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Writing – and finishing – the first draft

Watch Michael Lengsfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Been and Christabelle Dilks discuss writing and finishing the first draft.
[Michael] Sticking with this - writing the first draft. We’ve set up our story completely, we’re starting to write scenes. How do you go through it? How do you keep yourself going? How do you keep it on track? [Tom] I think once you have a first draft, you know, the answer to the question - what was your story really about? That often sort of, presents itself … [Michael] No, I’m meaning - finished. Once we’ve set up the story in the way the three of us think of it. We’ve plotted it all out and we’re going start to write scenes? [Tom] Okay. [Molly] And we’re going to sit down and write a full ninety-minute, ninety-page to a-hundred-and-twenty page draft.
You’re going to sit down and start that - do you have any particular way of doing this? Any ritual? I don’t have a ritual but I do - Stephen King says when you do a first draft, I mean, he’s talking about a novel but I think it applies here as well, you’ve got to write with the door closed. You’ve got to not show it to anyone; you’ve got to be not writing in terms of, this is brilliant. It’s about intent, it’s not about execution. You’ve got to get it done and you’ve got to not worry about on-the-nose dialogue or any of those things. There’s no point worrying about a specific bit of dialogue because that dialogue might get cut.
You’ve just got to get to the end, or I have anyway, so that when I’ve got to the end, that’s the point when I can see if it’s any good or not, if it’s working. [Christabelle] I think that’s brilliant. [Michael] Do you start at the beginning and go straight through? [Molly] Yeah, I do because I’m just following my index cards. [Christabelle] Same here, same here because it’s all about what the audience knows at any point - what you’re admitting, what you’re releasing, what you’re keeping back. And if I don’t do that sequentially I’m going to get lost probably - the first time through. But, I think it’s really - I like to feel the flow of the character’s journey.
But I think that’s a really good bit of advice because I think the temptation is when you sit down on day two to start polishing nicely what’s done on day one and then on day three, polish a bit more on day one so it’s a bit shinier. [Michael] I think I do the same thing. I start at the beginning.I go straight through. I don’t go back. I don’t polish. I don’t cut. [Christabelle] So you make sure you don’t fix it as you go along. You say these things need to be fixed but I’m not going to worry about it now. [Michael] Right. [Tom] I don’t have that discipline. I sort of, build scene after scene.
Like I said, I have that skeleton. I have that beat sheet. I have a semblance of architecture to sort of, sustain me and then I will just work. And you know, I said in an earlier video that I usually don’t know exactly where it’s going - that’s not entirely true. Most of the time I will give it an ending and just use it as something to work against - to make sure I don’t end up with that ending, so I can do something better en route. And that’s how it works for me. And it’s sort of, the goal is to get to that better ending, this magical Valhalla ending that I haven’t yet thought of. So you …
[Michael] But you work pretty fast though, right? [Tom] I do. I work pretty quickly but I don’t do what any of you do. I don’t go straight through - I don’t plough through. [Molly] So, how do you actually do it - where are you? What are you writing? You might just pick a bit and … [Tom] Oh, I work a scene, get it to where I’m happy and move on. I’m not saying that it’s set in stone - it’s obviously going to change many, many times but I get that scene to where I think it needs to be and then I move to the next scene and just - I’m just linking the chains.
[Molly] Do you think that makes it harder to then come back and edit because if you’ve already crafted that scene, you’ve fallen in love with … [Tom] Oh, absolutely. I think it’s a very dangerous way to work and I wouldn’t profess it’s the best way. I’m saying it’s the way that works for me. [Christabelle] You have to be aware of what your big pitfalls are. Mine is confidence that I can actually make it to the end. So what you’re saying is really helpful - you just have to really know that that is fine.
You’ve done the job you’re meant to today and don’t go back and question it because it’s going to be very, very hard to have confidence in it. And the other thing too is to realise there’s going to be a lot of stuff on the cutting-room floor. There’s been a lot of stuff in my darlings list because you were right. [Molly] That’s good. It’s good to have good stuff on the cutting-room floor. It’s taken me a while to get to that. It’s really nice to think there’s some great jokes down there but … some better ones up here.
[Michael] This is where the beat sheet helps - that I have very small chunks of story, all I have to do today is knock this off. Exactly. And if you think about it - if you can write a couple of scenes. If you can write three pages a day, it would only take you thirty days to finish a draft. So it’s getting to the point where we set up our story - I think the hard work for me is before - is in the prep- phase. It’s crafting the story, setting it up and then the fun comes in actually writing the scenes.
And then, if you can write regularly, even for short periods of time, then you can finish a draft in relatively short order. [Molly] Absolutely, because then you’ve got that freedom within the boundaries that you’ve created and it’s not actually that difficult - it’s not that labour-intensive to just go, right, I’ve just gotta write the argument today. Nice, I can do that! [Michael] Good. And that gives us a first draft and what happens when we finish the first draft? [Molly] We cry. [Michael] We cry.
[Tom] What I was you know, jumping the gun at the start, I think it’s that bit where - sort of the kind of theme - what’s this story about really reveals itself and then you can chip away and get rid of all that stuff that you though was so important at the time but you realise is utterly superfluous. [Michael] Right. [Christabelle] But, we’re kidding ourselves aren’t we, if we think the first draft is in any way, presentable. It is just the first airing of the story and that’s okay. That’s great, because you got to the end and you should give yourself a big, big round of applause.

Our educators discuss approaches to organising and writing the first draft. They discuss how to start, how to keep it going, and how to stay motivated.

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An Introduction to Screenwriting

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