Making The First Draft Better

One of the weird things about being a screenwriter is that, while films and TV shows in their finished form are everywhere, the things you’re actually going to write – ¬†screenplays – ¬†are not.

Anyone who wants to be a novelist can walk into the library, pick up a novel and get the general idea of how one is laid out and structured. But a screenwriter is reliant on those few sites that make screenplays available for “educational purposes” (circumventing legal issues), and on the quiet passing of scripts from hand to hand among fellow professionals.

Which is a way of saying that I was recently slipped an early draft of one of my favourite films, and this got me thinking about how a screenplay changes from first draft to finished, filmable product.

I’m not going to name the screenplay or discuss it in detail: one of the reasons it’s so hard to get hold of screenplays is that writers are understandably reluctant to show the world what is effectively unfinished work. You wouldn’t ask an actor to rehearse in front of an audience, or a novelist to invite readers in to look over their shoulder as they typed – early draft screenplays deserve the same kind of protection. However, as one actor might learn from another in rehearsal without exposing them to public scrutiny, screenwriters discretely reading one another’s work without exposing it to the public can learn a lot from it.

And I thought many of the changes that had been made in subsequent drafts actually laid down useful principles for rewriting. So what did I learn from this particular screenplay about moving a story from first draft to finished product?

Make your characters distinct. Though the main characters in this first draft have different backgrounds, they’re quite similar in life experience, personality and motivation. In the final draft, they’re far more different, and more stronger because of it.

Structure your opening to show the audience your world. The first draft took a lot longer to explain and open up the story world than the filmed version, which just dives straight in there and shows us the world through an action sequence.

Focus on what’s happening now. There’s a lot of backstory in the early draft. In the filmed version, there are similar conflicts and character arcs, but they’re been shifted forward into the present (for example, by having a similar conflict but with a different character, or in a different situation).

Look for ways to make the central relationship more interesting. In the early draft, the two main characters have simple and slightly predictable reasons not to want to work together. The development process made their relationship much more interesting and unpredictable, enriching the movie.

Make it hard for your characters. In the first draft, a character simply has what he needs to achieve something difficult. In the finished version, he has to go out and find it, creating an entire new subplot with excitement, intrigue, danger, and character growth for him.

Merge, clarify, simplify. Do you have several, say, politicians, or police officers, or park rangers, all serving the same plot function? Cut them down to one person.

On the other hand, add interesting minor characters. Many of the most interesting characters in the finished film are minor characters, and they’ve been added in intervening drafts to enrich the story world.

None of this is criticism of that first draft, of course. Early drafts are just a process of getting the raw material down on paper, of turning all the jigsaw pieces face-up before you start assembling them. All our first drafts are riddled with half-formed ideas and missed opportunities.

That’s why the development process is so important. At it’s best, it’s not about changing things – it’s about chipping away the surplus marble to uncover the beautiful statue already hiding inside…

So what have you learned about writing from comparing early draft scripts to the finished movie?