten pages. Certainly no more than that, I would say for me, just a feeling of how the story feels in its entirety. So I do get to the end - I make myself get to the end. [Michael] Okay, so you mentioned beat sheet too. So we have a treatment and then a beat sheet, or a step outline, which is a very slim outline. [Christabelle] Shh.
We’ll talk about that in a second, because I think that requires a whole section all of its own - doesn’t it? [Michael] No. Let’s go with that. [Christabelle] Well, Molly wants to say something about … [Molly] I hate writing treatments. I hate writing a prose version of my story. I hate it … the way … And the reason I hate it is that it just feels like a bad short story and it’s just full of exposition and so, what I do is I just use index cards and I just do a version of a beat sheet on that. So I write exactly what’s going to happen in every scene on index cards.
And I will rewrite them or I will take them out or move them around and I will throw them away. I’ll go - oh, well actually you can lose that because we’re doing that there. But that’s where my story is. So, it’ll be a big pile of index cards. So on the front I’ll have what’s going to happen and on the back I’ll have any colour or any images that come to me when I’m creating those, that I’ll probably end up not using but just to give me ideas, to remember when I’m doing it that it’s visual and all those things. That’s how I come up with my story and that’s what I’ll have and that’s what I’ll …
[Michael] And then from that you can start writing scenes and start writing the script. Good. [Tom] I’m nowhere near as efficient - it changes every time for me. The sort of, the genesis - the germ of the idea - if it’s a sort of a theme, or something I want to explore, or something that worried me and I feel I need to write about it, I just sort of, vomit on the page and then just sort of, distill it from there until I have a character. [Christabelle] So you’ll write a whole - you’ll start writing scenes right away? [Tom] No, absolutely not.
There’s no sort of - it’s completely amorphic to begin with and then there’s an idea and I’ll sort of chip away at it and when I feel like I’ve got a character who I can take somewhere to explore these things I want to explore - these things I’m afraid of … [Michael] Yeah, but let’s go past that. You’ve got all those things. [Tom] Then, I will see if I can do, again, a beat sheet because, like Molly, I can’t do a prose version of the story. It just seems like bad writing - it sort of, rubs me the wrong way.
And so, I will see if I can get a skeleton which I know is going to change when I start getting into the scene - the things we discussed, this week and last week. These things will change, when I hear these characters speaking to each other in real time on a scene. But if I have that skeleton, even if it’s a lie and I’m lying to myself, it will help me. It’s the blanket I need to just, begin. [Christabelle] I agree, I think cards are unbeatable aren’t they?
Because there’s a limited amount of information you can put on them but as you say, you can put all of the colour, the feeling - which is so important not to lose sight of, is it? Because once you start writing - if you just have a dry beat sheet - as I often used to, working in telly. We used to be very, very regimented and quite restrictive and you can’t - you lose sight of the feeling of what’s going to happen in each scene. [Molly] Yeah, index cards are the closest thing to representing what - how a film is made. [Michael] Right, sequences, yes. Made in sequences … Right, I do a little bit of both. I hate writing treatments.
I do work with a synopsis - a kind of a short synopsis and from that I do a kind of , a broad outline of the structure. And back to synopsis until I’m happy with that and then I start on a beat sheet. That’s a humbling experience for me. I always discover big holes in the story, so I go back to the synopsis again until I have a complete beat sheet but I don’t write the first scene until I know I have a beat sheet that I know goes from start to finish. [Tom] You have an end before you even begin? No, no.
I have a complete story before I write the first scene, before I start to actually write the draft proper. [Christabelle] Might you not have an ending? [Tom] No, I usually have an idea where it’s going - there’s an ending. It will change … An idea where you’re going. [Michael] See, that’s your literary side. Only someone that writes novels says that. [Molly] I know exactly where I’m going. Yeah. And the surprise for me is in the execution and the journey. [Tom] Oh, there’s certainly a bit of both but um … no, not at all.
[Michael] I have - you have to - I think it is important though to leave enough room for the muse to visit so I have a very scant beat sheet and I think it’s useful to find the right degree of granularity for you. That if you leave the chunks too large, then the story starts to careen all over the place on me. And if I do it too - if I make it too specific then there’s not enough for me to do when I actually get to write the scenes. And everyone is different that way.
[Christabelle] And, so often when you start writing the scenes you find that it does a job that - oh, a couple of cards ago that was what you though that scene was going to do and so you can just incorporate it into this one. But what I usually find in my beat sheet helps a lot is to have character “active verb” something, so that the scene is not just - this is what happens but this is what the character is actively doing because I know then that the scene earns its place and it’s absolutely character orientated, I find that quite helpful. [Michael] Yeah, some people actually title each beat. Yeah. Really to sum it all up …
[Molly] Ah, so that’s a good idea. So, saying Molly buys a coffee, or something more interesting … [Michael] Yeah, that it would be something … [Christabelle] Or Molly shoots her husband …. Yeah, more likely. [Michael] Or, Molly’s finally had enough, pulls out her gun, you know, and shoots the husband. [Christabelle] I think that’s where you find out, because you want these cards to really be useful, don’t you? You want them to represent your whole film but I would strongly say that I really need to know where I’m going before I would write the scene …
[Michael] Right, I won’t do it because it’s too easy for me to spend X weeks or months on a script and to get halfway through, or two-thirds of the way through and then run out of steam.

Our educators respond to the question: How do we get the first draft together?

In this video the panel discuss their steps to prepare their story and get to the point of being able to write a full draft.


Treatment or Synopsis A treatment or synopsis puts your ideas together in a more story-like prose form, but it will remain relatively general.

Beat Sheet or Step Outline This lists each dramatic step in the story. It needn’t contain great detail, but it helps to see the steps from start to finish.

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An Introduction to Screenwriting

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