Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Step 5, by Christopher Riley

Sit down at your keyboard and tackle the script steadily, day by day, knocking down one beat after another.

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

Step 5: Writing the first draft

by Christopher Riley

Chris and Kathy Riley

Before you’ve completed steps one through four, you may feel an almost irresistible urge to begin writing script pages. You may feel certain you’re ripe to write. You may know you could plant yourself in front of your MacBook and write your way clean through the movie to fade out.

Don’t do it!

Everyone Needs a Map

You don’t know where you’re going and you’ll invariably run off the road into a ditch. I’ve done it. You may need to do it, too, before you believe me. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re willing to learn from my mistakes and have completed steps one through four. That sensation you’ve got of being ready to write? It’s no longer a delusion. Let it rip. The poultry shears have done their work. A heap of bite-sized morsels lies before you. It’s time to feast.

Sit down at your keyboard and tackle the script one beat at a time. Follow your beat sheet. Draw on your rich period of preparation. Pull out your characters like so many Barbies or G.I. Joes and watch them play and hear them talk. Write down what you see and hear in vivid, economical, specific detail.

How to Complete Your First Draft in Nine Months

Work at it steadily, day by day, knocking down one beat after another. If you work five days a week, writing one beat per day, you’ll blaze through the 40 beats of your first draft in eight weeks.  If you write one beat per week, you’ll finish your first draft in nine months.  Much more could be said about the art and skill of scene writing. For now, I’ll offer these few suggestions:

Write every day, or as close to every day as you can manage. You’ll build up emotional momentum which will carry you from one writing session into the next. That momentum can be destroyed by gaps in your writing schedule during which the emotion of the piece drains out of you and you’re forced to upload the story into your heart and brain almost from scratch.

Set aside a time and a place for your daily writing where you can be protected from whatever distractions you find most difficult to resist. (Stephen King, in his imminently practical On Writing, treats this subject better than anyone I’ve read. See also, Act One alum Genevieve Parker Hill’s: How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life.)

Understand that the most difficult part of any writing session is getting started. For that reason, bring all your willpower to bear to begin writing each day, knowing that once you’ve taken the day’s first step, the subsequent steps will come more easily. I find that, though I encounter much internal resistance to beginning, once I get rolling I can lose myself for huge chunks of time as I continue laboring without any great need for exertions of self-control.

Arrange for a little pain. Tell someone about your writing schedule and the goals you intend to meet by some deadline that isn’t too far off, say a week away. Ask them to check in with you as soon as the deadline arrives for evidence that you’ve reached your goal. Ask them to mock you if you haven’t finished your work. Or assess a mutually agreed penalty. Here’s how it works. You say, “If I don’t finish my first draft through beat 10 by next Tuesday, I’ll dig up your old septic tank and replace it.”  Something along those lines will often do the trick.

Keep moving forward 

Especially if you’ve ever displayed perfectionist tendencies, defy the impulse to go back over your first three pages again and again, honing them instead of making progress through your beats.

The above advice notwithstanding, begin each day’s writing by going back over yesterday’s work. I’m frequently amazed by the clarity I have about the previous day’s work simply by virtue of getting a little distance from it. I find that I’m able to polish the scene in a matter of minutes and then launch myself into the next scene carrying speed from the earlier one.

Finish your work.

Forgive yourself when you fall short of your goals. Pick yourself up and go after it again.

Keep going. Bite by bite, the shoe will go down.

Finish your work.

Celebrate milestones.

Finish your work.

The Finish Line

Celebrate completion of your first draft. If it’s your first-ever complete first draft, congratulations. You’ve arrived among the relative few screenwriters who have earned that name by having actually written a draft of a screenplay from beginning to end. Reward yourself with a bar of dark chocolate and a midnight walk in the falling snow.

Next Post in the Series: Screenwriting 101:  A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Step 6, by Christopher Riley

Read Christopher Riley’s entire series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

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