Week six: first draft

First Draft

It’s been perfect first-draft-writing weather. Nothing to tempt me from the keyboard except to make more coffee and watch my dogs play in the snow for a while.

Things I have learnt about writing my first draft since I started my screenwriting journey:

  • Get it all out. Don’t get hung on bits. If anything is sticky, make a note and come back to it. Don’t let it disrupt your flow
  • A first draft is wet clay. No one expects to display it as a work of art, but a work of art may be made from it when you’ve moulded it
  • You don’t have to show anyone your first draft
  • You probably shouldn’t show anyone your first draft

The basic point is that you have to take any pressure off yourself. I had learnt to do that through altering my expectations of what a first draft was. But I still had the pressure of using the first draft to make sense of my story. Not this time. This time I have a meticulously planned story: I know what is going to happen and when; I know where my characters are going. Because of this, I wrote my first draft in two days. The biggest factors in making this process easy were:

  • Knowing my two main characters inside out before I even decided what was going to happen to them
  • Understanding the themes of what I was going to write: what I wanted to say
  • Using a Step outline and treatment to establish not only the order of things, but also the relationship between one scene and the next

So, basically, by the time I sat down to write, I had the story there and I just had to let my characters have their conversations and get it all down. Pressure off. This is a new experience for me, and has been extremely satisfying.

Things I have to come back to:

  • Emotionally tough bits that are going to require me to mine some depths to achieve real authenticity – in first draft mode I know I am never going to do these bits justice, so I map out a rough version to come back to an focus on at a later date
  • A couple of conversations where I see I need a little more knowledge to write well (research time!)
  • A couple of extra details that I feel need introducing, but I haven’t decided where. They’re not essential, and they’re tiny, but I think they’re worth it

Character and Dialogue

I love creating characters. When it comes to developing ideas, I almost always begin with character. That’s the part of the story I need to know the best, so I often have characters floating around in my mind for a while before I find the right story for them. In this case, I have ‘known’ Jess since last October. She comes from my desire to see women in stories who’s experience is familiar to me, in one way or another. I don’t know the glamorous women who show up in tv drama. I wanted to write a female character who felt real, complicated, perhaps difficult to like, you know, like women are in real life. I wanted her to feel bitter, disconnected, but to not be that way naturally. In her interactions with her dog she is warm, but she is nursing one hell of a grudge. People’s behaviour, everyday, is influenced by things like this. Might be that they were out of milk this morning, it might be that their behaviour-forming issues are deeper. I don’t think her history is the only thing that shapes Jess. She has her own characteristics, too. She’s stubborn and quick tempered. She’s angry at the community around her for a lack of empathy but I don’t think she’s any better than them. So, she’s a bit of a hypocrite too, but don’t we all have that capacity when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly? To write her, I make Jess a person in my head, she has an accent I can hear when I write her dialogue, she has a way of speaking that is different form me, different from Ali. I have a history on Jess which runs deep, far beyond what’s in the script.

As I am writing this, I realise I probably owe Ali a bit more time as my knowledge of her is far less evolved. She was developed later. I see her as a sort of younger version of my favourite TV cop, Catherine Cawood – without the darkness – but I haven’t borrowed any of Catherine’s back story, just her personality: a bit hung-ho, a bit of swagger, cheery and pleasant on the surface, but having high – possibly unattainable – expectations of herself. I know her family history, some key events in her life. I can see her walking around in her police uniform but I don’t know an awful lot about her personal life.

I think the better you know your characters, the easier you make the task of writing them into a script. Sally Wainwright only writes a couple of drafts of her scripts. She says it’s because of the work she puts in before she sits down to write the first draft and after these past few weeks I can absolutely see what she means (although years of experience probably help, too). Knowledge of character, having depths to them that inform their decisions – even if they don’t get touched upon in the script – make them seem more real. And real characters are easier to write dialogue for because so much about what people say and the way they say it is informed by who they are, how they see themselves, and how they see the world around them.

This entry forms a part of my MA Writing for Script and Screen Reflective Journal.