Final Exam

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The lecture hall drained of students as though a giant plug had been pulled, chattering bodies sluicing through a doorway meant for half as many people. The dwindling echoes of students bounced off walls of silence as the doors hissed shut.

“Is there something you need, Miss Pepper?” Professor Kawai asked as he wiped the blue and red notes from a board that had long ago ceased to be white.

Jess stared intently at the open chemistry book before her, willing the sticks and letters to form the words she sought.

Kawai cradled the eraser onto the ledge and packed his belongings into an ancient valise. Stopping another moment to examine the lone tableau figure before him, he snapped his bag shut, the click reverberating off the walls.

As his hand depressed the door handle, he felt more than heard the words directed at him.

“You said something, Miss Pepper.”

Without moving, the words fell out of Jess’s mouth and into her book. “I studied.”

“Apparently, the wrong chapters,” Kawai responded without emotion, as though reciting a number from a phone directory.

The indifference drew Jess to face Kawai, her eyes registering something between shock and incomprehension.

“Perhaps you’ll do better on the final,” Kawai added, as if by rote.

“I won’t be writing the final,” Jess responded, slowly pulling her bag to the next seat and closing her text.

Kawai sighed and turned back to the door. “Then maybe next—“

Kawai was unable to finish his though, his focus drawn by the loud noise and the searing pain as two ribs shattered from his back to his chest, splattering the door with blood.

Kawai’s cheek slammed against the door, his knees buckling below him and he slid down the slick door.

As Kawai’s body flopped sideways and his head struck the floor, the lecture chamber filled with another explosion.

Other than the odd drop of blood, Jess’s mid-term exam paper remained largely unscathed, the purple “84%” clearly emblazoned in the upper right-hand corner.

Jess’s parents had sacrificed so much for her to succeed at school. Her failure in chemistry would be unacceptable.

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First d(r)aft

Three days. I have three days to come up with another 10 pages from my latest screenplay for a reading and critique in my screenwriting class. And I have nothing.

Well, that’s not technically true. I have something. I have the architecture of my screenplay written out…I know where I want to go and what steps I need to take, broadly speaking, to get there.

But those are just a series of incomplete sentences that barely fill a page. I need 10 pages of a screenplay. I need narrative (not too much, as is my wont) and dialogue, and yet everything I write right now reads like crap. Absolute, utter drivel.

Welcome to the first draft.

I love to brainstorm and come up with new ideas. Ideas for new screenplays. Ideas for scenes within those screenplays.

Brainstorming is exciting. Everything is possible, so I am at my most creative. Nothing comes off the table, and every idea leads to several others.

I love to plan. I like to arrange those ideas into a semblance of order…it is quite literally the assembly of a puzzle. What if I moved this scene from the first part of Act II to just before the climax? How does that change the story?

But at some point, I have to stop brainstorming and planning. I have to start writing. I have to take those incomplete sentences and turn them into coherent scenes of people interacting with people—directly and indirectly—to accomplish goals and thwart those of others.

And even that description of the process sounds interesting. But then I begin typing and my words take on the feel and smell of two-week old cod.

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If the mom character was any stiffer, you could iron shirts on her. Why not just have the son respond “Oh yeah!” and euthanize all of your creative ambitions?

You want the boat captain to do what? Even the most psychotic of fishermen wouldn’t contemplate that idiotic move! What was your research: old Popeye cartoons?

You suck! You suck! You suck!

Okay. Feel better now? Had your little tantrum. Your little pity party. Ready to move forward? Take a deep breath.

This is your first draft, and it’s gonna suck. That’s what first drafts do. But it’s the first draft that sucks, not you.

The idea is still sound. Story improvements you can’t see right now will arise in the workshopping process. The dialogue can be massaged and the narrative edited…in your second draft. You can move some of the scenes around to enhance the conflict…in your third draft.

The only thing about what you are doing today that is anywhere near a final draft is the name of the screenwriting software. [NOTE TO FINAL DRAFT: Give some thought to changing the name of your software. Too much pressure for some of us to handle.]

You’ll be fine. Your story will be fine.

Just start typing…