By Charles Harris
The latest instalment of How to write your next script - click here for article 1 - The Seed Image
In the last article of this series you finally read your first draft, with all the roller-coaster feelings that a first reading brings.
It's now time to begin the second draft. If you've seen a lot that needs doing, this may seem daunting - the trick is to approach it step by step.
Step by step
Over many years of editing first drafts, I've learned not to try get it all right in one go.
The only way that works for me is to take each element turn by turn.
By focusing on just one element on each pass, you take an enormous amount of pressure off. So for the first edit, we focus solely on the structure.
It doesn't matter, at this stage, how good or bad the dialogue is, whether the characters are consistent or the descriptions cinematic. That's all for future drafts.
In short, what I call (to the outside world) a "second draft" will probably be made up of six or seven mini-drafts.
For the first of these, I simply concern myself with whether the story is being told in the right order, at the right pace.
It's far too unwieldy to do all this to the whole dialogue script, so my second draft is usually a short synopsis. It might be a short as one page or as long as five, but it shows me how the structure of a new draft might look in simple terms.
The structure redraft
Now, there's a lot of hot air created about structure, especially three act structure. I'm not going to get into that, except to say that the big mistake is to think there is one "right" structure for every story. The job of the second draft is to find organically what structure your story needs, not to impose one.
In some cases, the right structure might indeed be three acts. Or it might be two acts (Full Metal Jacket), seven acts (Se7en), twelve episodes (Goodfellas), multistranded (Crash), flashback (Sunset Boulevard, The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction), circular (Tree of Life) or just about any permutation you can think of.
However, whatever your story, certain structural needs will almost always be there.
So now ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does the story get going from the beginning?
I guarantee that there will be numerous scenes at the start which are there to "set up" things that are coming later. The trouble is, an audience pays to watch a whole movie or TV drama - not just the bit that follows 45 minutes of "setting up".
Set up scenes are boring. You have two choices. Ditch them now or ditch them later. (Guess which I recommend).
Don't worry for the moment how the audience is going to know all that crucial stuff you want to tell them.
Your aim is to get a story going from the very first half page.
2. Do the key moments happen when they should?
No matter what your "act" structure, by page 10, the audience should begin to have an inkling of what the central issue is going to be. If not, they are going to get very twitchy.
By page 30, the protagonist must have faced disaster and made a crucial decision that will lead to the rest of the plot. It can happen earlier, but any later and you'll have problems keeping your viewers watching.
Around 20-30 pages from the end, we should have realised where the final resolution is going to take place and be on the edge of our seat waiting for it to happen.
You can break those rules, but even the greatest writers rarely do. And when they do, they make sure they know why and how to get away with it.
3. If not, should I be cutting more scenes?
Every first draft I ever see has far too much at the start and far too little at the end. (Including my own). The story starts around page 45. The big decision lurks on page 90. The final climax is squeezed onto the last five pages.
It's time to get ruthless. If not, the people you try to sell your script to will be ruthless instead... Put those key moments where they are supposed to be. Cut the setting up scenes you were leaving till later.
Now, with the space you've created, you can push your protagonist further than she thought she could ever go.
Plan it out
Now work your new structure into a brief outline to see if it works. Adjust as necessary.
You've done your second draft. Easy, wasn't it. As long as you have a ruthless determination and very sharp pair of scissors!
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Charles Harris is an experienced 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.
His books Complete Screenwriting Course and Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film & TV are recommended reading on MA courses.
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
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.