By Charles Harris
#5 in the series - Writing your next script - read the first article here
In the previous article of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on writing the first draft.
By now, if you've been following the process, you should have a pile of pages with a start and a finish and probably no idea whether they are good or bad. That's fine, the editing will help you find the gold among the clinker - starting with with the first reading.
The naked truth
The first reading is vital. It is the closest you'll ever get to seeing your script fresh - as others see it.
It is also, almost certainly, the most painful. Here is your rough draft, naked and vulnerable, full of faults, ramblings and blind alleys.
However, if you look carefully, here among the ashes of your hopes are a few jewels, perhaps more than you expected. A good line of dialogue. The makings of a strong scene.
Approach it with the right attitude you'll put yourself in a perfect place to embark on draft number two.
Your most important ally is time. Put the script aside for a few weeks or even months, to give yourself distance. Then clear a time when you know you can read straight through, undisturbed.
This first draft reading should be done straight through without interruptions. You want to read it as if you were watching the movie.
Turn off your live Facebook updates, feed the cats, jam a chair under the door handle. Whatever it takes.
If possible read your script in a different medium. If you write on screen, then print it out. Or borrow a friend's laptop. Anything to give yourself a new perspective.
Nothing should delay your reading - not even notes. Keep them very short.
I find it best to read a print-out with a pen or pencil in my hand. Then I can make brief scribbles in the margin as I go.
I've devised a rough code for myself.Ticks and crosses are obvious. A wavy line alongside a scene means it needs firm attention. A horizontal line tends to mean that the scene should have ended there. A variety of circles, ovals, arrows and squares each have their own subtle messages, depending on context.
How you do it depends on you - but the important thing is to scribble fast and keep the reading flowing so you can maintain a sense of the overall flow of the script.
What to watch for?
At this stage, you want to be as open-minded as possible. Don't worry about details of style or even layout. They can be fixed later.
Read first and foremost for the ebb and flow of the story. It won't be anything like right, but you'll catch glimpses of what it can (and perhaps will) become.
Look also at the characters, especially your protagonist. Do we care about her? Does she seem like the kind of person we want to spend ninety or so minutes with? Can you see hints of the kind of fascinating person she might eventually become?
Zero in on the good points that you can build on for the future.
Be brave. In some ways it's harder first reading a first draft than writing it (if quicker). But you only have to do it once. Now you can start to plan how you're going to make it better.
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Charles Harris is an award-winning writer-director for cinema and TV. His first professional script was optioned to be developed by major agents CAA in Hollywood and he has since worked with top names in the industry from James Stewart to Alexei Sayle.
For an intensive three days on learning the secrets of professional screenwriting, join Charles at our unique ScreenPLAY Summer School - July 15-17
In the first three parts of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on your seed image, the premise and the outline treatment. Now it's time to write the first draft.
There are three important skills you need to conquer to be an effective first draft screenwriter.
There's Technique, such as how to structure and how to write dialogue. This is the area covered by most of the books and workshops.
Then there is Strategy. Knowing when and where to use those techniques.
And finally there's your Mental Game. This is where you deal with your demons and get the work done. First draft writing is mostly about the Mental Game.
The problem with most writers when they try to write their first draft is they start inventing rules that don't exist.
There only three rules for writing a first draft of anything. It must:
That's it. If you do those three things, if you've started - continued - finished - then you've successfully written a good first draft.
Note that it doesn't need to be a fixed number of pages. It doesn't need to have three act structure or be laid out correctly or all those things you learn in Technique.
That's what Second drafts are for.
Bad is good
The one thing you must not try to do with a first draft is to try to make it "good". Because you have two different parts to your brain - the creative brain and the critical brain. Both are essential but you simply can't use both at the same time.
If you try to judge your work while you write it, you'll tie yourself in self-conscious knots. This is the best way to get writers' block.
I've written scenes I thought were brilliant at the time and which turned out to be rubbish when I read through the following day. And I've written scenes I was sure were rubbish, and which remained unchanged all the way to the final draft.
So, to write your first draft, just sit down and put some words on the page. Fast. Stephen King says he writes his first drafts "just fast enough that his fears can't catch up with him."
You may indeed write rubbish - but that's OK. Nobody else need ever see it. If you try to make the draft "good" it will die on the page. Only if you give yourself permission to write badly will you discover a magic you can never find any other way. Of course you won't know it at the time.
Trust your mental game
You have to trust it's there - and you'll find it next time - when you start to edit. That's when you start to take the mess you've created and make it work. And that's for the future.
Next: How to read a draft
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.