“The First Draft Of Anything Is Shit”

Ernest Hemingway once said that, and I couldn’t agree more. Before I’d even finished writing the first draft of my very first script, a comedy called 42 Slumber Road, I knew it was going to be rubbish as it was the first thing I’d ever written so it was bound to be fraught with bad dialogue, no theme and lack of characterisation. Even when I finished the first draft of The Common Room I knew it was going to need vast improvements even though I’d come on as a writer. But when I’d finished the first draft of World’s End, my first feature film about a group of 40-something friends that get caught up in the middle of a mysterious viral outbreak at their local pub, I really thought that I had something special. Not just the foundations of something special, but a really great first draft that wouldn’t need much in the way of improvements save for a few tweaks here and there. Oh, how wrong was I.

It was shit. I mean it was really shit. Some of the characters were lacking even the slightest hint of a personality, some plot points were left completely open and unanswered, there was a distinct lack of action and the ending was more open than a 24-hour ASDA store. When I’d finished the first draft I gave it to a few people to read and apart from the things I already knew needed work, the feedback was generally positive. I shelved the script for 3-4 months and went off to work on other ideas. When I returned to the script, my intention was to sit down and read it cover to cover without making any notes because I wanted to try and read it like I was coming to it for the very first time; I wanted to try and see it from the audience’s perspective and see if it flowed properly. However, after the first few pages I was wielding my red pen like an anal English teacher. By the end of the film the script was covered in red – I had massacred my script. I held the bloody wreck in my hands and questioned whether this was a vocation that I wanted to pursue. Perhaps I was being hard on myself because my expectations were so high, but for a good hour after I’d finished I wondered whether this script was salvageable or whether I should trash it. I questioned the other film ideas I had and whether they were worth pursuing, or whether it was just best to call it a day now and say that I tried, but I just wasn’t good enough at it. I was brutal on myself, but considering the writing process I’d had with the script, it was a huge come down reading the final product.

It took seven writing sessions of about six hours each average to complete the script. Each one was as, if not more productive than the last and it gave me real buzz for the writing process; when I was doing it I could see myself doing it full-time with no fear of every growing tired of it. It really is a great experience to sit there creating something, visualising how it will play out and the potential audience reactions to it. I knew writing a film would be my biggest challenge yet, particularly when writing an idea I cared so much about. Before I began I thoroughly researched the genre I was writing and various elements that would feature in the film, I wrote character bio’s for all of the main characters and I loosely bulleted the main plot points of the film. Then as soon as I’d written the slug line for the first scene, the real challenge began. Each writing session brought its own challenges which were at times frustrating and other times invigorating, but always rewarding. When writing this film I found out about writing itself. I’d always read accounts from other writers and watched interviews where they talked about the writing process and always found their comments to be a little pretentious when it came to ‘the characters guiding them’ and ‘the film writing itself’, but this certainly proved to be the case during the first draft. A perfect example of this would be the character ‘Vinnie’. The film is set in a social club that is in its transition to a village pub, so I knew that the film needed a pub landlord to feature but he was not going to be a main character. I wrote Vinnie into his first scene with the main characters and as the scene began to develop, I realised just how important Vinnie was and as I progressed with the script, I saw that I couldn’t advance the story or the other characters without having Vinnie involved. Now I don’t want to sound too pretentious and trust me when I say that I’m not sat here with a beret, polo neck jumper and razor thin moustache as I write this, but it really was a case of the character leading the story, not the story leading the character. I hadn’t created any background for Vinnie yet as I wrote his actions and dialogue, his back story developed all by itself.

Once I’d finished the script I felt so immensely proud of my achievement – I’d just written a film. A film. I felt that it would need only a little editing, with a few minor tweaks and a bit of work on the ending and it’d be ready as a film. Wrong. So after I’d butchered the script and contemplated giving up entirely, I decided to try and salvage what I could from the first draft and try and rebuild the film. Armed with several cups of tea, sheets of A3 paper and black marker pens I bulleted each of the first drafts’ major plot points then stuck them to the wall. I sat back and looked at the mess I had in front of me, and slowly picked apart what worked, what didn’t, what shouldn’t be there and what needed to be there. It was a gruelling process to be honest and there wasn’t much meat to pick from the bones of the first draft, but slowly I managed to re-build the film from the ground up and over a few months I produced what I (currently) consider to be a vast improvement of the first draft and an all together better film. The feedback I’ve had from this draft so far seems to echo this.

Another thing I’ve learnt as a result of doing the second draft is that not all of the ideas you have when starting a film make it in and the same goes for characters too. The first draft featured five main characters and I’d written detailed character bio’s for each of them. Individually and as a team in theory, they worked together. However, when it came to writing the film, the characters’ led the way again and one of them just didn’t work. As I read through the first draft one of the characters hardly appeared. He did nothing for the story or the other characters and the lines he had could easily be said by any of the other characters. It was an easy decision to get rid of him and just merge his lines with the other characters, but that also showed me that writing something can often take you in a different direction whether you want it to or not.

As it stands at the moment I’m almost ready to dig out the second draft and begin editing it. I just hope that my faith in the second draft is enough to mean that it won’t be as bad as last time. After all, there’s no quote about the second draft of anything being shit. Perhaps I’ll be the one to say it.



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