Reading Your First (Private) Draft

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Picture by Carrie Baughcum

Finally, after much hard work, sweat, tears, boredom, perseverance, dedication, passion, procrastination, coffee and a few sleepless nights, you have finally finished your first draft. If I were to treat it as I treat some of my posts, I would send it to my reader right away only to realise a few instant later that it is still filled with grammatical and spelling mistakes, structural problems and lack of focus. In other words, your first (private) draft is unlikely to be ready for the public. Do not call it ‘The First Draft’, not quite yet.

After taking a break from the script, a few days or even a couple of weeks, you can finally approach it with a different hat on your head. You become a reader. Do not underestimate your ability to be your own critic. Before you start tearing your own work apart,  you can ask yourself a few simple questions: what makes a film ‘good’? What fears could perturb my inner critic? How should I assess my own work?

What makes a film ‘good’? If you have good taste, you should be able to answer this first question without problems. If you do not have good taste, I am not sure how I can help you. As Ira Glass puts it:

“[your creative work] has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But, your taste […] is still killer. Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you are making is kind of a disappointment to you.“ 

I believe that filmmaking (and therefore screenwriting) is the art of translating intent into style. I personally embrace the idea of cinematic functions presented by Bob Foss in Filmmaking Narrative and Structural Techniques: Narrative & Structural Techniques. The elements of your script, your sequences, scenes, beats, sentences and words, are there to serve one of five main functions: realistic (to suspend disbelief), dramatic (to move the story and understand the characters), lyrical (to instil emotions), thematic (to explore your theme) or comic (to generate laughter). Knowing the intent is the easier part, translating this intent into scenes and actions is harder.

What fears could perturb my inner critic? Fears are useful mechanisms. As they say, only the paranoid will survive. Fear helps us staying alive. However, not all fears come from within ourselves and our evolutionary process. Some fears have been induced in our behaviour by other people with the purpose of ‘slowing us down’ in the competitive race that is life.

Differentiating between the useful and the useless fear is a difficult task. Practice, experience and a few victories will help a great deal. Am I being original? Should I be ashamed of this? Am I better/worse than them? Was my high school teacher correct about my lack of talent? What would my parents think of this? I will let you complete this list. I know you can.

For example, I am really afraid of getting across as being pretentious and arrogant. This because I am a pretentious and arrogant person. Wait, no, I am a knowledgeable and confident person, maybe. But, I remember them telling me I am an arrogant prick… I use the word ‘pretentious’ a lot, usually with restaurants.  A pretentious restaurant will promise to deliver a culinary experience of quality though their setting, the name and type of dishes it proposes, the behaviour of their staff and often the figure presented at the end of your meal only to fail to deliver on the most important aspect of the experience: the food.I digress.

When looking at our own fears, we need to questions their origins. Is this fear internal, an ally to my survival (within this industry)? Or is this fear external, often an expression of other people’s jealousy? Of course, nothing is this white or black. But, we need to judge our fears before we accept the behaviour they force upon us.

How should I assess my own work? Ideally, you should answer this question yourself and refine your process project after project. I do not believe in formulas, I believe in approaches. Here are the key consideration going through my head as I read my draft:

Evaluate all your characters, even the apparently less significant ones: Do they have objectives? Do they serve a purpose? Do they fit the premise and the world of the film? Do they have an arc?

Evaluate your story: Is the central conflict powerful enough? Do the turning point feel natural and not contrived? Is the structure the most suited to tell the story, explore the theme and generate the right sequence of emotions? Are there plot-holes? Are there emotional gaps? Is the rhythm right and appropriate to my audience?

Evaluate your functions: Do all words and juxtapositions in this script serve a clear function (see above)? Or are they just fluff?

Evaluate repetitions: Am I repeating myself? Am I expressing the same ‘beat’ multiple times using different words? Am I repeating the exact thematic statement too many times during the film? Are some of my characters each other clones?

Finally, when reading my first private draft, I believe in being as ruthless as possible. I will sit there, a pencil in my hand ready to strike content out of my script. If in doubt, leave it out. Repetitions will be removed, the fluff will be excised and through the process of reading a full script (as opposed to writing a scene) I will judge the details and the whole. “The only kind of writing is rewriting” wrote Hemingway, and before rewriting I like to tear it down.

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