Screw the cat

First Draft

So, you want to write a screenplay.

Maybe you’ve read some books on screenplay writing—names like Cowgill, McKee and Field dot your bookshelf. Perhaps you’ve taken some screenwriting classes whether at a local university or community centre. You may have even—saints be praised—read some screenplays.

Great. Good on you. Way to go.

Now, before you type your first letter onto a page, do yourself a huge favour and forget all of it.

Okay, don’t forget it, but definitely shelve it. Put it aside, because almost none of it is useful to you yet.

In short, you can’t handle the truth…and that’s okay.

Leave the lessons for Draft Two and onward

Leave the lessons for Draft Two and onward

You’re about to write your first first draft (no accidental duplication there) and your only purpose right now is to tell a story.

Should my inciting incident happen around page 10? Doesn’t matter.

How much detail is okay in my narrative? As much as you need.

When is it okay to use voiceovers? Whenever you want.

None of what you learned really matters at this stage and is more likely to make your job harder than easier. It will become useful, later, when you’re doing rewrites—and you will do a lot of those.

But for right now, all of that information—much of which can appear and may be conflicting—is just a barrier between the blank page before you and the story you want to tell. Or perhaps more importantly, between you and the best story you can tell.

In my experience, it is a 1000X easier to fix bad structure than it is to fix a bad story. (This is not to say that any story cannot be improved.)

If you need three pages of narrative to get you to the first line of dialogue, then write three pages of narrative.

If it takes you 347 pages to tell your story, then that’s what it takes.

If you read yesterday’s pages and they sound like shit, stop reading yesterday’s pages. Keep writing until you’ve told your story.

Contrary to the name of the software package—thanks for the pressure, Final Draft—this is your first draft and it’s going to have a lot of shitty bits and pieces; they all do. I don’t know that in the history of screenwriting, anyone has ever filmed the first draft.

So write like no one is watching; because other than you, no one is. And tell the story you want to tell.

When you finally write “FADE TO BLACK” or “END” or “FIN” (pretentious move, btw), those books, blogs and lessons will still be there to help you get to drafts two, eight and fifteen.

(Please note: When I say ignore everything, I’m also including this blog post. If it is easier for you to tell your story by considering any or all structural and formatting elements, then do so.)

Blaze the trail that works for you, regardless of whether anyone has been down that trail before.

Let the cat write his or her own damned story

Let the cat write his or her own damned story

Approaches not panaceas

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As I said in Birth of a Reader, I am addicted to books. But even with my addiction, I must admit that every now and again, I wish there were no books on writing and most specific to me, screenwriting.

I say this not because the books available are particularly badly written, but more because they are well written by the author but often poorly understood by the reader; readers who more often than not are looking for the One True Way to screenplay writing.

The same is true in business books. If you tell me your favourite business author, I can tell you how—and possibly what—you think.

Seth Godin. Philip Kotler. Clayton Christensen. John C. Maxwell. Each of these authors has their own approach to various aspects of business, and the more you engage with each, the more your mind thinks in those directions. (It is probably more that they help you rationalize where you were going anyways.)

Linda Cowgill. Chris Vogler. Robert McKee. Michael Hague. Paul Joseph Gulino. Dara Marks. Each of these authors also has a trigger onto which student after student latches, like a remora on a shark, looking for their next artistic meal. Each offers an approach to screenplay writing that he or she found particularly useful.

Unfortunately, too many students miss the point that these are approaches or ways of thinking about screenwriting and not road maps to success. Each book offers one or more lessons that a writer can incorporate into his or her work today to make it better, but none of them are the One True Way.

In fact, too close a focus on any one author and you will never find Your True Way.

Too much focus on Dara Marks’ Inside Story and you will find yourself in a tailspin about Theme, as you struggle to force-fit your characters’ actions and dialogue around a theme that may or may not be true to your story.

If you find yourself able to quote Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, you’re likely describing your characters in terms of mythic archetypes a la Joseph Campbell and drawing parallels with The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars.

I’m not saying that novice writers should avoid these authors. I am simply saying that each should be approached cautiously as the novice writer—or seasoned writer, for that matter—can’t hope to achieve everything these authors discuss. The authors have the luxury of looking at a screenplay as a completed item and so discuss aspects and approaches for which you and/or your screenplay may not yet be ready. There is a reason that you will still find many of these books on the shelves of seasoned screenwriters…because they continue to find new lessons in old books as they develop their craft.

The authors and their tomes are more like a screenwriting buffet, offering you a variety of flavours that hopefully provide nourishment, but can also cause artistic indigestion.

So, sorry folks. The books offer no clues as to the One True Way. It doesn’t exist. And like everyone that came before you and will likely come after, you will continue to struggle as you search for Your True Way.

PS I own and have read books by all of the authors discussed here (and in Book larnin’), and every time I reread them, I find something new to apply to my screenwriting—including, interestingly enough, from the business writers.